Hassan and Hussein Benhaffaf, who were born joined at the chest in 2009, strolled confidently, hand-in-hand, into junior infants in Midleton Educate Together NS in east Cork yesterday, to begin the next chapter of their remarkable journey.
Their parents, Angie and Azzedine, said they were delighted and emotional.
“This week, six years ago, we found out our little boys had a heart each, and it was the ultimate dream once they were separated that maybe one day we’d be lucky enough to see them walk in to school together,” Angie said, fighting back tears.
“So when I watched them walk in this morning, I was quite overwhelmed and very, very, proud. As are my little girls: they helped us get here.
“We’re dedicating today to all the teams at the hospitals, the doctors, the nurses, the ambulance crews, Enable Ireland and everyone who helped get them here.
“Those little steps they’ve just taken in the door — that’s for everyone who helped get us here.”
The five-and-a-half year old twins, among 76 new junior infants who spent yesterday morning settling into school, were unphased by the media attention.
Hassan said he was looking forward to meeting their teacher, James Leahy. Hussein said he couldn’t wait to start playing games and colouring.
Their father Azzedine said it was a day the whole family had longed for.
“We are just so happy to see them finally start school. It was one of the things we hoped for after their separation. We have been waiting for this day for so long. It’s very emotional,” he said.
The twins’ big sisters, Iman, 8, who started second class, and Malika, 11, who started sixth class, said they were very proud of their brothers.
“I feel happy and excited. It’s lovely for them to be starting school. I’m so proud of them,” said Iman, while Malika said: “We will keep an eye on them and protect them.”
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. The twins, who each have a prosthetic leg, will have their own classroom assistant.
“They are great boys. This 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,” the principal said. “We will offer them a happy, safe, and caring environment where every child can thrive.”
Yesterday was the latest milestone for the twins who were born joined at the chest in London University Hospital in December 2009. They each had a heart but shared a pelvis and most of the other major organs.
Big day for Hassan and Hussein Benhaffaf as they start 'big school' pic.twitter.com/K1RhKiE3XA— Eoin English (@EoinBearla) August 27, 2015
Dubbed “the little fighters” by their parents, just four months later they underwent a marathon 16-hour operation, led by Irish-born surgeon Dr Edward Kiely, at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London to separate them. 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 surgery and physiotherapy, the boys have thrived.
“I’ve had mixed emotions, happy and positive, but I’m so nervous letting them go in to the big world,” Angie said.
“They face different obstacles every day but they just do it with a smile. And the surgeries don’t stop. There has been a lot of pain, and happy times too, to get here.”