Ridah Khan is standing on the green lawns of the Western Cape premier’s residence with photographers surrounding him and reporters asking questions.
Less than two months ago, the Atlantis matriculant had to write his exams under police guard at a police station because gangsters were out to get him.
The modest and softly-spoken man is one of three Western Cape pupils recognised for their incredible resilience in almost unspeakable circumstances, and the bag he is holding contains the Premier’s Award for exceptional academic achievement and inspirational fortitude.
Speaking on the sidelines of the event at Premier Alan Winde’s official residence Leeuwenhof, where the province’s top matric achievers were honoured, Khan shows few signs of the severe physical and mental torture he endured as he completed his final year of school.
He told News24 it was during the fasting period of Ramadaan when he and a group of friends out walking were attacked by a group of gangsters.
Khan was beaten so severely over the head with a brick that for a while he had memory loss. The friends tried their best to be safe after surviving the attack, even arranging for transport that would drop them right inside the grounds of Protea Technical High School in Atlantis.
But the gangsters were relentless.
In the third term, one of his friends was so severely assaulted he was in hospital for almost a month with a lung that kept collapsing.
“It was tough for us,” said Kahn.
Realising it was not even safe to go to school, arrangements were made for them to write their matric exams at the police station, and for police to escort them.
“For the final term, I told myself ‘even if it’s life or death, I’m still gonna [write], because I’m not going to throw it all away’.”
His friend, whose lungs kept collapsing, could not write.
Strangely, the safety of the police station had a calming effect on him, Khan said.
“I felt like kind of safe at the police station, because there was a lot of police around. Writing at the school wasn’t like that. For me it was … I still … I felt terrified…” he added, trailing off.
He passed his matric with a Bachelor’s and wants to study information technology at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology.
“Many people twice his age would have given up, but not him,” said the Western Cape Education Department’s Archie Lewis, who described Khan’s journey to the guests gathered for the event.
Twins Yaqoop and Yusuf Arrison of Bernadino Heights High School lost their father to cancer when they were in their mid-teens.
Their mother, bereft, deeply depressed, and financially distressed, decided to end her life.
But she decided that she could not leave her boys behind – she would kill them first, and then kill herself.
In January 2017, she suddenly opened fire on her sons.
She shot and killed their 21-year-old brother and then shot Yaqoop, hitting him in the hand, and Yusuf in the head. She then shot herself.
Lewis told tearful guests, who were shaking their heads in sorrow, that despite being injured himself, Yaqoop picked Yusuf up and ran for their lives. They were 14 years old at the time.
Yusuf sustained damage to his brain and sight because of the head wound. As the twins went up to get their award, the scars could still be seen on Yusuf’s head – one a long gash behind the ear where hair can no longer grow.
He achieved a Bachelor’s pass with impressive achievement despite needing a reader and scribe to assist with reading and writing his examination answers.
Yaqoop, who carried him to safety while he was bleeding and shocked by events, achieved two distinctions, one in Afrikaans, and the other in information technology. He also read his brother’s class work to him, completely out of his depth at times because they had taken completely different subjects.
He was placed 11th in his class and received a Bachelor’s pass.
A flicker of sadness could be seen on their faces when they were asked by reporters to recall their tragedy, but they brightened quickly. Yaqoop said they had received counselling while being medically treated and at school.
“She decided to take us with, and we survived. We are here today,” he added.
Yaqoop has been accepted to study psychology at the University of Western Cape, and Yusuf is leaning more towards something in the music industry, with his sights set on a degree from film school AFDA.