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A fresh set of wheels

After losing his leg in warfare, Palestinian boy receives not just a prosthesis but also a special bike.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Eleven-year-old Thaer Jouda peddles a specially designed bike with his hands in the PDX Summer Handcycling Series at Portland International Raceway. Thaer had almost his entire right leg amputated because of a rocket that exploded near him and his family in the Gaza Strip two years ago.Thaer Jouda was with his mother and four siblings in front of his home in the Gaza Strip two years ago when a rocket crashed down and changed his life forever.

Thaer lost most of his family in the blast, with only his father surviving. His 9-year-old body was mangled, requiring some 21 surgeries — including the amputation of one of his fingers and nearly his entire right leg. When social workers from the Palestine Children's Relief Fund found him, said the nonprofit group's local patient coordinator Luciana Mustafa-Elmashni, he was depressed and dejected.

But this Sunday, Thaer's life changed again.

Now 11, Thaer has been staying with Mustafa-Elmashni and a host family in the West Linn area this summer while he has been fitted for a prosthetic leg at Shriners Hospital for Children in Portland. He has also reconnected with one of his favorite activities from before the attack that crippled him: cycling. That has been made possible by the PDX Summer Handcycling Series, an annual activity series at Portland International Raceway allowing people with disabilities to enjoy the experience of cycling on an open track.

“He hasn't been able to ride his bike at all,” Mustafa-Elmashni said. “So it's been devastating because that's the only thing he enjoys, and that's the only thing they have available there. And he would often talk to me about how he wishes to ride a bike.”

When she took him to the raceway in July, Mustafa-Elmashni recalled, “I saw how happy it made him.”

Staff at the event noticed, too.

“The first day, we couldn't get him off the bike,” said Carly Schmidt. “I could see from the smile on his face that he was really enjoying it and really enjoying the freedom and going fast and feeling the same as anybody else.”

Schmidt works both at Shriners Hospital and Adaptive Sports Northwest, a group that focuses on providing recreational opportunities for people with disabilities and is one of the partners behind the Summer Handcycling Series, along with the nonprofit Incight.

Schmidt said event staff were so moved by Thaer's story that they let him take home the hand-powered bicycle he rode in between the open events every Tuesday evening. With the backing of the Palestine Children's Relief Fund, she said, she also asked for support from Athletes Helping Athletes Inc., the charitable arm of Road Runner Sports, which has a store at the Nyberg Woods shopping center in Tualatin.

Caitlyn Quwenikov, assistant store manager for Road Runner Sports Tualatin, said stores raise money through customer donations to provide handcycles to children with permanent disabilities. Anyone who donates receives a $10 store credit.

“What happened here was pretty miraculous,” Quwenikov said. “During one of our (charity) drives, we earned so much money in this community that we had enough from this store to give a bike to someone in the community here.”

On Sunday, at the Tualatin store, Thaer was presented with a bicycle of his own that he can use with or without his prosthetic leg.

“With Thaer, he applied through our website and we realized that he was in the area, and with the generous donations that we got, we were able to give it to him right here, which was awesome,” said Quwenikov.

Through translation from his native Arabic, Thaer said, “I love it because it gives me the freedom to go wherever I want to go. I can reach places that I wouldn't be able to and at a speed I wouldn't be able to without it.”

Back in Gaza, Thaer said, he loved racing with his friends. When he learned that he could still bike even without a leg, he said, “I feel like my life returned the way it used to be. I feel like I got my life back.”

Handcycling has also been beneficial for Thaer's health, Mustafa-Elmashni said.

“He wouldn't be able to lift his arm past this,” she said, demonstrating with her arms outstretched to each side. “And now he's able to extend it completely. So not only mentally has (it) made him really happy and something to look forward to, and being able to ride a bike … also medically has helped him.”

Thaer will return to Gaza next month. His special bike will be shipped back as well, with Incight picking up the tab.

“It was the right thing to do for him,” Schmidt said, calling Thaer “an awesome kid” with a great sense of humor.

“He's lived a lot more in his (11) years than a lot of people in their entire lifetime,” Quwenikov said. “So his story was pretty special. But there wasn't anything, I think, in particular — just another child in need that deserved some happiness.”

Thaer treasures his new bike. He said he worries it might be stolen if he is not careful, so he will keep it inside his house.

Asked what his friends back home will think when they see him with his new bike, Thaer said, “They're all going to probably beg me to take a ride on it.”

The Summer Handcycling Series ended this Tuesday, with Thaer taking one last ride on the race track. It is expected to pick back up for another 12-week run next summer.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Thaer Jouda, an 11-year-old from the Gaza Strip, takes a break while sitting on his new bike at the PDX Summer Handcycling Series' last event of the year Tuesday. Thaer was presented with a bike that he can use, despite the loss of his right leg, at Road Runner Sports in Tualatin on Sunday.

By Mark Miller
Assistant Editor
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