Remembering Abddullah

February 21, 2011

Over 12 years ago, Salalah witnessed a horrible car accident involving a group of teenage boys driving at an insane speed without seatbelts.

Abdullah, one of the accident's survivors, ended up spending six months on a wooden board at a hospital in a failed attempt to heal his crushed spine. When he was finally released in a wheelchair, he knew he would never walk again. After many months of depressed isolation, he rallied, and finished his high school diploma at home.

Then he decided he was going to university. He was discouraged by almost everyone, but he chose to fight and went to Muscat to apply for a scholarship. A senior official at the ministry told him to give up, claiming someone paralysed from the neck down would never make it through college. Never one to give up, he kept fighting.

He was finally granted a scholarship to study at Dhofar University. I remember the first day his personal helper, Babu, wheeled him through the campus gates, and most students stopped to stare like it was some sort of a freak show. Abdullah held his head up high and started attending classes.

During those first few weeks, most students avoided Abdullah because, at the time, Dhofaris had no idea how to deal with physically or mentally challenged people. Any person with special needs was kept 'hidden' at home and away from the society.

The first time I met Abdullah was during registration week at the university. Babu pushed his wheelchair up to a bench where I was sitting and he asked me cheerfully if he could be 'parked' next to me until Babu returned with registration forms.

We ended up chatting for an hour, and that was the beginning of several years of friendship.

University life was not easy for Abdullah. It took a while for students to get used to seeing him around the campus, but after the first few weeks, his classmates started talking to him and once they realised he was a completely normal person, his circle of friends began to grow.

He decided to study management information systems since he was able to use a laptop despite the fact that his fingers had been crushed in the accident. He had a pencil with a small rubber attached to one end. He would hook the pencil into his only good finger and use the piece of rubber to hit the keyboard.

Abdullah was extremely bright and spent many hours a week tutoring other students. He also became involved in social work and charity campaigns at the university, many of which he himself had initiated. He excelled in his studies and made the Honors List semester after semester even though he had to spend weeks at a time in the hospital every year.

He had a charming personality and a wicked sense of humour. His close friends at the university knew how much physical pain he was in even though he rarely showed it. Only he knew what it was like to wake up in the morning and feel completely helpless and paralysed.

To overcome his frustration, he spent his time and energy reaching out to others. When someone passed away, Abdullah was the first at the funeral. When someone was in trouble, he was the first to offer help.

Even when my mother was undergoing surgery in Muscat (at the other end of the country), he somehow managed to appear out of the blue in the surgical ward with a bouquet of flowers on his wheelchair table and a smile on his face.

On our graduation night in 2007, when he was wheeled out on stage to receive his degree, the applause was deafening and every single person in that auditorium was on their feet (many with tears streaming down their faces).

Abdullah passed away two years ago on this day, and even though he is no longer with us, his friends and I have vowed to keep his memory alive. He had no idea how much he inspired people, and we all feel blessed to have had someone like him in our lives.

He told me once that his dream was to set up a rehabilitation centre in Salalah for people like him. He wanted young men and women with special abilities and needs to have a choice. He took it upon himself to make a difference. After graduation, he spent most of his time trying to make his dream come true.

Despite Abdullah's and many other people's efforts, there are still thousands of children and adults with special needs hidden behind locked doors in Dhofar.