The world on wheels7 min read . Updated: 22 Jul 2011, 08:02 PM IST
The world on wheels
The world on wheels
While on my way to meet Mohoram Ali at a coffee shop in Paharganj, Delhi, I wondered how he was going to get there. As I got off an autorickshaw, I saw him stepping out of one too. A makeshift wheelchair, folded and slipped into the auto, accompanied him. A small, agile man—the left side of Mohoram’s body is paralysed by polio—he stood on one leg and hopped up to the restaurant, cheerfully looking at the waiters who readily picked up his chair and placed it next to his table. No words were exchanged, only smiles. Perhaps that’s how people will help him as he travels around the world.
Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Tibet, China, Kazakhstan, Russia, Ukraine, Poland, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, England, Ireland and finally the US—26-year-old Mohammad Mohoram Ali has marked out his route, a distance of 18,700km, raised most of the estimated $24,000 (around Rs10.68 lakh) for the trip, called friends across countries and is depending on “humanity’s goodwill" in countries where he knows no one.
“My mission has two parts: I want to draw the world’s attention to the fact that disabled people can do just about anything they want to. Secondly, I want to propose to world leaders that they set up a world disability fund. Something like the World Bank, from where local agencies can draw money for welfare work. There’s no such thing (currently)," he says.
Also see | The World On Wheels (PDF)
His initiative, Mohoram’s Wheels, was launched on 25 June in Dhaka and will end in Washington, DC, where he hopes to arrive by the end of the year. He is currently in Delhi to get his Irish, Ukrainian and Kazakh visas and hopes to meet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Born in Dokhinpur village in Natore district, about 220km north of Dhaka, Mohoram was afflicted with polio when he was 18 months old. “My mother tells me that in the morning it struck my leg and by evening my whole left side was paralysed," he says.
For two years, baby Mohoram was taken to village quacks who gave him “something like holy water" and “Allah’s blessings" to cure him. “They told my parents not to take me to a hospital or their medicine won’t work. After two-three years, when I was finally taken to a hospital, the doctors said it was too late. In 1997, my father sold our land and went to work as a labourer in Malaysia. He wanted to earn money for me, thinking that I won’t be able to work on the farm. At that time, little did he know, or even I, where I would be 14 years from then," says Mohoram.
Luckily the Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee (BRAC), which works with poor people, had a schooling programme near Mohoram’s village. With no wheelchair or even a crutch, Mohoram would hop on one leg all the way to school. “It was a dirt track that would get washed away in the monsoons. So I was irregular in school," he explains.
But, he laughs, “Of my family—father, mother, a brother and two sisters—I am the most educated. I failed my matriculation exam thrice before finally clearing it. My family members can only do their signatures, which rarely match in two places."
In 2002, Mohoram learnt about the Centre for the Rehabilitation of the Paralysed (CRP) in Savar, Dhaka. Spread over 13 acres, it is a hospital for spinal injuries and physiotherapy, and provides vocational training courses. “I landed up there and asked for a job. I was unqualified. But they took me in training as the director said he liked my spirit. I was hired for 2,500 taka (around Rs1,500) per month. Till the day I sent my first salary home, my parents opposed it and were unconvinced that I could manage on my own. I did odd jobs like paperwork, sitting at the reception and answering queries in the beginning, but now I work as supporting staff of the physiotherapy department," says Mohoram. Shafiqul Islam, executive director at the centre, has had to hire a temporary replacement for Mohoram over these six months, but he speaks of him as a dynamic worker. “The most remarkable thing about Mohoram is his strength of mind. That will definitely take him places," he says.
In September 2007, Mohoram travelled 35km on his wheelchair to Gulshan, an affluent neighbourhood of Dhaka. “I wanted to raise money for my centre. I had to do something out of the ordinary to get attention and funds. So we sent out invitation letters to the media about my initiative and I pushed my wheelchair for 10 hours and 15 minutes and reached my destination. We raised 125,000 taka. That day changed me," recalls Mohoram. “It gave me the confidence to make more journeys, to places beyond Dhaka."
In November the same year, Mohoram decided to travel to India. “My centre helped me to get an Indian visa but the Indian embassy’s office in Dhaka is completely inaccessible by wheelchair. There is no elevator and the visa office is on the third floor. From the security guard to the visa officer, everyone took turns to tell me how I couldn’t do this on my own. It took a few hours and some persistence; by the end of the day I had my visa stamped. Since then, many people behind many counters have told me how I cannot do things that I’ve eventually done," he says. Mohoram then took a bus from Dhaka to Kolkata, got overcharged at the hotel he was staying, and then took a train to Bangalore, where he had an acquaintance.
“I roamed around Bangalore for 17 days like a tourist. That trip made me realize that the world is not limited to Bangladesh, it is big, and since then my dreams have become bigger."
Mohoram was ready to take on the world. Once he reaches Moscow, his current wheelchair will be replaced by a GPS-enabled one being designed for him by the Moscow-based Katarzyna.ru
Stranger in Moscow
In 2009, in a newsletter of Enable, a UN organization for persons with disability, Mohoram read about Bezgraniz.ru. “I went online and enrolled myself and became the first Bangladeshi on the site. We exchanged emails and spoke on Skype. In the beginning I could sense that they were trying to ensure my authenticity. Eventually they sent me a laptop and later a ticket to visit Moscow. That’s because I had written to them saying that I just wanted to travel outside the country once and that’s it. Who knew my greed would grow," Mohoram says.
Tobias Reisner, founder and CEO of Bezgraniz, probably sensed Mohoram’s doggedness and enthusiasm, and knew this wouldn’t be his only journey. “He’s an active person, full of ideas and life. We want to support his initiative as well as we can because he can be an idol for other people," says Reisner.
The Ergo White Nights Marathon, which has a section for disabled people, was held on 18 June in St Petersburg that year, and Mohoram was there as a participant. “I am no athlete but I enjoyed it. Language was a big problem in Moscow. I used to sit in a café, find a coffee cup on Google and show the waiter what I wanted. I lost my way several times, unable to ask for directions," he says.
Mohoram complains of how inaccessible most places in a city are for wheelchairs. “I can’t carry too much cash with me. Tell me how many ATMs can you enter sitting in a wheelchair? How many public urinals are wheelchair-friendly? Even if you’re using a crutch or are blind, you still need a certificate to prove your handicap to avail any benefit," he says. But his biggest fear while travelling is that someone may steal his wheelchair. “Some fool may steal it and sell it as scrap, even though it’s expensive, but the cost I will pay for it is much larger," he says.
“When I got my American visa, I called my mother to tell her. She said she had two questions: What was America and what was visa? All the people around me at the telephone booth listened to me with amused expressions as I explained to her that America was a country like Bangladesh, but big and powerful. I told her that visa was a sticker that will let me go there. I want to call her once I’ve landed in America and see what she says," laughs Mohoram, adding “though many people doubt that I will make it".
Does he ever doubt himself? “Even if I don’t make it, someone else will. If he’s a nice guy, he will say brother Mohoram started it, I will complete the journey."
Graphic by Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint