Small steps down a long road
A treadmill at Inova Rehabilitation Center moved at little more than a half-mile per hour and Ali Mohamed whistled while he kept pace.
The hydraulic knees on his prosthetic legs were bending with every step. Ali’s brow beaded lightly with sweat and he could feel the muscles in his thighs working to move the plastic-based limbs that were attached like suction cups to his lower body.
He’d been walking for five minutes — halfway toward his goal.
One day, he thought as he stared out a window that overlooks a parking lot, he might walk 10 miles without holding onto guard rails. One day.
For the first time since robbers threw a bomb into his home in Mogadishu, Somalia, 11 years ago, Ali is hopeful of walking on his own again. The treadmill is his first step toward independence.
“I like to be free to do what I want,” Ali said during a recent physical therapy session. “I would like to do everything like a regular person. I want to be treated like everyone else.”
Ali is clearly different from most 19-year-olds. He has spent the past four years in a wheelchair. Before his family was able to flee the civil strife of their homeland and move to America, he got around by walking on his hands.
When Ali was 8, his father and one of his uncles were killed by men he describes as “militia” in a robbery attempt. That night, he was awakened by an explosion in his living room. He’d been asleep on the floor. The bomb also killed his grandmother who was sleeping next to him.
His family fled to a refugee camp in Kenya believing he was dead, too.
“What happened to my family that night was trouble. Militia people tried to rob our house. They thought we had money,” Ali said. “I don’t remember a lot. It’s still difficult. That life was so hard.”
Ali knows all about the civil war that has plagued Somalia for much of his lifetime, but he doesn’t dwell on it. He prefers to smile and look ahead to a high school diploma, a part-time job, American citizenship and raising money to buy $100,000 computerized “C-legs” that will enable him to move around without a wheelchair.
Which is why physical therapist Lisa Kelly wasn’t the least bit surprised when, right in the middle of a workout, Ali grabbed the white towel draped around the collar of his brand new short-sleeve, button down red shirt and began singing, “I’m a Survivor.”
“He’s in here doing things that are very challenging physically and he’s always smiling, singing and telling jokes. Those are three constants with him,” Kelly said.
Three afternoons a week, Ali goes through a series of demanding physical exercises designed to strengthen his body and build endurance so that he can stand — and walk — for longer periods of time. It was his idea to try the treadmill.
Ali is always willing to attempt something new, even if it might appear somewhat dubious on the surface. Like the afternoon Kelly presented him with a form-fitting wrap that she wants him to wear when he’s not using his prosthetic legs at home:
“Ali, I have something for you,” Kelly said.
“Is it something nice?” he asked.
“It’s a shrinker,” Kelly told him.
“Oh, I thought it was money,” Ali said, laughing.
Laughter comes easily to Ali. It is his natural way of expressing gratitude to the people in Woodbridge who have helped change his life from one of pain and constant fear to one of hope.
“He’s like a little comedian,” said his 38-year-old sister Zahra, who is responsible for bringing Ali and the rest of her family to America in 1999. “He is so happy because he never thought he’d have a life like this.”
“Some people when they see me they say I smile a lot and I’m happy. That’s just my personality,” Ali agreed. “If you put yourself down you’ll never grow as a person. If you try, you can get far.”
Ali and his family traveled across the world to create a new life for themselves in America, arriving in New York from Kenya four years ago and then relocating in Woodbridge, where Zahra has lived with her husband, Jabril, since 1989.
The modest two-bedroom, ground-level apartment they occupy in Woodbridge is small and the floor has been damaged twice by floods but, other than the sour smell of wet carpet, Ali has few complaints. He is an aspiring chef who loves to cook spaghetti, enjoys watching the Washington Wizards on television and is addicted to afternoon soap operas — especially “The Bold and the Beautiful.”
It is at school, however, where Ali thrives. Despite coming to the U.S. with no formal education, he is well-versed in English, is on his favorite teacher’s “superstar list” at Gar-Field High School and has passed the Standards of Learning exam — on the first try.
Next spring, Ali will receive a high school diploma.
