After nearly six years of living with quadriplegia from a spinal cord injury, Omar Al-azawi is finally beginning to get his life back on track.
The 23-year-old moved to Canada from Iraq seven months ago with his mother and brother, and thanks to the support at GF Strong Rehabilitation Centre, he’s discovered the therapeutic and expressive benefits of painting.
Before his accident, Al-azawi was a bodybuilder who loved driving motorcycles and was thinking of applying to arts school after graduating from secondary school. But all that changed one hot September day while travelling in northern Iraq with a friend. Al-azawi dove in to the water, hitting his head and breaking his neck at the C5.
The irony that it was a quick swim that landed him in hospital over the range of other dangers he faced growing up in Baghdad is not lost on the new Canadian resident. Al-azawi has had family and friends kidnapped and killed in Iraq, including his father and the very friend who pulled him out of the water that late-summer day.
In the initial stages of recovery, doctors told Al-azawi that he’d never be able to breathe on his own and that he’d only live seven years--two improbable scenarios when meeting the man today.
“I’m working to go to school,” says Al-azawi. “I want to do something that makes me a job and something that I like. My big goal is becoming independent.”
Al-azawi is on his way to becoming independent, living on his own in an accessible apartment in East Van. His brother, Alan, lives close and visits often. Talking to the Straight one afternoon at Al-azawi's apartment, he credits Vancouver and GF for giving him a new lease on life: “I was hiding all the time, for five years I never got out. I didn’t like starting to live, I didn’t like mixing with people after the accident. But when I was at GF it was like everything changed.”
It was at GF that Al-azawi discovered painting, a passion he says is the only thing that relaxes him.
“GF Strong is totally the most special place. It’s not a hospital, it’s something…,” he trails off, trying to capture how the team of doctors, nurses and staff have supported his overall recovery, the mental aspect being the most transformative.
The rehabilitation centre, B.C.’s largest, nominated him for a BC Rehab Gert Vorsteher Memorial Award to recognize his perseverance and determination, an award he won and will be presented with on May 25. Al-azawi hopes to use some of the $5,000 bursary to purchase a big easel and arts supplies so that he can paint more easily at home.
He also hopes to win The National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association’s Local Hero contest, a giveaway of wheelchair-accessible vehicles to people living with disability. The contest is in its fifth year and runs throughout May, Mobility Awareness Month, in Canada and the United States. Al-azawi is currently the only Vancouver entry and, of the 26 Canadians entered, is in the lead with 5,178 votes and counting. After May 31, judges will select three winners from the top 10 percent of the entries with the highest number of votes.
The van from the contest would help Al-azawi get to appointments, as well as eventually to the gym and to school, but his reason for entering was not only for his own benefit, but also to inspire others.
“It’s the same process,” Al-azawi explains about the stages of recovery. “First of all it’s shock; second thing is denial; third thing is depression and upset; the fourth thing is acceptance; and the fifth step is starting again. It took me five years so I want to tell other people to take shortcuts and don’t take so long to start again because time doesn’t wait. I learned that the hard way.”
In the meantime, Al-azawi is settling into his new community. He says knowing English, which he mostly taught himself with help from American soldiers in Iraq, has helped him meet friends and find increasing independence. He adds that Canada has not only been good to him but to his brother as well, whose lifelong dream has been to be an actor and who just secured a part on Prison Break, and his mother, who is taking English courses to be able to resume her career in a bank.
Vancouver has been the ticket back to life for Al-azawi. His painting keeps him going. And if he wins that van, there’s no telling how far he'll go.