In 1993, Dareen Barbar had to have her left leg amputated due to bone cancer. She was only 15. For many, it could have meant the end of life as they knew it. But on June 4, almost 28 years to the day later, Dareen earned a place in history when she set a Guinness World Record for the longest static wall sit.
The static wall sit involves having your back pressed against the wall with your knees positioned at 90 degrees to the ground, directly above your heels. For most people, it is an excrutiatingly difficult position to maintain for more than a few seconds. Dareen, a 43-year-old mother-of-two from Dubai, managed two minutes and 8.34 seconds and she did it with one leg and a prosthetic limb.
Dareen’s surgery was what’s known as a high amputation – above the knee and close to the hip. But it has not stopped her pushing herself and reaching for her goals. She was the first Arab amputee to take part in the Supersprint Triathlon in Dubai in 2018 and has embarked on a successful career as an athlete, personal trainer and life coach.
As a schoolgirl in her native Lebanon she loved playing basketball but after losing her leg, all her motivation seeped away.
“Society stereotypes people like me. You feel useless,” she says. “I thought I couldn’t do anything and in Lebanon, there wasn’t much opportunity, especially after the war there, so I didn’t try.”
But an accident in 2013, when she broke her left hip and needed to have two pins inserted, forced a rethink.
“That woke me up,” she says. “By then, I was married and had just had my second child. My doctor told me this was the kind of injury that might happen when you’re 65. I was 35 and overweight. I wasn’t taking care of myself because I wasn’t a priority to myself. I realized that as a mother, I had to change so I could take care of my kids. I needed to be healthy for them.”
She went from 80 kg to 55kg by eating healthily – “not by crash dieting, which is unsustainable, but by changing my relationship with food” – and by going to the gym, a place she says she had never dared set foot in before. “My husband had to come with me at first, to show me how to use the equipment.”
Taking part in a triathlon is no mean feat for anyone but for Dareen it involved extra challenges. Although she uses a prosthetic leg, she didn’t have one that was designed for running and had to find a sponsor. The Al Jalila Foundation, the non-profit dedicated to medical innovation founded by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, helped.
Triathlon involves long-distance cycling but simply getting on a bike was scary for her.
“Once you’re strapped into the pedals, if you fall there’s nothing to stop you,” she says. “But able-bodied people have that problem, too. I like triathlon because everyone goes at their own pace. You are basically competing with yourself. And cycling is now my favorite sport.”
Dareen’s record marked the launch of the Guinness World Records (GWR) Impairment Records Initiative, which introduces 23 new classification categories giving people with physical, intellectual and visual impairments the potential to set hundreds of new records.
“It will make GWR instantly more relevant and accessible to millions of people around the world,” said Adam Brown, the organisation’s director of records.
Apart from improving her own health and fitness, Dareen says her main aim is to inspire others.
“When I lost my leg, people were surprised to see I was still going to school. I’ve faced pity from countless people, even though I am stronger and more able than them. It’s hurtful. I suffered a lot back in 1993. There was no social media and no one I could ask for support.
“When I lost weight, I felt this was a lifestyle I could embrace but I wanted it to have a purpose. I had to overcome all my insecurities, not just about only having one leg but about being surrounded by lots of good bodies in the gym. But as I saw results, my confidence grew. I started to see that I AM able and whatever I achieve this year, next year I can do more.
“I had no one to guide me but when I see other people of determination, I see myself in them and I am honored to share my life and experience and be a role model.”
She took her own inspiration from Terry Fox, a Canadian athlete who also lost a leg to cancer and ran the equivalent of a marathon every day across Canada to raise money and awareness for cancer research in 1980. Dareen began studying online and in 2015, qualified as a fitness coach. She has trained other amputees, still competes in triathlons and is also in demand as a motivational speaker at corporate events for big brands such as L’Oreal and Estee Lauder. In 2017, she was the first Arab to take part in the World Beauty, Fitness and Fashion show in London
She acknowledges the work the UAE leadership is doing to promote the full integration into society of people of determination, but urges members of the disabled community to be proactive.
“The government is changing mindsets. I could not have done what I’ve done in Lebanon. Here I live with dignity and I have rights. It’s up to us as people of determination to get out there. We need more courage and more encouragement.”
Anna Pukas has reported from all over the world as a foreign correspondent for British media. She is now an editor based in Abu Dhabi.