“I never went to school in my country,” he explained. “I’m so happy to be getting a diploma from high school. When you have that, you can do whatever you want. When you have that, you can make your life here.”
Ali spent nearly half of his life — from 1991 to 1999 — in Nairobi, Kenya, learning to become self sufficient without the benefit of legs. He didn’t have a wheelchair so his arms and hands became Ali’s only form of transportation.
The bomb that destroyed his home and killed his grandmother severely injured Ali. He nearly bled to death and lost both legs from the thigh down.
After Ali’s father and uncle were also murdered in the robbery attempt, his mother, Isnina, fled the country for shelter in Kenya. She left almost everything behind, including Ali who was presumed to be dead.
Civil war and political upheaval besieged Somalia long before Ali was born in 1983, but turmoil on Egypt’s eastern shore was especially severe the year that his family’s home was destroyed.
According to figures provided by the U.S. Committee for Refugees, an estimated 800,000 homeless Somalis journeyed to neighboring countries between 1991 and 1992. The Mohameds were among those who sought asylum, including Ali’s younger sister, Samira, 18, and three brothers — Adbulahi, 24, Salad, 23, and Yonis, 21.
The violence in Somalia became so severe by 1992 that military troops from the United States and other nations entered the country to distribute food and aid. In the capital of Mogadishu and most of the south, savage warfare erupted between rival sub clans and almost a quarter of the population faced starvation because of the fighting.
“When everything happened, they ran away,” Zahra said, explaining that the family walked to a nearby city, Chisimayu, before finding a boat that carried homeless refugees into Kenya.
It wasn’t until three months later that Isnina heard from neighbors that her youngest son was alive in a Somalian hospital.
She borrowed $200 from Zahra and paid a man to drive his truck more than 500 miles from Nairobi to get him. It cost another $800 to charter a shuttle plane back to Kenya.
“It’s difficult for him to talk about what happened,” Zahra said. “He does not remember, but somebody told him that neighbors picked him up and took him to the hospital. He was bleeding a lot.”
The Mohameds spent three months in a refugee camp before Zahra found out from a relative in Nairobi where they were. By then, she’d become a U.S. citizen and was working as a sales associate and customer service representative.
Money was tight, but Zahra didn’t want her family to remain in a refugee camp, so she paid for them to live in an apartment in Nairobi for more than seven years. She also helped pay for food and contacted the Immigration and Naturalization Service to begin the paperwork that would eventually bring them all together in America.
Zahra arrived in Woodbridge near the height of all the hostilities. After she left Somalia, she didn’t see her family again for 10 years.
“When I left, [Ali] was the age of my youngest son,” said Zahra, who married Jabril in 1989 and is now the mother of four children: Liban, 12, Yonis, 8, Mohidin, 6, and Amal, 3.
It was through Zahra’s sponsorship that a family reunion was possible.
Zahra, who graduated from high school in Somalia and attended college in India for three years, became a U.S. citizen in the early ’90s. She now works in the computer information field. Jabril is a technician.
Ali is also fascinated with computers. He’s already inquired about taking college courses and wants to pursue a career in computer technology like his uncle.
“He’s getting a chance to do things he never thought he’d do,” Zahra said.
That includes flying in a jet for the first time and cooking for his family when his mother is at work. Ali is a whiz in the kitchen with soup, Somalia pancakes and spaghetti being among his favorite delicacies.
“I love to make spaghetti,” he said, explaining that the secret is all in the sauce, which he makes with ground beef, onions, green peppers, pepperoni and just a touch of garlic.
“Garlic,” he insists, “makes it smell good.”
Cooking for his family is just part of Ali’s American dream. Like the rest of his brothers and sisters, he wants to become a U.S. citizen.
Ever since the Immigration and Naturalization Service made arrangements to fly his family to New York in 1999, Mohamed has embraced the culture, language and ideals of his new country.
One of his recent clothing purchases was a pair of Khaki pants, which he wore during a rehabilitation session.
Like a diploma, Ali is looking forward to the day that he can recite the ‘Pledge of Allegiance’ and know that it is meant for him, too. He already knows the words by heart, along with parts of the constitution and key moments in American history.
