'I lost it all in a few seconds' - Emirati crash driver on the slow road to recovery and life as 'Iron Man'

An accident altered life plans for Abdulla Al Jefri, who is now heading to Harvard after a long recovery

Abu Dhabi, UAE.  May 10, 2018. Abdulla Al Jefri, who has achieved his goal of studying in Harvard after a 10-year slog. His plans were derailed when he met with an accident that took years to recover from.  Victor Besa / The National
Reporter:  Ramola Talwar
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It has been a journey of soul-searching, struggle and self-discovery for Abdulla Al Jefri since doctors said he might not walk again.

Fifteen years ago a car accident confined him to a wheelchair for almost a year.

After a gruelling series of operations and rehabilitation, Mr Al Jefri, 34, decided in 2009 to rebuild his life and career.

Having achieved his targets, the Emirati lawyer has his sights set on representing the government in an international forum when he returns from studying in Harvard next year.

"I was studying electrical engineering at the Petroleum Institute in 2003, and everything was good until the point I lost everything," Mr Al Jefri says. "I was young and speeding, and because of my bad behaviour I lost it all in a few seconds. After the accident, I required surgeries. There was nothing to do but wait for my body to recover.

"Even to get into a wheelchair was an effort. Then I moved to walking with difficulty using a stick, and finally I walked again. But by then my friends had graduated. They had great jobs. I had only got an entry level post at the Abu Dhabi Judicial Department."

After the accident in Abu Dhabi, the government paid for his treatment in Munich and his parents and nine siblings supported him. It took six major operations over the next five years to turn his life around.

"I was like Iron Man with screws in my body," Mr Al Jefri says. "Mentally I had to be strong because I had to get out of depression. I needed to make my family, my government and my country proud. I had to pay back my mistakes."

Mr Al Jefri worked hard at the judicial department and completed his bachelor's at the Al Ain University of Science and Technology before studying for a master's in international law at the Paris Sorbonne University in the capital.

"I was at the beginning of the ladder with an administrative entry level job," he says. "Then I got to know about being a government lawyer and decided I would study for that.

“But everyone laughed because I didn’t even have a degree. They said even if I tried, I would be too old and it would be impossible to get the job.”

Dismissing the pessimists, Mr Al Jefri in 2013 won a place the Abu Dhabi Judicial Academy, where lawyers are trained.

He now confidently represents the government in civil, commercial and arbitration cases. But his first appearance in court remains with him because he had to balance the fear of the new with his pride in representing his country.


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Two years ago, he began working with the Hale Education Group in Dubai towards admission to a master's degree in public administration at the Harvard Kennedy School. He leaves for the US next month.

The father of two also secured a fellowship from the Emirates Leadership Initiative that is offered to Arab students accepted in Harvard.

The first person he called when he got a positive reply was Peter Davos, Hale’s founder and chief executive, who mentored Mr Al Jefri through the process.

“What struck me about Abdulla was his persistence and perseverance. He understood that our work together would take a very long time - years, in fact and he was comfortable investing the necessary time and effort to achieve his goal,” Mr Davos said.

“I knew he could make it; he had all the ingredients, including the drive and determination, and all he needed was the proper guidance. There is no doubt in my mind that Abdulla will rise to the rank of minister. He serves as an inspiration to us all.”

A key to Mr Al Jefri’s success despite the odds is that he is constantly learning. Fluent in Arabic and English, he is studying Chinese.

Readying to leave next month for the US, Mr Al Jefri has advice for UAE youth from the hard knocks he has taken.

“I want to represent the government in leadership positions in environment and sustainability. My main goal is to be a national leader to promote sustainable development at the national and international level.

“I always remember a quote from Mohammed Ali - your dream should scare you. It has to be something so great that it will give you the motivation and commitment to achieve it. I have big dreams for the future. Sometimes I will fail and through that I will learn too.

My family, my government supported me and I want to make them proud. Our rulers have big visions and I want to be part of achieving their dreams.”