By the time Maria Pia Sanchez of Watertown met the 10-year-old boy in Afghanistan who would become her son, he had already survived considerable trauma.
“He told me, ‘My body is broken, and if I want to have any future, I have to use my mind and get a good education,’” she recalled of that day in 2007. “It was a no-brainer to help get his visa and take him home with me to the US.”
Her friend Dr. Williams Holmes had told her how he met Mohammad Sayed a few years earlier during one of the surgeon’s frequent humanitarian trips to the war-torn country. Sayed had been just 5 years old when his mother died. Eleven days later, he suffered a traumatic spinal cord injury that paralyzed him from the waist down.
His father took him to a public hospital in Kabul, but never returned for him. With nowhere else to go, Sayed was transferred to an NGO-operated hospital in the Panjshir Valley.
After learning about that hospital’s abrupt closure, Holmes asked Sanchez — a public health nurse who was then consulting for the Ministry of Public Health and National Tuberculosis Institute in Afghanistan — to find out what happened to the boy who studied late into the night, with no one to help with homework or tuck him into bed.
“He was just a little peanut when I found him,” Sanchez said of Sayed, who had only guards for company when the hospital was abandoned. “It was obvious he was a very bright, very special kid. If given the right opportunities, I knew he could do anything he wanted.”
Sayed, now 19, has been proving her right ever since arriving in the United States on July 28, 2009 — the date he has celebrated ever since as his birthday “because that’s when I started my new life.”
An aspiring inventor and entrepreneur, Sayed recently founded the nonprofit organization Rim Power for the development of adaptive tools and comic book characters to inspire those facing physical challenges and raise awareness in cultures in which disabled individuals are hidden from view.
Wheelchair Man, the first in a planned comic book series, is an Afghan-American superhero based on Sayed’s real-life story with messages of hope, peace, and empowerment.
“Especially in developing countries, there is some kind of taboo that your life has ended if you lose your legs. I want people to understand that you can still do great things,” said Sayed, who graduated this past spring from Cambridge Rindge and Latin School. “I feel very lucky that a team of people believe in me and are helping to bring my vision to reality.”
To date, he has raised $5,030 toward his $20,000 goal in a GoFundMe campaign for the continued production of the first comic book, which he plans to distribute online and in hospitals, school libraries, and bookstores worldwide. In time, he hopes to develop non-violent video games and movies.
“I’ve always wanted to have my own business,” said Sayed, who paid for his school and living expenses in Afghanistan by fixing and selling cellphones and taking and printing photographs. “Even if you have very good ideas, though, you need investors.”
Sayed, who became a US citizen in September 2015, has no shortage of either.
He was attending the NuVu Studio innovation school in Cambridge when he was selected to present his 3-D printed wheelchair enhancements to President Barack Obama at the White House Science Fair in March 2015.
Three months later, he raised nearly $13,000 from 48 backers on Kickstarter.com to further develop his now provisionally patented Key 2 Freedom. For use with wheelchairs, walkers, bicycles, baby strollers, and cars, the foldable device holds up to two attachments including a cup holder, foldable tray, camera tripod, weather canopy, or basket.
In addition, his provisionally patented Key 4 Freedom, which attaches to the leg rest of a wheelchair, holds up to four attachments simultaneously. The locking mechanisms on both products allow users to attach their own lightweight belongings as well.
Donald Lombardi, who established the Intellectual Property Office at Boston Children’s Hospital before founding the Cambridge-based Institute for Pediatric Innovation 10 years ago, said he was “stunned” after meeting Sayed a year ago. Lombardi now chairs Rim Power’s board.
“His ideas, the elegance of his technologies, and his end user-driven design process are all wonderful, but the main thing is Mohammad himself,” Lombardi said. “He’s an extraordinary individual who, not withstanding the challenges of his life story, remains one of the most positive, altruistic, and visionary people that I’ve met.”
David Resnick, team leader of the patent group at Boston-based Nixon Peabody LLP, is providing legal services. Q-State Bioscience president and CEO Jonathan Fleming, a venture capitalist with more than 30 years of experience, said Sayed inspired his involvement by declaring his desire “to be a change agent and make a difference.”
“His message to other people in wheelchairs is you can have it all, do it all, be it all,” said Fleming, board treasurer of Rim Power. “Just like him.”
Yet Sayed is not finished, nor anywhere near satisfied. He is planning additional comics starring a diverse group of superheroes such as Wheelchair Woman from the Ukraine, Wheelchair Girl from India, Wheelchair Boy from South Africa, and Captain Afghanistan based on his childhood friend who lost an eye and leg to a landmine and living on the streets when Sayed last saw him.
Most of all, however, he hopes the success of Wheelchair Man allows him to return to Afghanistan one day to locate his 16-year-old sister, Zarah, and bring her to safety.
Their older brother, Wakeel, was killed last year while fighting against the Taliban in Helmand province.
“My sister is my motivation to be successful,” Sayed said, “and I’m a person who never gives up.”
For more information, visit rimpower.org/wheelchair-man.