“When my life seemed out of hand—or more literally, lacking hands at all—my dad, God rest his soul, was always there for me,” Aya recalls, fragments of memory conjuring her father’s warm, green eyes. “His voice always soothed me, and I still hear him now in my head, as he sat with me on our worn, red couch, calming me down whenever I freaked out.”
Born without arms, Aya Massoud, now 20, has learned to navigate through life with her feet. Astonishing those around her, Aya’s determination and years of practice (with moral support from her father, who died during surgery five years ago) paid off: She has become so dexterous using her feet that she can use them to comb her hair, eat, chat on social media—and even create art. Aya has learned you don’t need hands to survive, or even be successful.
Developing a 'thick skin'
“I remember the first time I realized that not only am I different, but that some people see me as a freak,” she says. “I was 9 years old, a third grader in science class. It was my first time in a class, since my mother home-schooled me until then. As the teacher explained the first chapter of the textbook, the other students took notes with their pencils—in their hands, of course. I did the same, just like everybody else, but with my foot. I simply put it up on the desk, with the pencil between my toes, like I had practiced at home. I didn’t know it would turn heads; everybody stared, as if I was some sort of wonder, and had a good laugh at me.”
She rushed out of the classroom, shifting her weight between her legs as she went. The other students laughed at the way she ran too. The arms are critical to balance, so Aya has to sort of “waddle.”
“But my father would not stand by, watching me sob in depression,” recalls Aya. “I would not have found the strength to keep going if it weren’t for him. For years, Dad was sort of my physical therapist. He helped me exercise and stretch my feet, a little further each time, until they became very flexible, with an amazing range of motion.”
It took her four years to really master use of her feet as hands. But, she admits, it still “ate me alive” when everyone stared at her each time she walked down the street.
Discovering her hidden talent
“One day, I couldn’t help but notice all the fingers pointing at me when school let out. I pretended to be ok when I got home, but Dad could tell something was wrong. He came up to my room, jumped into my bed and pretended to fall asleep, gradually pushing me out until there was no room for me. Only then did I start pushing him back, until he let himself drop to the floor. He acted like he was in pain, which of course got me to check on him. Then he leapt up to his feet and danced, saying I had helped ‘heal’ him. To reciprocate, he told me that I am a girl with thick skin, and it should take more than stares to rattle me. In fact, he convinced me that people only stare at the ‘greats.’”
That attitude helped, but it continues to be difficult.
“I felt frustrated whenever a cab driver passed me by, as if I was a heavy burden to carry. It devastated me even more when I wasn’t allowed into a regular school until we begged everyone in our power. We had to beg the staff to empathize with my case,” Aya recalls. “One day, when I was feeling like a real outcast, Dad tried to distract me by challenging me to draw something with my foot. The grouchy smurf was the first image that popped into my mind, so I tried to draw one, which turned out not too bad for a handless 12-year-old.”
The proud look on her father’s face prompted Aya to keep drawing—with his encouragement, of course. The next day, she found a stack of paper and pencils on her desk. Despite the struggle to keep food on the table, her father had bought the supplies. She surfed the web, looking for drawing tips. It wasn’t an easy task to master the fine control she needed in her toes, but she gradually improved.
When her father became very ill, she began work on a self-portrait to cheer him up. However, she did not finish in time. On 8 March 2014, Aya’s father underwent major abdominal surgery; he didn’t survive.
Today, Aya pours her heart into her artwork, in his honor. In her artwork, Aya stands up for anyone victimized by tyranny. Many of her drawings are portraits of Palestinians killed by Israeli snipers while protesting in the weekly Great Return March. In other drawings, she advocates for women’s rights. She features them on her Instagram account, which has drawn followers from Turkey, Slovenia, Qatar and Spain.
Aya dreams of expanding her work to paintings, although canvas and paint are expensive in Gaza. She also would like to set up her own gallery.
“But I can’t afford to do that on my own,” Aya admits. “The only way I can do this is with the help of a sponsor. Still, my dad taught me to be a woman who gets what she goes after. I won’t give up; I will make sure my voice reaches around the world.”