The Child Prodigy Who Survived an Air Strike in Yemen

By Simon Albaugh – YAN – Hamtramck

Occasionally, Abdullah Al-Sanabani feels a weight in the place where he lost his arm. It’s been almost five years since an Air Strike in Yemen cost him the limb, but the arm still feels like it’s there to sense something. It’s called Phantom Limb Syndrome, and like most people who’ve lost a part of their body, Al-Sanabani experiences it.


Back in 2015, there was a bombing over a wedding in the small town of Sanabani – about 60 miles south of Yemen’s Capital City of Sana’a. Around 100 were left dead or injured, including one of the grooms. In an article published by The Independent, that groom saved 15-year-old Abdullah’s life by pushing him behind a water tank, at the cost of his own life.


In the time before the Air Strike, Abdullah was considered a child prodigy. Winner of an international science competition, Ted Talk Speaker in Sana’a, and aspiring director for what would be Yemen’s Space Program: he was nothing short of a child-genius.


Maybe that’s what made the international headlines when the Air Strike first took place. In a series of stories read around the world, Al-Sanabani became an important fixture in the way journalists presented the crisis in Yemen, as if to say, ‘Here is what could have been lost.’


Immediately after the Air Strike, Al-Sanabani said he lied for hours, waiting for someone to come. But people were afraid to look for survivors because of the possibility of a second Air Strike. Eventually, his father took him to a hospital for surgery. And for the next two years, Abdullah would jump around abroad for medical care.


He moved from hospital to hospital. Starting in King Hussein hospital in Jordan. And then eventually, to Shriner Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts. The recovery was long. “A total of a year and a half of recovery and therapy,” Al-Sanabani said. “Because when you’re burned, you can’t just stitch it up.”


Throughout the recovery, doctors wondered whether he would need to have his arm removed. The burns were terrible, covering around 48% of his body.


“They said maybe the fingers, then maybe the hand, then to the elbow.” Al-Sanabani said. His arm was removed above the elbow. But Al-Sanabani has changed since those days in the hospital.


One of his mentors at the Frontier International Academy says he was one of the brightest students he’s ever had. They worked on projects together, and engineered robots from found objects as part of a group they called the MacGyver Robotics Club.


Ghassan Shihab is the Director of After School Programs. He said the biggest obstacle for Al-Sanabani was the language. “He was eager to learn,” Shihab said. “Because he knew the stuff in Arabic, but he just couldn’t translate it to English.”


“First it was a horrible experience,” Al-Sanabani said. “Because you feel like when the teacher’s talking and the students are talking, you’re not sure what they’re even talking about.”


Shihab said that Abdullah learned fast. It was only for that first year at Frontier that he was shy. After that, he became the “star of the school” says Shihab. “It was kind of weird,” he said. “Because he wasn’t born here, he wasn’t popular. He didn’t go to the same middle school.”


Abdullah eventually ran for student body president. “He didn’t want a vice president,” Shihab said. “He wanted president… And boom, he won. I was like ‘I can’t believe it.’ And that day, you should’ve seen the smile on his face.”


Al-Sanabani said that he’s grateful for the school. The teachers knew when students were trying their best and gave them all the extra help they needed. “And that’s how I improved back in high school,” he said.


These days, Al-Sanabani is taking classes at Wayne Community College. He’s studying Biomedical Engineering. “It’s like the engineering of Prosthetics,” he said.


Al-Sanabani’s dream is to design better prosthetics for anyone to use. Because back in the hospitals, he was trained to use a prosthetic arm. “The thing that surprised me is that I went to Shriner, one of the best hospitals in the world,” he said. “And they still use prosthetics designed during World War II.”


The first dream he had was to start a space program in Yemen. As part of the international science competition, his award was a visit to the NASA Space Program in the United States. After the tinkering in Frontier High School, his focus has shifted.


“I feel like there’s a lot of good prosthetics out there,” he said. “But there’s a lot that can get improved. And the people who make the prosthetics aren’t the people who use them.”


Abdullah Al-Sanabani is focused on nothing but improving. “You feel like you own the world when you think you’re improving every day,” he said. “And every day, you’re a better person, every day you learn something new.”