Throughout the journey of life, we bump into many life-altering challenges and changes that just turn our lives upside down. Sometimes we come out of it stronger and sometimes we break. What I have learned during this interview is that some choose to suffer while others choose life. Mariam Mehana, Tarek Salem, Noura Abu El Nasr, Amr El Sohagy, Iman Karim and Rana El Gazzaz are all active members of Al Hassan Foundation for Spinal Cord Injury, an organization that helps wheelchair users and people with spinal cord injuries rehabilitate and move on in a healthy way by engaging in social events and health related activities. They are larger than life and literally the embodiment of the saying ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’.
Iman Karim is a college professor who teaches German Literature at October University. Iman survived a diving accident twenty years ago with a neck injury leaving her paralyzed. She was treated and rehabilitated in England,“I learned there how to live my life in another way. The most important thing wasn’t to walk again because that was out of question but to live an ordinary independent life and cope with this new case”, she tells. With occupational therapy, Iman learned to achieve a certain level of independence. “The key isn’t to stay home; you go on with your life like an able body but in a different way. From personal care to gardening and domestic duties, I was taught to create a normal personality. You can even take driving classes if you have control over your hands. You can practice sports, swimming, riding horses, fishing, sailing, everything”, she adds.
Mariam Mehana has a degree in English Literature and works as an Executive Secretary at the International Schools of Kenana. Unlike the rest, Mariam was born with Arthrogryposis Multiplex Congenita, which is a rare case that occurs in 1% of 20,000 children. In her early childhood, Mariam attended an Islamic school. In Primary School classes were located on the first and second floor while in Prep School classes were on the third and fourth floor. When she asked the administration for an exception of having the classes in lower floors she was told off by the principal telling her she would have to climb more stairs else her peers would feel like primary students. “I was still young and naive and didn’t reply as I was too shocked. Then my mum took permission from the Ministry that my right as a disabled person is to have the class on the ground floor. The principal didn’t like that of course and told my mum that they won’t take care of me. So we decided that I will not complete my education at that school”, Mariam tells.
Luckily, she was transferred to a school with a British principal who insisted to meet her needs, “That’s the difference between the Egyptian and Western mentality and mindset”, she explains. When Mariam graduated, she applied for several jobs and her first interview was quite a bad experience. “I went for an interview at the Etisalat Call Center and the interviewer wasn’t welcoming at all. He looked at me wondering why I have considered applying for a job! I was totally depressed and 4 months later, my school’s principal called and offered me a job! It was fantastic, I couldn’t be more grateful”, Mariam points out. “Throughout my work, I prove that disability doesn’t mean you aren’t able to do things but it means that you are able in a different way. This is one of my missions in life to give people hope and let them know that I can do differently”.
Amr El Sohagy was in the Egyptian National Boxing team before his life changed three years ago when he survived a tragic car accident. One year later his heart stopped and luckily he survived yet suffered a memory loss for almost another year. He has a Law Degree and worked as a lawyer for two years followed by seven years at the Ministry of Aviation. He was driving over 200km per hour when the accident happened and flipped thirteen times. His cousin passed away and Amr and his best friend survived. Amr flew out of the car and broke his neck. In an emergency surgery he was saved and has been in a wheelchair since. “When I traveled to Germany they told me I only have one year to live! They were very supportive”, he laughs, “they believe that the word ‘Inshallah’ is false hope as there is no reason to give hope when scientifically you are dying”.
In a blink of an eye, life changed completely for all of these young men and women. Future plans were eliminated in a blink of an eye and a Plan B was never on any list, but every one of them had faith that made them move on. Every one of them strongly believed in life.
“The first step is acceptance. Once you’ve made peace with the situation, things will get better. Naturally, you fall down at first and don’t easily understand your new situation but you should move on. Earlier at the hospital, I punched three therapists and kicked them out of my room, but then I made peace with myself and moved on”, Amr tells.
Tarek understands the true meaning of life, which is when God takes something; he gives you a lot in return. “My bucket list is to change people’s perception about disabilities. If you surrender you won’t do anything in your life, whether abled or disabled”, Tarek comments. Rana also believes that the only disability lies within the mind, “all the power comes from within you”, she says, “when I had the accident I was only 17, young and energetic. Although I wasn’t religious, I realized that faith is the key. To begin with, I am alive and that’s what really matters. Prophet Mohammed (PbuH) advised us to look at people who are weaker than you rather than the stronger. I was in a denial phase at first, I said it will take weeks and I will get back to normal, then months passed and I faced reality. I didn’t think it was the end of the world and I decided not to be defeated by the issue. I believe we are all capable people and we all have abilities, the only problem is society that is disabling us”. “Don’t depend on a shoulder to cry on, you should help yourself. The best support you can get is from yourself”, Amr concludes.
We Found Love
Iman met a wheelchair user, 15 years her senior, at the club and fell in love. At first, her family rejected the idea of getting married to someone who needs help fearing he might not be able to take care of her. She fought her way until they accepted and got married. Rana is in a relationship with a walking person. “You have to learn to love yourself despite the flaws. I had insecurities in past relationships but the guy I am with now finds that there is something about me related to the soul not the appearance. He sees that there is a lot of potential in our relationship. I don’t have any difficulties and I started to live my life normally”, Rana tells. “You know it’s real love when you are in a relationship with an abled person”. Amr has also found love with a girl who is a member of Al Hassan Foundation. “The accident had one good side which is learning the truth about people in your life. You could have had a thousand friends but after the accident you will find only one true friend”, Amr says.
Al Hassan Foundation was founded by May ZeinElDin, a courageous woman whose son, Al Hassan, survived a tragic accident at the age of 18 that resulted in a spinal cord injury and left him in a wheelchair. This life-changing experience encouraged her to establish Al Hassan Foundation for Spinal Cord Injuries to be able to help others in the same situation.
She welcomes people to a well-facilitated environment to socialize, rehabilitate and overcome their challenges to make the best use of their different abilities and integrate them into society. She is a fighter, a firm believer and is a change agent that will make herself heard of. For more information visit Alhassan Foundation for Spinal Cord Injury on Facebook.
Photography by Heba El Begawi
Shot at Four Seasons Nile Plaza
Makeup b y Diana Richy