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Abbas, the Olympic Torch-Bearer

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Abbas carries the torch through Bovaird Street.Seventeen-year-old Abbas got the opportunity to represent a wide range of communities when he marched down the street that day, with a tall torch in hand. Not only did he shine as a representative of his religious community, his cultural community, his school, and his family – but he was also a representative for individuals who live with Down syndrome (DS).Abbas carries the torch through Bovaird Street.Early on a cold December morning, family, friends, and strangers bundled up in their winter gear to line the snowy streets of Brampton, Ontario, as Abbas Syed, an Olympic torch bearer, carried the bright flame for three-hundred meters down Bovaird Street.

Seventeen-year-old Abbas got the opportunity to represent a wide range of communities when he marched down the street that day, with a tall torch in hand. Not only did he shine as a representative of his religious community, his cultural community, his school, and his family – but he was also a representative for individuals who live with Down syndrome (DS).

DS occurs in 1 in every 800 children, and it can have varying degrees of severity. It is caused by an extra chromosome – which can be from either parent – and that results in differences in body structure and learning efficiency. The cause of DS is still unknown, yet it can be detected during pregnancy, which gives parents the time to learn how to bring up their child to the best of their abilities.

Abbas was diagnosed with DS at birth, and has come a long way despite the challenges he faces. As busy as grade 12 students tend to be, he still manages to participate in extra-curricular activities and volunteer work. While some of us can only do so much in a week’s time, Abbas responsibly manages a very full schedule: he helps out with various jobs at the masjid, attends the Sunday school, keeps up with his religious obligations, goes to high school, plays sports, is part of an acting school, and still manages to fit in more activities into his week!

Besides playing basketball and baseball, Abbas also loves to swim. He has been a part of the Special Olympics Swim Team for approximately nine years, and it was Abbas’ teacher who submitted his name for the torch bearer selection.

When asked about the moment he found out that he would be a torch bearer, with a reminiscent smile Abbas recalls that he was “shocked, but then happy and excited.”

The Olympic flame is lighted and then travels from country to country with great ceremony. Special measures are taken to keep it lighted at all times, even when being transported. Just as the flame constantly burns bright, the Syeds attribute the ever-bright flame of inspiration in their lives to Abbas. “Abbas is inspiration to us, and Abbas is courage for us. I don’t think it’s a challenge having a challenged kid like Abbas.”

The positive mindset of the family of four is apparent from first meeting. With a smile, Abbas’ mother Sukaina Syed said, “There’s always a reason behind everything. Never take life in a negative manner. Always take it positively, and you’ll see positive outcomes. But if you take anything in a negative form, you will see negativity.”

While there was the obvious happiness of being a part of the Olympic torch relay, Abbas’ mother also spoke of the surprise of the torch number. Each torch bearer is given a number and it was on the day of the relay that the Syeds realized with pleasant surprise which one Abbas held: the religiously significant number 14!

Having lived in Canada for the past twenty years, the Syeds feel that they have been at an advantage with the many opportunities that the system provides. “To tell you the truth, I think we’ve been very blessed living in the west,” commented Mrs. Syed, her husband adding, “Canada is the land of opportunities. It’s one of the best things which Canada is known for. Here, whether they are challenged kids or ‘normal’ kids, they can do what they want to do.”

Rashid Syed, Abbas’ father, stressed on the importance of the parents’ role in their children’s life. “I believe that parents should also help [their children] in many ways – to help them realize their dream, that’s what’s most important. Parents should participate in their son’s or daughter’s up-bringing – don’t just leave it to the children – guide them through, and make sure you spend time with them…that’s the most important thing.”

Mr. Syed went on to say that despite the effects of DS, Abbas still does what “normal” kids do.

“The young kids go out with him, he feels normal,” he said. “He loves going to the mosque, he loves going and serving people there. He loves going over there just to be with his friends, he loves to do parking out there.”

A well-rounded individual with a cheerful nature, it is not surprising that Abbas makes friends wherever he goes. Even his piece of advice to other youth reflects his social personality and active lifestyle.

“If you have time, go outside and get fit, get working, and do more stuff!” he said.

“Sometimes he’s standing outside with his friends and talking, and I’ll have to coax him to come inside!” laughs Mr. Syed. “Also, the teachers have been very helpful with giving him special attention—they allow him to do adhan, and he’s learned a lot of things from them. As such, our community really, really encouraged him and helped him to achieve what he has achieved.”

Throughout the interview, they repeatedly thanked the Almighty for blessing them with such a strong religious community. Mrs. Syed praised the Muslim community, saying “The Masumeen Centre is just like family: it’s small and everybody cares for each other. Everyone has been so cooperative, and I have to say that I’ve never had any issue in which I had to explain why my son is like this. I’ve never had that kind of incident – everybody has been so kind and they all love Abbas.”

“We would be remiss if we don’t say that our whole community at large really help Abbas,” continued Mr. Syed. “They really embrace him with whatever challenges he had. Alhamdulillah our community really, really encouraged him and helped to achieve what he has achieved. They really take care of Abbas – Abbas is part and parcel of them.”

Abbas is a role model for those who seek to overcome the obstacles in life. Against the odds of DS, he has persevered and excelled in whatever he has put his mind to. Described by Mrs. Syed as “confident, courageous, charming,” Abbas has strived to live up to his name. “[His name] stands on its own,” Mr. Syed says. “It has helped a lot,” agrees his wife.

While Abbas ibn Ali (peace be upon him) held the flag high in Karbala as a message of the undying existence of the true Islam, Abbas Syed held the flame high while also conveying a message of faith in the All-Merciful Sustainer. What was that message? As Mrs. Syed aptly put it: “You shouldn’t stop for anything – whatever you want to go for, just go for it. No challenge is a challenge – if you have faith in Allah, then Allah Himself opens the way for all of us.”

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