By Eoin English and David Raleigh
From little fighters to junior infants - miracle twins Hassan and Hussein Benhaffaf started big school today.
The former conjoined twins were among 76 other excited boys and girls who are spending their first day as junior infant students in Midleton Educate Together National School in East Cork.
Five-and-a-half-year old Hassan and Hussein breezed past their parents as they headed into Educate Together National School, Midleton, to meet their friends and teachers.
It was even more special for the brave boys who officially strolled for the first time without their walking aides, which have helped keep them upright for most of their lives.
"I have to watch them because they're taking off - I never thought I'd say that, that I have to keep up with them," said their proud mother, Angie.
It was a day of milestones for all 76 new junior infants attending the school, but for the twins, who each have a prosthetic leg, it was a day of overcoming insurmountable odds.
"It was the ultimate dream, once they were separated, that maybe, one day, we'd be lucky enough to see them walk into school together," Ms Benhaffaf said.
"So, watching them walk into school this morning, I'm quite overwhelmed…My dreams have come true," she added.
The boys' big sisters, Malika, 11, and Iman, 8, also attend the school.
Picture: Denis Minihane
Watched by their proud mum, Angie, the excited twins, who have been eagerly counting down the days to their first day at big school, arrived in their brand new uniforms just after 8.30am and settled in to their classroom to meet their teacher, muinteoir James Leahy.
School principal Rhodri Mears said he and the teaching staff were delighted to welcome the twins into the school community, along with all the other new students who started junior infants today.
"They are great boys. Today is a wonderful occasion for them. The fact that they've shown so much courage so far is incredible, and today is just another step in that journey," he said.
"They will spend the day getting to know their teacher, and their new surroundings. We will offer them a happy, safe and caring environment, where every child can thrive."
Today is the latest milestone for the twins who were born, joined at the chest, in London University Hospital in December 2009.
Dubbed “the little fighters”, they underwent a marathon 16-hour operation just four months later at Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) in London to separate them. About 20 medical staff, including four anaesthetists and four surgeons, worked in shifts during the complex procedure.
The twins defied all the odds to survive and were back home in Cork within weeks.
Despite having to undergo several operations over the years, and despite intensive and ongoing physiotherapy, the boys have thrived.
Their mum, Angie, said it was a day of mixed emotions.
"They've been counting down the days for the last two weeks," their mother added. "They got their lunch bags back in May. They've been super excited leading up to it.
"I suppose I have mixed emotions. It's a very happy time, it's positive, but I'm so nervous letting them go into the big world," she said.
Azzedine Benhaffaf, who became emotional on his sons' big day, added: "It's the most beautiful day today, and I'm very proud of these two boys.
"Six years ago they nearly died. After their separation, we didn't know what would happen but we kept praying and we kept it together, and you can see they are walking hand in hand going to school.
"There is nothing more to ask for," he added.
The twins are having ongoing and intensive physiotherapy and will need further surgeries, but both are thriving.
They happily posed for the cameras on their important day, and even melted the hearts of some of the most seasoned reporters who threw a few questions at the inspirational pair.
The boys said they were looking forward to "colouring" and "counting to a hundred" and meeting their teacher "Muinteoir James".
Ms Benhaffaf dedicated her sons' first day at school to everyone who had helped them since their birth.
"We have dedicated each little step that they have taken into school today, to the wonderful teams at (Cork University Hospital), (Cork University Maternity Hospital), Crumlin (Children's) Hospital, Great Ormond Street, Enable Ireland, Irish Wheelchair Association, ambulance drivers, who have seen us a lot over the years and will no doubt see is many more times, but today is in their honour."
"Thank you for getting us to school, and we look forward to the next chapter in their life," she said.