In Nat Geo’s Stunning Ad, a Syrian Refugee Revisits Her Journey and Charts a Path to the Stars

Nujeen Mustafa tells her story of determination and discovery

Nujeen Mustafa and her relatives re-enacted parts of their escape from Syria in Nat Geo's new ad about inspiration. 72andSunny

Nujeen Mustafa dreams of becoming an astronaut.

Now, that’s a tough goal for anyone to accomplish under the best of circumstances, let alone a Syrian refugee whose cerebral palsy keeps her in a wheelchair. Still, we wouldn’t be a bit surprised if the 19-year-old star of National Geographic’s new promotional film makes it to the International Space Station or Mars one day.

The 240-mile rocket ride to the ISS will probably feel like a luxurious first-class flight compared to the 3,500 miles she traveled in 2015 from war-ravaged Syria to start a new life in Germany. During that astonishing month-long journey, chronicled in the short film from Nat Geo and 72andSunny below, Nujeen braved rugged terrain, stormy seas and other obstacles—all while riding in her wheelchair, or else carried by family members.

“I wasn’t supposed to see the bright side of my journey,” she says, narrating the 100-second clip directed by Reed Morano. “So I made it an adventure, and discovered all sorts of new things.”

“I wasn’t supposed to make it past Syria or Turkey or Austria. But here I am, in a classroom I was never supposed to be in,” she says, recreating her harrowing trip, each frame capturing aspects of her determination, courage and infectious good humor. “So, imagine how I feel when people tell me I can’t be an astronaut.”

A 60-second version of the film airs today during the Mars series, part of Nat Geo’s yearlong celebration of space exploration and astronomy ahead of next July’s 50th anniversary of the first manned lunar landing.

Nujeen—who told her story in a 2015 book written with foreign correspondent Christina Lamb—makes an ideal subject, exemplifying the brand’s new tagline, “Further.” She could not attend school in Syria because there were no facilities for the disabled, so she educated herself and learned English by watching TV, including the Nat Geo Channel. The network’s content also sparked her desire to voyage into space.

“Nujeen Mustafa’s story is illustrative of an everyday explorer who is curious about the world and continues to inspire us to push our boundaries,” Jill Cress, Nat Geo’s chief marketing and communications officer, tells Adweek. “Nujeen is the representation of the spirit of exploration we were looking for: inherently curious, passionate and unstoppable.”

Emphasizing Nujeen’s terrestrial triumphs makes her quest for the stars seem attainable, and, in a broader sense, speaks with great passion to the better angels of the human spirit. Moreover, the film casts NatGeo in the best possible light, because the brand played an important role in shaping the course of her life.

“Initially, we covered her story on our site,” Cress says, “but we wanted to do something more to tell her journey in a visually striking way, so that her words may inspire others the way she has inspired us.”

“That was something we all felt was really important—to have her real family members in the film with her."
Lindsay Wood, producer, 72andSunny

Sharing Nujeen’s story, however, posed its own set of challenges.

“Tracking her down in Germany and figuring out how to explain what we were trying to do and convince her whole family to travel to Portugal for the shoot (took some doing),” recalls 72andSunny producer Lindsay Wood. “That was something we all felt was really important—to have her real family members in the film with her.”

Nujeen’s sister Nisreen, who helped her every step of the way from Syria to Germany, and her brother, Bland, appear at key points in the spot.

Nujeen immediately bonded with Emmy winner Morano, a 2018 Adweek Creative 100 honoree who directed the first three episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale, as well as the feature film Meadowland. Morano coached Nujeen intensively, and even shot the clip herself so that she could stay close to the teen and offer constant encouragement.

“It’s intimidating to go into a project with a non-actor because you never know if they’ll be comfortable enough in front of the camera to make a great film, but Nujeen was incredible to work with,” Morano says. “I was nervous to meet her! She’s had such an amazing life and not knowing how she was going to react reliving this was stressful, but exciting.”

“Whenever Nujeen was running low on energy, we would launch into a rendition of ‘Be Our Guest,’” she says. “There was a lot of singing on set. That was also one of my biggest challenges – trying remember all of the lyrics to all of the Disney songs.”

Ultimately, Nujeen got caught up in the excitement of the production.“The thrill came from the sudden change of position,” she says. “My younger self loved to get inspired by the people and stories she followed on National Geographic—I didn’t want to let her down. Honestly, I never thought that my own story would be told by National Geographic one day. I desperately wanted to do it right and get the message through to people who will watch it.”

“I was on cloud nine when I first saw the spot. It was moving and conveyed exactly what I wanted to say: don’t be discouraged by what people say or expect of you."
Nujeen Mustafa, Syrian refugee and Nat Geo ad star

She says the film accurately captures the actual experience of her long, arduous excursion.

“I was on cloud nine when I first saw the spot,” she says. “It was moving and conveyed exactly what I wanted to say: don’t be discouraged by what people say or expect of you; you have the right to have big dreams and to work on achieving them — work hard, and don’t let anything get in the way.”

Moving forward, she plans to apply the “curiosity, resilience, patience and optimism” she marshaled during her life-changing earthbound trek in her quest to become an astronaut.

And someday, when she’s serving a tour of duty on the ISS, or gliding across the Martian sand, she hopes to gaze back upon the homeworld and send this message:

“The Earth looks breathtaking from here. Let’s get rid of all the fear, hatred, intolerance and cruelty in our world so that it will be beautiful inside and out.”

Client: National Geographic
Agency: 72andSunny Los Angeles
Production company: Pulse Films
Director: Reed Morano
Editorial: Cut and Run, Hecho Studios
Finishing: Jogger
Music Production: Human

@DaveGian David Gianatasio is a longtime contributor to Adweek, where he has been a writer and editor for two decades. Previously serving as Adweek's New England bureau chief and web editor, he remains based in Boston.