“Some people from the United States don’t know a lot about history. In class, they ask me,” said Ali, who considers Franklin Roosevelt one of our country’s most important men.
Ali soaks up American history because he understands and appreciates what America stands for — freedom and opportunity.
It took a couple of years for the Mohameds to acclimate themselves to the U.S. They lived with Zahra for six months and then moved into their own apartment. Zahra made the rent payments until Isnina and Ali’s older brothers could find part-time jobs.
They’ve applied for green cards, but after three years are still awaiting approval from the INS.
After that, it will be another five years before Ali can pursue citizenship. It’s difficult to wait, but he doesn’t fret. According to his learning lab teacher, Jean Ellerbe, the first English words Ali learned were, “don’t worry, be happy.”
“I first met Ali in 1999 when he literally rolled into my classroom at Gar-Field with Mr. Stan Jones, his guidance counselor at the time. Ali flashed his million-dollar smile that day and I have never seen Ali in a bad mood,” Ellerbe said. “Ali has assimilated into the American school system with all the good and bad that comes with trying to fit into a new culture.”
The only bad for Ali came during his first year at Gar-Field. For several months, he felt out of place, not because he was in a wheelchair, but because he didn’t understand what was going on around him.
“At first, it was so difficult. I thought everyone was laughing at me because I couldn’t speak English,” he said. “The first year it was a different culture, different language, different people. It was very hard. I failed all my classes in the beginning because I didn’t understand English.
“Now, I have a lot of friends at school who make me happy. They’re nice, all of them.”
His closest friends are in Ellerbe’s class. When he had an operation a couple years ago to repair a bone that was protruding through the skin of his thigh, his classmates all sent get-well cards.
Earlier this month, as a class assignment, they wrote letters to Oprah Winfrey, telling her about Ali’s desire to purchase the expensive legs that will help him to walk again.
In one of those letters, Furgan Altaf wrote, “Ali was eight years old when he went through a horrible night. Some robbers tried to rob his house in Somalia. They bombed the house and half of his family died. Ali was very lucky. He was one of the survivors but, sadly lost his legs along with his dad and grandmother.
“Ali is in the U.S. and goes to Gar-Field. He is in my class and I love being in the same class as him. I hope the best for him. I love to help him out in anyway.”
Ali prefers to do most things for himself, including climbing the stairs that lead to his apartment building. He accomplishes that feat by folding his wheelchair, grabbing it with both hands and lifting it over his head. Then, he uses his arms to scoot his body up each step.
After four years, getting up and down stairways is as routine as maneuvering through the crowded hallways at Gar-Field, where he often exchanges high-fives with other students on his way to class.
Once the bell rings, he is there to learn like every other student.
“He was placed in my learning lab class, a class where students receive help with their other classes, and he chose to sit in a desk and not at a table. He would roll into class, park his wheelchair, and shift into a desk,” Ellerbe said.
It didn’t take long before Ali’s fun-loving personality overshadowed his initial insecurities.
“I have a tradition that the day before a long break (winter and spring), we devote a class for students to share their talents and this is where my first and lasting memory of Ali comes in,” Ellerbe said. “We had the usual talents of poetry reading, singing, and showing art work. Then, one of the students brought a CD and did a break dance exhibition.
“After the student finished, the music was still playing and Ali, without any hesitation, jumped out of his desk and proceeded to break dance like a pro,” she continued. “We were all in awe and caused quite a noise with our cheering him on. It was a day that all of us there will remember.”
Some of Ali’s fondest memories are from learning lab. It is his favorite class and Ellerbe, whom he calls “Miss Jean,” is his favorite teacher.
“I love everybody, but Miss Jean is special,” said Ali, who despite teasing from classmates once made Ellerbe a pillow in art class.
“I’ve been in her class four years. She helps me all the time,” he explained. “She’s a nice person.”
The study hall environment has helped Ali flourish academically. He excels in math and history and has an awareness of the world around him that surpasses many of his peers.
