My wheelchair was recently detained at Medina Airport, Saudi Arabia because it has batteries in it and I found out that I am never getting it back. This time I am not fighting anyone but will use my energy to celebrate the memories with this wheelchair though I sit here typing all of this while holding my tears.
Let me share with you the story of this wheelchair.
I was invited to speak at Asia-Pacific Youth Dialogue in Chengdu, China in September 2016 by UNESCO. Once I reached there, I found my own wheelchair was broken at the baggage collection. After checking in the Hotel, my friend and volunteer, Kua took me to a wheelchair shop to buy a new one. I immediately fell in love with this one. It was a beautiful blue colored one with features of auto but could switch to manual too. Upon seeing it, I tried it and took it around the local fruit market next to the shop. It was hard for me to stop imagining all the possibilities that could now happen. I imagined myself like those cool bikers with shades on who keep on riding and don’t stop to pay heed to the on-lookers. I imagined passing by people in Pakistan staring at me with awe. I also imagined making entries to weddings in Pakistan and at the tail of my reverie, thought of my making an entry on my big day. Because why not!
I soon realized that I was carrying USDs which would not work in China so I handed my passport to the shop owner and took the wheelchair. My plan was to ask my organizers to help me get my USDs exchanged. The next day I took the matter with Kai our host from Perfect World, a Chinese private sector partner company sponsoring the Dialogue. He took my USDs and told me to relax and enjoy the experience. The very next day he handed me my passport and handed me my USDs with a smile saying that the wheelchair will be a gift from Perfect World. This left me surprised and I wanted to protest but Kai assured me that this was their way of supporting my activism and my work. I wish I could tell him how much this gift has made a difference to me and to my work.
I was skeptical about moving around in an electric wheelchair in Pakistan because of limited accessibility but ramps kept popping out because now they had to. For the first time I felt no need to ask for ramps and just get your ride out and about and the access will follow. I realized roads are being build because cars need to be accommodated so why can’t this be applied to my ride? For the first time I kept quiet and let the wheelchair do the talking. Restaurants started putting up tiny ramps and people found ways to fit this in their cars, on the seats if not in the trunk. It was as if I had found answers. I was able to hit the streets in my own and other countries and experience culture, food and shopping. I would catch up with my friends and was able to run errands for my colleagues but last week has been the cherry on top of it.
I visited Medina and Makkah on this wheelchair. In Medina I took it to Riyaz ul Jannah twice and prayed there. This is a space within the Al-Masjid an-Nabawi known as being a space as holy and part of paradise according to the following Hadith by Prophet Muhammad (saw),
“Between my house and my pulpit lays a garden from the gardens of Paradise, and my pulpit is upon my fountain (Al-Kauthar).” [Bukhari]
In Mecca, I performed complete Umrah on this wheelchair. I took this wheelchair all the way to the Holy Kaba’h and touched it for the first time. When all three members of my family got sick due to weather change, I was able to bring food and medicines for them because of this wheelchair. In my head, I started calling it my ‘assetization’. From a disabled individual I became an asset with a plus one and could physically help my peers with my upgradation. This helped me understand why we must make people with disabilities more independent. Because then they can bring you food and medicine when you are sick!
On the day of my return flight. With no surprises, I was first asked to check in my wheelchair at the counter which I refused to as I always do that at the aircraft door. By then I have the surety that I have crossed all red flags and my wheelchair is not a threat. I was then stopped at the next checking and made to switch the wheelchair. My brother was made to take the wheelchair back and check it in. He protested and fought my case on my behalf but they took it from him after scanning it a couple of times. On returning to Pakistan I was told they never loaded it. Partially I knew this would happen because in May 2016 when I was a state guest in Riyadh, my wheelchair was detained upon leaving Saudi Arabia. My protest then made me miss my flight and miss my law exam the next day. They let me take it the next day on my organizer’s request. But this article is not about policies, people who make them and people who they are applied to. It’s just about love. Even though it reached me through a machine.
My favorite ability of mine has been to accept letting go whether its people or objects that hold value for me. I wish this wheelchair reaches a user and empowers that individual with my essence. I hope the end of this story is a never ending love story.
New York, USA
UPDATE: So I get a call from my brother earlier this week that Shaheen Airline managed to get my wheelchair back and delivered it to me. The team at the airline also read this article and gave me a shout out. I have received my wheelchair back and after a trip to the workshop, I have started to use it again. I am happy and obliged and continue to enjoy this gift for my activism. I will also continue to raise my voice and be vocal about the right to Independent living on Airports and around.