Khalil Al Jadeily
floats quietly in the aquamarine swimming pool in his neoprene wetsuit and a full rack of scuba equipment. His hazel eyes are excited, pumped with adrenaline. For a 16-year old who has never known peace, this is like a trip to another planet.
Khalil was born during the occupation. Like most other children in Gaza, his entire life has been dictated by conflict. Nothing around him has ever been stable — back home, electricity, water, and employment are ephemeral at best. His presence here, at this fancy beach club in Dubai, is a tragedy disguised as a blessing.
In January of 2009, Khalil and his family were struck by an artillery shell in their home. Khalil lost both his legs below the knee under a mountain of rubble; one of his brothers lost an eye, and another died. The US-based charity Palestinian Children's Relief Fund (PCRF) makes routine trips to Gaza to fly injured children out to neighboring countries for treatment, and he was selected to go to the UAE to gain prosthetic limbs in March. By the time I met him a month later, Khalil was equipped with a new pair of prosthetic legs, and he'd taken on a new hobby — scuba diving.
Most of the kids that the PCRF brings to Dubai never fully recover from the trauma, which stays with them long after their physical wounds heal. "All these kids think about is politics," says Rama Chakaki, a volunteer and one of Khalil's scuba instructors. "But there's something different about Khalil. He doesn't always talk about the enemy."
She's right. There's an easiness about this kid, a sparkle of confidence that transcends his disability and tragic history. Before he jumps into the pool, he tells us about the fateful day that took his legs and his brother's life. He gestures softly with his hands and his voice remains even. "It was difficult in the beginning because the house wasn't arranged for someone with a disability. I couldn't even go to the bathroom alone." His spirits remained stable despite the traumatic events. "I just didn't think about it," he says. "I just busied myself with logistical issues of how to get around the house."
The scuba instructor — a South African man named Ernst — wheels Khalil's tank, hand fins, bc jacket, and regulator to the poolside in a wheel barrel. Today, they're going to learn how to exchange the snorkel for a regulator. They'll descend to the bottom and practice taking the mask off underwater, then take the regulator off and breathe for one minute into the mask. "I want you to recognize what it feels like when you run out of air," Ernst says. The two spend a minute going over the hand signals: go down, orientate, regulator, and time. Khalil pushes himself up on both arms, hoists one knee stub onto the wheelchair, pulls his body up, and spins his other leg onto the seat. He wheels himself to the edge of the pool and then hops down onto the ledge in similar fashion.
Once he's geared up and in the pool, Khalil flaps his hand fins to stay afloat in the water. It's not easy; his buoyancy is deeply compromised by his lack of limbs. Every time he surfaces, though, there's that glisten in his eyes again. If he succeeds, he'll be the first Arab double amputee to be scuba certified.
Khalil returned to Gaza a few weeks later, PADI certification in tow. He will be going back to the UAE later this year to get better prosthetic limbs, and has a standing promise from a son of Sheikh Mohammed's to go diving together. But this story isn't just about Khalil. "When you ask the Palestinian kids who their role models are, they have no one," Rama says. "They can only name ancient leaders from history books." What they really need, she says, is someone real to look up to — someone like Khalil who inspires a positive attitude and action.
Photos: Joi Ito