x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Boy who lost limbs in Gaza war finds his sea legs

A Palestinian teenager who had both his legs blown off is learning to scuba dive in the UAE.

Khalil al Jedaili prepares for his first open water dive in Oman. The Palestinian teenager lost his legs to a bomb.
Khalil al Jedaili prepares for his first open water dive in Oman. The Palestinian teenager lost his legs to a bomb.

DUBAI // When Khalil al Jedaili first saw Dubai's beaches, he was indifferent. "Only donkeys wash in the ocean," the 17-year-old said.

Back home, in Al Breij refugee camp, in the Gaza strip, swimming was not part of his life, even before he lost his legs in an Israeli air raid last year. Just a few weeks after dismissing Dubai's beach lifestyle, Khalil is not only swimming but exploring its coral reefs in full scuba diving gear. He has come a long way since the fateful day last January when, under bombardment from the Israelis on what was to be the last day of the Gaza war, he and 10 other members of his family sought shelter in his grandmother's house.

"We went there thinking it is a safer home," he said. They believed the building's concrete roof, a rarity in the neighbourhood, would protect them. It did not. All the teenager remembers now of the moment the bomb hit is a flash, and the smell of phosphorus. His seven-year-old brother, Muhanad, was killed. His 14-year-old brother, Abdulhadi, lost an eye. Khalil himself was buried under the rubble of the house.

"I woke up in a car," he recalled. "I saw my legs on top of my chest and blood all over." It took six hours of surgery to remove the crushed remnants of his legs, and stabilise him enough that his life was no longer in immediate danger. He was then taken to Egypt, where he spent another three months in hospital. After a first attempt, in Slovenia, to fit prosthetic legs failed to help him walk again, Khalil was brought to Dubai on March 23 by the Palestine Children's Relief Fund (PCRF).

Now a new set of prostheses has been made at a Dubai workshop, the bill covered by the Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoom Foundation. While he waited for his new legs to be fitted - "He has practised with them already," said the fund's Iman Odeh-Yabroudi - Khalil was offered the chance to go scuba diving. He enjoyed it so much that he asked if he could learn to dive properly. "It is a completely different world," he said. "I like the fish and I also like how quiet it is."

It was not been easy. Without feet - and therefore without fins - he has to use his upper body to propel himself, which requires far more exertion than standard swimming. He has to be careful, too - because his hands are extended in front of him as he swims, he needs to pay close attention to the hoses that connect his air tank and other pieces of equipment. He also tends to get cold in the water a lot quicker.

But, said Ernst van der Poll, who founded the diving and education charity Tawasul and has been teaching Khalil to dive, the boy has persevered despite these challenges. "It has been such a pleasure teaching him because of his can-do attitude," he said. On a boat off the coast of Mussandam, Mr Van der Poll took Khalil through a pre-dive briefing. "Think of Superman," he said, extending his arms upwards to illustrate the swimming technique Khalil needs to master.

"You glide and you pull down. Sometimes I will show you small animals in the water and I will use this signal" - he folded his arms, holding his shoulders. "This means I do not want you to use your hands and stir up the water." Once the briefing was done, Khalil was helped into position to roll backwards off the boat. He was composed as he descended slowly down the anchor line, assisted by Mr Van der Poll. Once near the bottom, the instructor let go and watched Khalil repeat the swimming technique they had practised on the boat.

At first, like many beginners, he needed a little help with his buoyancy, bobbing up and down as he struggled to find the right balance. Descending to nine metres, he swam by himself, with only the occasional tug on his arm as Mr Van der Poll pointed out some of the sea creatures swimming around them. As he dried himself after the almost 50-minute dive, Khalil, who said his ambition is to become a doctor, was exhausted and exhilarated.

"This is fate. It is my destiny. I am not the first one, nor will I be the last," he said. "I have seen death in front of my eyes, why would I be scared from the water?" vtodorova@thenational.ae