They’re twins so that means they’re there for each other no matter what – and the struggles and challenges these two have endured have only served to strengthen the bond that binds them together.
Yusuf and Yaqoob Arrison made news headlines a few years ago after they survived a tragic family shooting. As Yusuf lay unconscious with a bullet in his head, Yaqoob was in the bed next to his, playing dead to stop their suicidal mother from killing him. He was later able to escape the house, carrying his sibling to safety on his back.
Now just two years down the line the 17-year-olds are in the news again – this time, it’s because of the amazing support Yaqoob offered his brother to help him succeed in his final matric exams. As a result of the shooting, Yusuf was left with impaired vision and has difficulty reading. But Yaqoob was determined this handi cap wasn’t going to prevent his brother from getting the marks he needed to go to university. So, he spent hours each day, patiently reading to Yusuf and helping him study.
His brotherly devotion paid off. When the results were announced in January, both boys discovered they’d achieved university passes. And that’s not all – at the annual national matric award ceremony, the lucky twins from Bernadino Heights in Cape Town were honoured with special awards for the resilience they’d displayed in the face of hardship. “It was really unexpected,” Yusuf tells us as he chats to us at their home. “It felt really nice to be recognised for our efforts. It meant a lot.” There were many who didn’t expect him and his brother to succeed, he says – so proving everyone wrong makes the award even sweeter.
The brothers’ lives changed forever one tragic Saturday morning in January 2017. Their mother, Aneesa (43), first shot and killed their elder brother, Waseem (21), before turning the gun on her twins, who were then just 14. “I woke up in the early hours because I heard a loud bang,” Yaqoob recalls. “The next thing I remember is someone walking towards me.” At that time, he didn’t realise it was his mother, or that the noise he’d heard was her killing Waseem. Yusuf slept through the commotion. He woke up only after experiencing a stabbing pain in his head and then he blacked out. “She shot Yusuf and then turned to shoot me,” Yaqoob says. After a bullet hit him in the hand he lay still, pretending to be dead.
The house went quiet for a while. When he sneaked down to the lounge he found his mother there. “I saw her shoot herself,” he says. Despite the harrowing circumstances, he managed to remain calm. “I wasn’t panicking. All I knew was that I had to get away from there with Yusuf,” Yaqoob says. Carrying his brother, he ran to a neighbour’s house to call for help. Yusuf spent two months in Tygerberg Hospital. He spent the first week in a medically induced coma and after five brain surgeries, he needed regular physiotherapy to help him walk again. “It was tough because I was alone every day,” Yusuf recalls. “My brother and friends visited at night, but I always felt lonely after they left again.”
The optic nerve of his left eye is damaged, which has impaired his peripheral vision. Yaqoob also carries scars from the traumatic shooting. The nerves of his left hand are damaged and although he could’ve had surgery to correct it he elected not to do so. “I was too scared,” he says shyly. “But it’s okay that I have a slightly weird finger. It’s who I am now.” Most memories of their childhood before the incident are happy ones. “We played games a lot and got up to mischief,” Yaqoob jokes. Yusuf adds there was rarely an activity they didn’t do together. “When I decided I was going to play cricket, he did it with me. We were bad at it, but we played it,” Yusuf says.
After the tragedy their aunt, Zubeida de Villiers, moved into the family’s home and has been their legal guardian ever since. Aneesa is believed to have had financial troubles after their father, Ameen, died two years previously following a long battle with brain cancer. The stress and responsibility of being a single mother threw her into a deep depression.
After the family shooting it took the twins time to deal with the trauma – and each one had their own way of coping. Yusuf turned to a psychologist, whom he saw twice a day while in hospital. “It helped me,” he says. “It even got to the point where we weren’t talking about that. We were playing games and talking about other random stuff.” Yaqoob, on the other hand, drew comfort from friends and family. “For me, speaking to a psychologist didn’t work. I didn’t see the need to speak to someone I didn’t know. I had friends and the people I was staying with who were there for me. That was better.” Preparing for the matric exams was tough, Yusuf says. “I couldn’t really work in class because of my vision impairment,” he says. “I had to download PDFs of the work and use that to study because I couldn’t focus on the board in class.” Bernadino Heights High School made special arrangements for Yusuf, such as enlarging his question papers and allocating him more time and someone to help him write. But it was Yaqoob who supported him the most.
For two hours every day Yaqoob would read Yusuf’s notes to him to help him study. It wasn’t always easy, they say with a laugh. “He had geography and I had IT,” Yaqoob explains. “So I had no idea what I was reading but I knew he’d understand it.” They weren’t the slightest bit nervous the night before the results were released – after all, they knew they’d put in the hard work. Yaqoob bagged two distinctions, one in Afrikaans and the other in information technology. Like his brother, he’s proud he didn’t allow what happened to them to get him down. Both have been accepted at the University of the Western Cape. Yusuf will study psychology while Yaqoob will complete his BSc in physiotherapy.
Last year they were informed that their school had nominated them for the special ministerial award from the Western Cape education department. But discovering they’d won and would meet Western Cape premier Alan Winde came as a complete surprise. “We only found out a day before the awards ceremony,” Yaqoob says. They each received a certificate, badge, cell phone and R10 000 towards their tertiary studies. “We were around smart people!” Yaqoob says with a grin. “It felt special to be recognised for something we had to do anyway, which was pass matric.”