During a recent study session, Ali was the only one in his class who could identify British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
“What he’s accomplished in four years is extraordinary. He’s working really hard and he has goals for himself,” Ali’s guidance counselor Kathy Parish said.
One of those goals is to attend college and the faculty at Gar-Field is doing its best to help him get there.
Parish is assisting in Ali’s effort to find an after-school job, and principal Roger Dallek helped finance the cost when Ali wanted to sign up for a summer school earth science class that is not associated with the English as a Second Language curriculum.
Ali not only passed the class, but the accompanying SOL exam as well.
“He doesn’t have a lot of the independence that other kids his age have,” Parish said. “We’re looking at getting him an internship, maybe working with computers, so he can get familiar with what it’s like to be in a work environment. We’re shooting for that next year.
“He can be stubborn and very opinionated. He definitely has ideas about things,” Parish said, with a knowing laugh, “but he’s totally grateful for his life here.”
Ali’s optimism is what makes it possible for him to endure challenging physical therapy sessions. He has seen the documentary that shows a man with computerized legs carrying a child down a flight of stairs. It’s what pushes him when he’s tired and sore.
“With bilateral leg amputations above the knee it is significantly harder to walk,” Kelly said. “It takes so much more effort. We did therapy for three or four months just to strengthen his arms and leg muscles before we ever fit him with the prosthetics.
“When he first put the legs on he was blown away by how hard it is. He said he’d never be able to walk in them.”
It has taken eight months for Ali to walk confidently from one room to another and it still requires significant effort. He is much more comfortable — and faster — in his wheelchair. The walker he uses for support and the mechanical nature of the legs make moving a tedious process.
“You have to push him, but in the back of his mind he knows if he doesn’t push himself he won’t make progress,” Kelly said.
Because he trusts her, Ali will try just about anything. After spending 10 minutes of endurance training on the treadmill during a recent session, he rested for 60 seconds and then tested his balance by throwing a 2-pound ball the size of a shot put against a mini trampoline 200 consecutive times.
“The first time he put the legs on we had to help him stand up. He was on the parallel bars and he was holding himself up with his arms and not putting any weight on his legs,” Kelly said. “It took two or three sessions for him to put pressure on his legs.
“His muscles fatigued quickly. They’d be burning because he was working so hard just to stand for 60 seconds,” she continued. “It was a lot of work for him just to stand up, but he’s made progress every time he’s come in. Now, he can walk up to 17 minutes on the treadmill without stopping even though the pace is very slow.”
Recently, the prosthetics have posed another problem as well. Occasionally, they slip out of place.
Since being fitted for the legs in June, Ali has lost weight. The suction cup ends that attach to his limbs aren’t as snug as they used to be and he doesn’t like to wear them at the apartment.
He dreams of the day when he can use the “C-legs” instead.
To Ali, they’re almost magical. They are, at the very least, revolutionary. The computerized hydraulic legs allow more flexibility than the conventional mechanical prosthetics Ali currently uses.
The C-legs operate with an electronic chip that locks, bends and moves the knee joints according to changes in speed.
“Right now, the control of the knee is all manual. Ali is putting forth all the effort. With the C-legs, a computer can sense how his body is moving and how it’s positioned,” Kelly said. “He’s frustrated now because the legs he’s using don’t fit right and he’s very reluctant to take them home. It required a lot of pushing.”
Each time Ali has a moment of doubt, he turns to a careworn photo for inspiration.
It is from Zahra’s scrapbook and Ali looks at it so often that a crease now bends directly through its middle. It is frayed at the corners and has been trimmed at the top by scissors.
After more than a decade, time and travel have taken its toll. Even the inscription, written in Somalian, has begun to fade on the back.
Ali delicately holds the 4×6 picture and looks at the image of a thin, lanky boy standing on his own legs in front of a wooded stage background. The 9-year-old has a hand on his left hip and is staring straight into the camera.
The cherished keepsake is Ali’s only remaining link to his homeland and to a way of life he left behind 10 years ago.
It gives him comfort and hope.
“I never thought I’d be able to walk again,” Ali said. “Sometimes it’s difficult. All the time I try to do the best that I can, but you can do whatever you want when you have legs.”