Name: Mohamad Sallaj
School: Williamsville North, entering 9th grade
Siblings: Kasim 22, Danya 20, Adam 5
(Favorite) Quote: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” –Wayne Gretzky
(Favorite) Food: French fries
(Favorite) Book: The Hunger Games
(Favorite) Pastime: Playing sports, such as football or hockey.
Where he sees himself in 30 years: Wealthy, owning 60 franchises, with a Mosque built with his charity.
The Spotlight: Currently organizing a team, in honor of his younger brother Adam Sallaj, to participate in the Energy for Life Walkathon to help raise money and awareness for Mitochondrial Disease.
Fourteen year old Mohamad Sallaj is a relic. At first glance, he is the average young boy, with a head of thick black hair, a young smile, and a blue cast around his right thumb and wrist that never gets acknowledged. He is not one of many offered words or used to talking about himself, but admits to a passion of sports and his desires to one day become wealthy beyond belief. They are the aspirations of many teenage boys around the world, but upon further conversation you grow to see the little nuances that differentiate Mohamad from others in his age range.
This summer Mohamad Sallaj is spending his time creating a team to participate in this year’s Energy for Life walkathon. A walkathon that will help raise awareness and fund research for Mitochondrial disease; a cause dear to his heart because of its relationship with his five year old brother Adam. “After four years, many doctors… (Adam) was diagnosed this year.”
To be exact, little Adam Sallaj was diagnosed with mitochondrial disease, a disease which affects the mitochondria of the cells. According to the United Mitochondrial Disease Foundation (UMDF), Mitochondria are responsible for creating more than 90% of the energy needed by the body to sustain life and support growth, so when they fail, less and less energy is generated within the cell. This leads to cell injury and even cell death. If this process is repeated throughout the body, whole systems begin to fail, and the life of the person in whom this is happening is severely compromised. It is a disease which primarily affects children, “One in every three thousand kids are born with it a year. (But) not a lot of people know about it,” Mohamad concurs. “I decided to make a team to spread the word,” he says simply. It is with this nonchalant manner that it becomes apparent Mohamad is unaware of how impressive his dedication to Adam’s cause is. Finding a teen actively spending the summer before their entry to high school raising funds for such an honorable cause is something to admire.
As the discussion of the diagnosis continues, the observation that Mohamad would not want his brother any other way is firmly rooted.
“If you try to imagine him without [the] disease… you can’t. It’s Adam. That’s his personality.” Limitation or not, Adam is nothing other than normal in his eyes. “He can’t walk, can’t talk. [But] he’s just like every little five year old kid, he just makes his way… doing things his own way.” It is in this way, with this mindset, that fourteen year old Mohamad Sallaj demonstrates such a commendable act of charity and love.
As the time passes, Mohamad, adorned in his ‘Energy for life’ shirt which promotes the UMDF walkathon, begins to open up about his brother. “He’s small, little, fun to be around,” he says of the five year old, “He really loves animals, like horses, and sharks for some reason… dogs, cats, birds. He likes to have things he’s not allowed to have. Like laptops (or) the remote.” He pauses and smiles at this, as if picturing a specific scene in his head, “He likes to touch stuff he’s not allowed to touch like the drawers in the kitchen.” There is an almost tangible essence as he speaks, his face lights up, and with a smile his expression instantly communicates all he feels for his younger brother, “It’s Adam.”
Adam arrives shortly after, carried in the arms of his father Mr. Tahsin Sallaj. The atmosphere immediately changes as Mohamad gets up to warmly greet his younger sibling, completing the picture that he had been painting just moments before.
Upon meeting five year old Adam, one immediately understands. To see Adam is to love Adam, a fair child with an infectious smile and bright brown eyes, it is no wonder why he is such a source of happiness for all around him. From the moment of his arrival, Mohamad’s focus immediately shifts to his brother, letting him play with his Ipad and getting him to repeat the word ‘Allah’ (the Arabic word for God) which is amazingly the only word he knows. “No mama, baba, nothing. Just Allah,” Mr. Sallaj states with a soft grin. As if on cue the azthan (the Muslim call for prayer) begins, signifying the time for Asr salah (afternoon prayer). Adam’s face lights up as he begins to laugh to the delight of both his father and brother who look on with a mixture of pride and love. “He loves the azthan.”
Now to say that all siblings love each other constantly would be a lie most would feel insulted to hear. Yet, to the Sallajs that is not so farfetched, at least when it comes to the youngest of their family, and if asked, the unanimous favorite. “Oh absolutely,” Mr. Tahsin Sallaj answers as if it is common knowledge. Adam’s favorite on the other hand? “Me, obviously,” Mohamad offers quickly with a confident grin.
It is here that Mr.Sallaj begins to speak of Adam’s condition, and from the second he begins it is obvious that Mitochondrial disease is a topic that he is not only passionate about, but very knowledgeable in. He speaks of definitive hopes for the future in regards to the disease. The first being, “To inshAllah (God Willing) find a cure.”
Even more interesting is his determination to see national testing created for the disease. Currently there is no official test used to aid in the diagnosis of mitochondrial disease, which can lead to frequent misdiagnosis. “With Adam, we didn’t know what he had,” Mr. Sallaj explains. This confusion can often give way to unneeded operations and therapies, a reality that hits home to parents of those affected. “If we can save one kid from what we’re doing, it’d be worth it,” Mr. Sallaj concludes.
Like his son before him, he wishes to spread the word about this unfamiliar disease, and would like nothing more than the community to be involved, “not because Adam is Muslim—because he is human.”
A five year old human, whose innocence and laugh is enough to make all wonder why one would speak of such an illness in the first place, because at the end of the day it is not a boy with mitochondrial disease, “It’s Adam.”
Or at least these are the words of Mohamad Sallaj, a teenager who never once boasts about his actions or seeks the attention. To his knowledge it is cut and dry, spending his summer devoting energy for a walk is nothing other than normal. So it is in this way that he has captured the spotlight, with nothing more than good intentions and sibling devotion.
The Energy for Life walkathon will be held on Saturday, September 15th 2012 located at Island Park, Main Street, Williamsville, NY. Registration is at 12:30 pm. All are welcome to participate, and support the cause. If you wish to donate please visit www.EnergyForLifeWalk.org/WesternNewYork. Mohamad currently has a goal to raise $10,000 for mitochondrial research, “Come join us in this walk for
Adam, (and) please donate to find a cure for this disease.”