Lauren Joy Fleishman Ibrahima Ndiaye with his daughters Marieme (left) and Ndeye at home in Cardiff, Wales, in January.
When his conjoined twin daughters were born in 2016, Ibrahima Ndiaye was warned they wouldn't have long to live– babies like his, he learned, rarely survive childbirth and if they do, they usually die soon after delivery.
But on a recent January day in the living room of their cramped apartment in Cardiff, Wales, Ndiaye is watching 6-year-old Marieme and Ndeye sing a favorite tune together with a wide smile on his face. Together his daughters sway to the tune, one body dancing in time as their two voices blend. "Well done!" he tells them, clapping and laughing.
His girls have defied all expectations, and Ibrahima wants them to continue to see a future filled with possibility. "I constantly tell them how beautiful they are to God, who created them, and how special they should feel," he tells PEOPLE in this week's issue. "How can anyone not see they are special? They're my miracles."
Conjoined twins are extremely rare, occurring in 1 out of an estimated 60,000 births, and when Marieme and Ndeye were born in Ibrahima's homeland of Senegal, it was "a massive shock," he says. Despite multiple scans, doctors hadn't detected that his wife was having twins. "And then when I first saw the girls, I realized nothing in my life was going to be the same." He also realized he'd need to look beyond Senegal for the help his daughters needed.
Ibrahima, who had been working as a managing director of a tourism firm, began researching hospitals that had experience in separating conjoined twins. The girls each have a heart and their own lungs, but they share a stomach, a liver, a bladder and a digestive system, making an operation to separate them all the more difficult. Eventually the Great Ormond Street Hospital in London offered to see them.
With financial help from a charity run by Senegal's first lady, Marieme Faye Sall (daughter Marieme was named in her honor), Ibrahima, his wife and their girls, then seven months old, traveled to the U.K. in February 2017. But once there, doctors discovered Marieme's heart was too weak to survive an operation. They advised him to go ahead with the procedure in hopes of saving Ndeye. "It was sacrificing one for the other, which in my moral, spiritual and parental point of view wasn't possible," Ibrahima says. "I said no."'
By then, Ibrahima had been let go from his job, and his wife had returned to Senegal. (Her contact with the twins now consists of occasional phone calls.) Alone with his daughters in a country where he was still learning the language, Ibrahima made the painful decision not to return home: "It was a choice between my life in Senegal or giving the girls the health care they needed to survive."
Lauren Joy Fleishman Marieme (left) and Ndeye outside their home in Cardiff.
In 2018 the trio moved to a public housing apartment in Cardiff, where they began attending public school. "They love school," says head teacher Helen Borley. "The other children are very accepting. They just see Marieme and Ndeye—they see two children. And we do too."
At school, the girls work on separate tasks at their shared desk (Ndeye is keeping up with her classmates, while Marieme has some learning delays), and chatter and play with separate groups of friends. "Ndeye is more of a social butterfly and likes to be noticed and Marieme is quieter, but if you talk about cats she'll get involved," says their teacher Rhiannon Watckins. "Their determination and joy in life despite the challenges is inspirational."
Despite their differences, and the fact that they cannot escape one another, squabbles are rare. "It's incredible; they work in concert most of the time," says Elleni Ross, head of social work at Great Ormond Street, who has worked with the family. "Ibrahima has guided them on how to be kind to each other. He's so patient with them, and their faces light up when he comes in the room. Ibrahima tells them they're special, not disabled."
Juliet Butler Twins Marieme and Ndeye making faces at home in January.
There are, however, serious challenges. Caring for the twins, who cannot yet stand or walk on their own (each girl controls one leg and one arm; they can both move their third arm), is demanding physically, mentally and financially. (A GoFundMe page has been set up to help with expenses.) Now that they weigh more than 77 lbs., Ibrahima, who, at 6 ́8", suffers from back pain, can't easily pick them up.
They do practice standing with a support board at school ("Ndeye loves to show off," Watckins says. "As soon as I get her in the standing frame she wants me to open the door so all the other children can see her in it.") but they won't learn to walk for a few years. "Their top half is heavy, their legs are weak, and we don't know how walking will affect Marieme's heart," Ibrahima says.
The girls need supervision day and night to ensure Ndeye doesn't roll over and accidentally suffocate her smaller sister. And except for their night carers, who rotate the girls every hour in their sleep, Ibrahima does it all. "It's taken a toll on him," Ross says.
Hanging over everything is the knowledge that the twins' fates are inextricably linked—Marieme's heart may be fragile and Ndeye's strong, but one cannot survive without the other. Thinking too much about the future can be overwhelming. Instead, Ibrahima takes things "one day at a time, one hour at a time." But, he says, he's grateful for the chance to be their dad: "People see me as being in a difficult situation. I see myself as a lucky parent. I am blessed to be part of their journey."