Khaldoun Sinjab's life story could be the stuff of fiction. The Syrian, 40, has weathered war, crippling disability and now poverty, but he and his wife are determined to live normal lives.
At 17, he was on the Syrian national swimming team and graduated top of his class in Damascus. To celebrate, his family took him to the sea.
There, while diving off a boat, he slipped and fell into the water, hitting his head on a rock. The fall broke two of his vertebrae and severed his spinal cord, rendering him paralysed from the neck down. He can now only move his lips and eyes and needs a ventilator to breathe.
“There isn’t a single muscle in his body that can move,” says his wife and caregiver, Yusra Hilal, 39.
The two married in 2008, 14 years after his accident. “I was studying at university and struggling with chemistry so he offered to help,” she says.
“I went to study chemistry and the chemistry happened between us.”
At the time, Khaldoun had begun using his lips and mouth to design a computer programme that would help him to communicate with others and with the outside world. He was also designing computer programmes for companies.
Yusra says her family objected to the marriage, telling her she was crazy to want to marry a quadriplegic.
“I begged my father to give Khaldoun a chance like he would give any other man who would propose,” she says.
“Don’t look at his disability, look at his mind,” she told him. “‘There are many men with arms and legs but have no minds. The only difference,’ I said, ‘is that you have to go to him because he can’t come to you.’”
Her father relented and visited Khaldoun at his home where he had already invited the whole town. Khaldoun told her father that should he agree to let them marry, she would be the apple of his eye.
“Every person in the room that day started crying that day and so did my dad,” Yusra says. “He left that day telling me that I would be crazy to refuse Khaldoun and if I didn’t want him, he would personally find him a wife because any woman who would marry him would be entering heaven.”
After marrying, Khaldoun and Yusra had to flee Syria because the war, the power cuts and lack of medical supplies meant his life was in danger.
“Khaldoun needed electricity for his ventilator so when there was a power cut, he could not breathe,” she says.
The couple fled to Lebanon where his wife says they struggled over a lack of medical supplies.
“Khaldoun needs to changed, bathed and cared for exactly like a baby,” Yusra says. “Actually babies can move their hands, he cannot. So the diapers, the gauze, the antiseptic wipes and all these supplies are crucial.”
It was then that Khaldoun posted a cry for help on Facebook, which was answered by Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, who brought the family to the UAE in 2016 for surgery.
“The UAE gave Khaldoun life. It was the first time Khaldoun could go outdoors in years. He had spent his entire life in bed,” Yusra says. The first time Khaldoun saw fireworks was in the UAE, last year.
“He started crying,” Yusra says. “The first time the Sun touched his skin was also here. The Sun would burn my skin but Khaldoun would insist to be kept outside because he considers it to be a blessing.”
During his surgery at Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi, Khaldoun had a small breathing machine installed in his chest and friends helped him to get a work permit in the UAE.
“We couldn’t go back to Syria,” Yusra says.
Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, Ruler of Sharjah, enrolled Khaldoun at the University of Sharjah where he is now in his first year. His wife helps him with his studies and takes him to university every day but she cannot work as she must always be by his side.
“Khaldoun can’t be left alone for five minutes. It is just me who cares for him and my daughter,” Yusra says.
Judy, 12, is from a previous marriage but the two share another daughter, a two-year-old who they conceived through IVF therapy.
“Khaldoun is very happy and we can’t thank the UAE enough but we are struggling,” she says.
Her husband’s freelance work earns him Dh1,000 every few months, which does not cover his medical supplies, rent or Judy’s school fees. “We have to live in a two-bedroom apartment to be eligible to sponsor the girls but I would have lived in a studio,” Yusra says.
Rent costs them Dh42,000 per year and Khaldoun’s medical supplies set them back around Dh2,000 a month. They cannot afford to pay Judy’s tuition fees.
“Khaldoun has always been and still is independent. In spite of his disability, he is working, continuing his education and supporting us but getting freelance work is hard and it is becoming a struggle.
“Khaldoun wants to continue his education to get a job to support us.”
Hisham Al Zahrani, manager of zakat and social services at Dar Al Ber Society, says this case is unlike any he has encountered.
“We have never come across anyone like Khaldoun before,” Mr Al Zahrani says. “From his intellect to his courage and perseverance.
“At one point doctors told Khaldoun he wouldn’t survive more than six months after his injury and he has had several brushes with death.
“His life is an inspiration to us all but they need support — not because of his disability but because of other issues such as tuition fees, lack of job opportunities and rent.”
Mr Al Zahrani says the family need about Dh60,000 to cover education and rent.