Just before her seventh birthday Zainab Al-Eqabi and her family faced a horrendous accident at their home in Bagdhad, Iraq. An unexploded bomb, which unbeknown to them, had been in their back garden for more than seven years, ignited and caught Zainab as well as her father and her younger sister in the crossfire.
Zainab’s father was badly injured with many wounds to his body, her younger sister lost part of her finger and Zainab faced a serious injury to her leg. After being admitted to hospital Zainab’s injuries became worse thanks to a mistake made by her doctors and it resulted in her left leg having to be amputated. At the age of seven, with her father in critical condition and her sister injured, Zainab returned home and began adjusting to life with one leg. It was an accident that affected her whole family in such a traumatic way and something that was not easy to move on from. Over 20 years later, after relocating to the UAE, Zainab has found her strength and her path and she is using her story to inspire others. Since moving to Dubai she has pursued a number of sports from swimming to scuba diving to cycling and she has shared her story through her social media platforms with a current following of over 1.5 million. She is a TV presenter on MBC and a pharmacist – yes she does it all! Today, Zainab doesn’t see her disability as a hindrance, rather as an opportunity to share her story and inspire others with her achievements. Here, we discover more about her journey and her great aspirations for the future.
We are very inspired by your story – tell us about some of the challenges you have faced along the way and how you overcame them?
The accident that happened was life-changing for my whole family. For me personally, coming back home as a young girl, now an amputee, in a Middle Eastern society, it was not easy to grow up in a place where there’s very little awareness of these kinds of things. My parents had to do a lot of work to make sure I was a capable, strong person who could have a mindset to keep going. It was a very long journey of self-discovery and I had to keep working on my mindset, my beliefs and my goals and always remember that I shouldn’t be judged by society and I should work on changing these negative stereotypes into positive ones to help the future generations. It was a long journey but I appreciate everything that I have been through. It taught me a lot, it made me who I am and I’m really grateful for that. I appreciate and have so much respect for my parents and what they have done to make sure the whole family came back stronger and united. My mum was a doctor and I respect the fact that she sacrificed her job because after the accident to put her family first and to take care of us. I also have so much appreciation for my siblings who were there through everything. So yes, it was a long journey for the whole family and there were a lot of challenges, but it has made me who I am and I’m so thankful for it.
When you face struggles in life motivation is essential – how have you kept motivated during difficult times?
The answer to this question could differ depending on which stage of my life I’m at, but in general, it would be my passion and my goals. The love for the things I do, the belief of the ones who love me. All of these things really motivate me to keep on going, to take on challenges and to not give up.
This past year has been a difficult one for all – what has been your experience of the global pandemic and what is a lesson you have learned?
I believe each and every one of us has our own story to tell from the pandemic, but at the same time, we all have some similarities linked to the worry about our loved ones, stress, responsibilities etc. not to mention the people we have already lost. I have lost a number of people who were family and friends in other countries and it was really heart-breaking. Unfortunately to this day, I am seeing family and friends whose family members have been hospitalised or are going through a tough time with COVID-19. So it has been tough for all of us and we are still going through it. I hope it will be over very soon.
I have learnt many lessons from this time but the top ones would be to always be thankful – we are blessed with so many things, but we didn’t realise how lucky we are and then COVID-19 made us value the small things so much more. The second is that we are all so closely interconnected across the world and we can influence each other wherever we are. The way COVID-19 spread across the globe showed us how small the world is and we need to remember that the worry and anxiety we are experiencing is happening to everyone and we need to respect and value each other. The third point is to always be there for your loved ones and to appreciate them.
Obviously, the tragic accident when you were very young – what was a turning point in your life and how did you convert this pain into positivity and power?
Sometimes things can happen to you and at the time, you are not aware of the bigger picture. After the accident, I had to do things that were much greater than my ability and grow way beyond my age because of what I had been through and what my family had to face. So turning the pain into positivity and strength was the only option. There was so much I had to witness but the only option was going back to normal life, back to school, being able to socialise again with friends. My mum was always there by my side and my dad was focusing on his own rehabilitation journey but he was still providing us with the support that we needed. I felt that because of what happened that I should become stronger for them. There were of course so many incidents where I broke down and cried and I didn’t understand why I had to be fitted with a prosthetic leg for example, or why I had to use a crutch, but then, day after day, things started to become clearer and challenge after challenge I started to understand that I needed to become stronger. The older I got, the more I wanted to stand in the face of the challenges that society created for me and that could limit me from the things that I want to achieve – my goals, my dreams, my joy, my rights. And to overcome the social barriers that were in front of me, simply because of the fact that I had lost a leg. So the more I grew up I started to realise that I was the only one who could control my mindset and make sure that it is strong, positive and determined and also have a real involvement in society to create awareness and to spread positive messages to hopefully encourage more people to not be limited by things that happen to them and to simply live their lives.
