Scuba brings peace to a boy who has only known war

by Lisa Katayama

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

17 Comments Add a comment

Rob Beschizza #1 7:57 AM Wednesday, Jun 23, 2010 Reply

Layout by Dean Putney. Great work, guys!

rebdav #2 8:07 AM Wednesday, Jun 23, 2010 Reply

I am a SCUBA diver, an American Israeli, a Zionist, a maker and a happy mutant; this kid seems to be one too. I am glad that friends worldwide were able to help him with his war injuries, maybe I will get a chance to dive with him.

I hope this article doesn't turn into a fight over who is evil Jews or Palestinians. Most people imagine that Jews and Arabs hate each other, we get along just fine as long as nobody on the outside profits from our blood.

Anon #3 8:09 AM Wednesday, Jun 23, 2010 Reply

Love the new feature.

SB-129 replied to comment from rebdav #4 8:15 AM Wednesday, Jun 23, 2010 Reply

he seems to be a zionist? as for his mutancy i'm sure he'd be happier with both of his legs.

JohnCJ #5 8:24 AM Wednesday, Jun 23, 2010 Reply

Great article, but the political content detracts from the main point (unless the politics was the main point).

Lisa, you write "the Occupation" (complete with capital O). This is like saying the American Civil War was the "War of Northern Aggression". Each side their own particular name for things, and by adopting one side or another's, you make this seem like propaganda. Wouldn't a better way to write it simply as "the conflict"?

rebdav replied to comment from SB-129 #6 8:33 AM Wednesday, Jun 23, 2010 Reply

Sorry that could be misread, I am very tired. He is probably not a Zionist, but politics don't greatly influence my choice in dive partners. Meant he is probably a happy mutant candidate, probably a maker too, if you get a chance to schmooze with any Palestinians you have probably also met a serious maker.

Rob Beschizza #7 9:07 AM Wednesday, Jun 23, 2010 Reply

Thanks, JohnCJ. I've de-capitalized 'occupation' as it could reasonably distract from Khalil's story.

Folks, this story is not about the conflict, so please avoid steering the discussion too much thataway. If you do, don't be surprised if your comment gets deleted: a better BB thread to discuss the israeli-palestinian conflict directly is this recent one about the Flotilla. The bar is high on this one.

kc0bbq #8 10:11 AM Wednesday, Jun 23, 2010 Reply

I had never seen the equipment for a diver unable to use their legs. The webbed gloves are pretty neat. He's going to be a tired diver in current. I wonder if he'll end up with prosthetics that he can dive with? The muscles above the knee are the important ones for diving.

I love the pictures. I remember my certification classes, every one of the people who could get past trying to breath with water covering their face had the same exact grin once the pool training started. It's just as fun seeing others having that reaction as it is diving yourself.

The only time I was more excited about getting in the water was for my first reef dive. I hope he gets that chance to dive with the sheikh. There's nothing more peaceful than floating along weightless surrounded by nature. He's probably earned a little of that.

Rich Keller #9 10:36 AM Wednesday, Jun 23, 2010 Reply

Diving off of Jordan is supposed to be a beautiful experience. I hope Khalil gets the opportunity to dive there some time.

I thought I saw something on TV that was a dive plane that was attached to both of a diver's feet like a dolphin tail. It really increased the diver's efficiency from what I recall. Something like that made out of a combination of rigid and flexible materials could attach to the upper thigh and could help reduce arm fatigue. Also, sea turtles might make a good model for divers without full legs, since they propel themselves with their forelimbs.

Grey Devil #10 11:24 AM Wednesday, Jun 23, 2010 Reply

This is a really touching story. Though short, which is disappointing. There's so much that could've been said about his circumstances, his family, etc.

Either way i am deeply happy for Khalil, and i hope he will follow his dreams and do something with his life that will bring him joy.

Lisa Katayama #11 5:42 PM Wednesday, Jun 23, 2010 Reply

Thanks for the note re: the facts. I'm checking with my sources/interpreter and will fix accordingly.

JohnCJ #12 5:59 PM Wednesday, Jun 23, 2010 Reply

Oh, and Lisa, I'm not doubting your journalistic integrity in the slightest-- this is a brilliant piece. My media savvy-ness has just slipped into paranoia.

Anon #13 7:56 PM Wednesday, Jun 23, 2010 Reply

This is a fantastic article, helping people achieve despite the odds!
One small comment, in the sentence "then take the regulator off and breathe for one minute into the mask", what they're actually doing is taking off the mask and breathing without a mask for one minute. The reg stays in.

joi #14 9:55 PM Wednesday, Jun 23, 2010 Reply

This photo shoot / interview inspired me to get my license. I'm actually going to complete my license, Inshallah, next week.

hijukal #15 2:30 AM Thursday, Jun 24, 2010 Reply

It's great to see someone with such a great outlook on life. He had it tough, yet he didn't fall in a heap and just got on with things. And now, the smiles on his face show us that pain can be as fleeting or debilitating as we let it.

And as I went to get a soft drink (soda, pop, whatever) from the fridge, remembering Lisa's "nothing around him has ever been stable" line, I realised just how good we do have it, even though half the time we don't realise it.

So thanks for the feel-good story and double-thanks for reminding me that most of my problems really aren't. Double-happiness!

boonefrog #16 7:35 AM Thursday, Jun 24, 2010 Reply

Like most, I've got pretty strong opinions on the conflict and have enjoyed the discussion threads that have previously appeared on BB. This, however, is amazingly refreshing. Wonderful feature!

RickB #17 11:31 AM Thursday, Jun 24, 2010 Reply

I'd be interested to know why my comment was disappeared.

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