WHEN Angie Benhaffaf closed her front door in Carrigtwohill 10 years ago to travel to University College Hospital in London to give birth to conjoined twins Hassan and Hussein, she didn’t know if the next time she opened that door, she would be carrying the two babies, or one baby, or any baby, with her.
“When I closed the front door, there was a million to one chance that both or either of my babies would survive,” says mother of four, Angie. “I was heartbroken leaving home.”
The Irish Sea seemed like a vast ocean to cross, and she was hoping for not one, but two miracles.
“It was a very painful journey,” says Angie.
“I remember I had to get an extended seat belt on the plane and I could sense the other passengers were wondering what a very obviously near-to-term pregnant woman was doing on a flight, because after 36 weeks it’s strongly encouraged not to fly.
“The expertise required for conjoined twins was not here in Ireland. So we had to make the heart-breaking journey to the UK.”
Cork’s most famous twins, Hassan and Hussein Benhaffaf, made international headlines when they were born conjoined from chest to pelvis, sharing a liver, gut and bladder, on December 2, 2009.
Four months later, they were separated following a delicate 14-hour operation.
And, with twice the blessings, twice the smiles, and twice the happiness, the babies returned to Ireland and entered the front door of their home in east Cork along with their sisters, Malike and Iman, and their proud mum and dad.
The Benhaffafs made a wish and two came true. Angie smiles.
“That is why we are celebrating the boys’ 10th birthday on November 30 as well as their actual birthday, December 2,” says Angie.
“Because that day 10 years ago, when I left home and the chances were so slim that my boys would live, will always stick in my mind.”
Hassan and Hussein are looking forward to a double celebration, with twice the fun and twice the games. And twice the presents!
“We’re going to mark their 10th birthday with a family get-together on December 2, which will be very precious for all of us,” says Angie.
“The boys’ 10th birthday is an amazing milestone for them. It has been such a journey. We have great hope for the future.”
Recalling the moment she first got to hold her sons, Angie said: “I remember the absolute joy the first time I held them.
“The nurses smiled as I was wheeled past them alongside the boys’ bed. It felt strange being taken to see your own children for the first time, surrounded by people who had already been caring for them for days.”
Like every mother, Angie was curious to discover what her babies, dubbed ‘Little Fighters’, looked like when she met her sons for the first time.
“I barely knew what they looked like,” says Angie. “I cried from the relief of finally being with them. It was overwhelming. I said; ‘Hello my angels. I’m your Mummy’. One of the nurses carefully lifted the boys out of their bed, while another moved all their monitors and wires round to where I was sitting.
“Then finally I held my golden boys.
“I had told myself every day that they were going to live,” says Angie.
“And I was going to get to hold them, kiss them, smell them. But right until that joyous moment, I don’t know if I ever truly believed it.”
The boys were always going to figure big in the love stakes.
“As newborns, I noticed the lovely heart shape their bodies made,” says Angie. “I loved them even more.”
Angie and Azadeen have always believed their sons, who have faced many life and death situations in their first decade of life, are their Little Fighters and their Little Survivors who are destined for great things.
“They both want to be Para-Olympians!”
The twins, lovable rogues with double the mischief and double the giggles, are double the trouble!
“I love them for their spirit and their heart,” says Angie.
“Their big sisters adore them too. They are very protective of their brothers, even though the boys can wreck their heads!”
Even for two super-heroes who are friends with Oscar winner actor Tom Hanks, life is not always a fairytale.
“The boys have had 53 surgeries and there is more surgery on the cards after their 10th birthday, on December 16,” says Angie.
“It is so near Christmas, it is a pity. Hassan often gets tearful and sad about going to hospital. He has been through more surgeries than his brother. Hassan is more vocal than Hussein, and he cries from the heart. He gets sick of all the surgeries and he wants to live a normal life like his friends.
“I remember on one of his birthdays he asked me ‘Mummy, will I ever grow my other leg?’ So that can be heartbreaking. The boys are getting older now and they are more curious. The reality is we have to talk things through with them and to be honest with them.”
But in spite of the ongoing complicated surgeries, the twins are grateful for the simple things.
“I love that about them. All Hassan wants to do is go home and play,” says Angie.
“All the medical appointments and physio takes its toll on both of them. They always bounce back. Every day free of appointments is a good day and we always make those days very special. We go for a spin or we go and see a movie.
“Time together as a family, playing a board game together of an evening, is very precious for us.” Marking the twins’ 10th birthday, December 2, will be a very special day inside the front door of the Benhaffafs Carrigtwohill home.
“Ten years ago, when I left for London, was a very traumatic day,” says Angie.
“At the 12 weeks scan there was very little hope of survival. At the 20 weeks scan I had such dreams for them.
“This year we are going to spend their 10th birthday together and enjoy the bond with family and birthday cake, after the day out on Saturday at Awesome Walls with their friends.
“Having Christmases and birthdays in hospital in the past, this birthday is something very special. We just want it to be happy. As a family we are inseparable.”
Charlie, the twins’ best friend, is joining the dynamic duo for their trip to Awesome Walls.
“Hassan and Hussein love wall climbing,” says Angie.
“They love swimming too. And they play wheelchair basketball. Seeing their can-do attitude is wonderful. Even though my nerves are bad sometimes; nothing will hold them back.
“Charlie and some other class-mates from Educate Together Midleton, are looking forward to having some fun and games for the twins’ birthday.”
What does Hassan want for his 10th birthday?
“You know, he just wants us all to be together at home, hanging out, having fun and having cake,” says Angie.
“I usually have one twin on each knee!”
What about his other half?
“Hussein is the same. He doesn’t ask for anything and he doesn’t have any expectations. They are full of the joys of life and are very happy boys. Even though there are days that are sad; they are always smiling. That’s all you want,” says Angie.
“That is magical.”
Angie is a happy mum.
She has two boys and two girls to kiss, to hug and to love.
“I’m happy that my kids are happy. They exude happiness.”
And she’ll always remember that fateful day 10 years ago when she left home not knowing what the future held for her or her sons.
“It was with a heavy heart that I closed the front door. I never knew who was coming home.”
They all came home.
“Mr Kiely was calling in to see us every day to check on the boys,” says Angie.
“Then, one afternoon, about 10 days before Christmas he came to see us and said Hassan and Hussein could come home to Cork.”
It comes home to Angie every day what her double miracles means to her.
“The world is a better place with better people with the life-experience I’ve had,” says Angie.
“My boys have shaped me as a better human being. My four kids have taught me a lot.”
Hassan and Hussein are doubling the love every day.
“They are my two miracles. We have a lot to smile about.”
“The twins have a strong bond with a will to live that can never be broken. Even when Hassan and Hussein are grown men they will still be my ‘Little Fighters’.”