What is a message you would give to other young people who may believe that their disability will stop them from achieving their dreams?
The main thing I would emphasise is if someone is going through a challenge, be it a physical disability or something else, it is all about keeping the right mindset. If you have a mindset that makes you determined, this is going to take you anywhere you want. But if you are limiting yourself, then you are going nowhere. Work on a mindset that will enable you and support you to be the kind of person who is unbreakable and determined to reach their goals and dreams and then you can simply live life and enjoy it.
Who is a role model or a person that inspired you and why?
If I had to choose someone that I know, it would be my moth. She has been a great example for me in terms of resilience, love, patience and everything she has done for the family. She sacrificed a lot to make sure that we’re all OK and she took care of us and provided great support whenever we needed her. She’s incredible.
If I had to choose someone I’ve never met but who I look up to in terms of their journey, I would say Paralympian Amy Purdy. She is an amazing woman and she has had an incredible journey. She is a double-below-knee amputee and she’s been through a lot of challenges, but regardless, she made it and I always look up to her and I’m inspired by what she went through and how she reacted. She’s an incredible woman and a great role model to me.
You are multi-talented in many domains – tell us about your journey and passions?
I think it’s great to experience different things in life. When I was in college, I started to realise that there are multiple things we can all do – exploring different kinds of sports, activities, passions – and we are not limited to one or two things. The more I experienced new things, the more I realised I wanted to try more! And I want to see what more there is to do. That’s how I started learning different sports and developing my passion for things like travelling, meeting people from different countries, exploring the possibilities of social media, interacting with people and having an engagement and foundation with people around the world. It all started when I realised that I need to invest in my life, learn and explore, break my fears and give it all I have. I try to approach life with this perspective.
Tell us about your love of scuba diving, what is it that attracted you to this sport?
There are two main reasons. The first is that in the water you are completely limitless so it doesn’t matter if you have an amputation or any kind of physical challenge, you are truly free and you can do everything! The second reason would be curiosity. I’m always curious to see what’s there in the oceans – the plants, the creatures, the fish and many more amazing things. It makes me speechless. Learning to scuba dive was one of the greatest decisions I’ve made because when I go diving I come back with so much positive energy and joy.
Where is your favourite place to dive?
I haven’t explored diving in many locations yet, so far it has been mainly in the UAE – but let’s see what happens in the future because I’ve heard a lot about many islands and places across the world where diving is really next level. But actually diving in Fujairah was really amazing.
What would you like to achieve that you haven’t done yet?
This question has so many answers! There is so much I want to achieve and there is so much to explore in this world. For now, I would say travelling and exploring more regions and cultures and meeting many more people across the world. Hopefully, once the world gets back to normal, I will get the chance to do that.
In this issue we are talking about Emirati Women’s Day, while you’re not Emirati yourself, you have spent many years here, what are your thoughts on the achievements of women in the UAE?
I have so much love and respect for the UAE, for the journey of the country, for everything that they have been working so hard for and how they are really building a great base for all the women across the country to reach their goals and dreams. Women here are really supported and witnessing that makes me feel so happy and proud, even if I’m not Emirati. I really love this country and I consider the UAE as my second home. I have been living here for so long and every achievement for the UAE feels like it’s also for me. And of course, the achievements done by women are something I am so proud of and there’s so much more to come.
What is the motto you live by?
It actually a quote by Mahatma Gandhi that says “be the change that you want to see in this world.” I love this quote because it’s so realistic and it’s something that I believe we should all follow and think about whenever we want to make a positive change. So before asking others to change something, we should start by focusing on ourselves and that it will reflect on others.
What is a message that you would tell your younger self?
I would thank myself. It’s true it has been a very tough journey. I was very stubborn at some points in my life and I was very tough, fighting for everything I wanted to achieve and it was hard at times. So I would tell my younger self: thank you, I know it was tough but it was very much needed to be where I am today.
Where is the first place you will travel to when normal travel resumes?
I can’t wait to travel again! Travel is starting to resume but I don’t think it will be the same for a while. When it gets back to normality, however, the first place I will travel to is Italy. I have been there before but I have missed it so much. I love the culture, the nature, the food. The last time I was there as a solo traveller and I spent around two weeks exploring Florence, Tuscany and Milan. I love it and I’m so excited to go there again soon.