By Sidra Al Jammal

Walking through the corridors of the intensive care unit, there is a sinister feeling that begins to form. The beeping of the machines, and the sanitary cold air that hits your face as soon as you walk in, nudge you to face reality. That reality is of weakness being the human condition, forever.

However, the room of Salim Shah at Queensway Hospital in Etobicoke emanates a totally different feeling. This room has a special beam of sunshine even under those fluorescent lights.

Bits and pieces of the Shah’s homelife can be seen around Salim’s hospital room. From the sky blue blanket laying on the hospital bed to Salim’s personal toiletries, anyone who walks in can immediately tell that not a day goes by without visits from his family.

Salim Shah was struck while riding his motorcycle on his way to work on Queen Elizabeth Way in August of last year. The accident left him with debilitating injuries that restrict his movement and communication.

The accident devastated the Shah family: Salim’s wife and two children. His son, Wali Shah, is a poet and motivational speaker with a following of over 30,000. With all the success from his career, Wali probably thought he had life pretty well figured out, until his father’s accident came to upend his life. Now, he has to rebuild his life, one prayer at a time. He shared his father’s story and the devastation his family suffered through these events. He took to Instagram “[The last] 48 hours told me more about being a man, than 28 years of life ever could.”

The family today struggles with the day-to-day of looking after Salim. And Wali faces the additional struggle, as a motivational speaker, of finding the motivation to continue his work and fulfill his dreams.

Salim has many talents, working in the construction industry prior to the accident, but also a great cook who loved to show his love by cooking according to Wali. “He could take anything and make it so good, he just had that magic touch,” says Wali. His wife and Wali’s mother Fariha Pirzada describes him as “a very humble and honest person.” She adds; “I consider myself very lucky that he is my life partner.” Pirzada spoke on what has helped her cope through these challenging times. “I just lived these seven months day by day, not thinking about tomorrow,” she says. “I sometimes think that there is this spell on me that keeps me positive.” she adds.

The Shah family is optimistic about Salim’s progress and hope to bring him home permanently in the next six months. “The problem of having dad at the hospital is that people treat him like he’s already gone,” says Wali. Having faith in his father’s recovery journey, Wali always makes sure to use the present tense when describing his father. Bringing Salim home would mean many things for the Shah family. They could avoid the daily commute to the hospital and be able to keep a close eye on Salim’s recovery and being there every step of the way.

However, bringing him home proposes all sorts of challenges. The Shah family needs to make several changes to their home to make it accessible, such as installing ramps amongst others. Wali says that making these changes is not feasible in the current home as it is a rental property. That put Wali in a difficult position financially, as he and his family might move further away from the Greater Toronto Area to afford buying a property to bring Salim home.

Wali has to face these big decisions and deal with the consequences that may affect his career and personal life. Wali has cut back on his travel to be present for his family.

Wali is admired by his community. He is usually booked for events at school across the GTA several days a week. “Many of our students are Muslim identifying so it’s nice for them to see a role model that is a former Peel student,” says Rubina Siddiqui, teacher at T L Kennedy Secondary School who organized a school Ramadan event where Wali spoke. She adds: “it gives them things that they can aspire to.”

Even as he continues to tour and give motivational speeches, Wali struggles in his personal life. In our interview, he expressed concern over finding an understanding partner in the future who understands the amount of responsibility Wali has towards his family now. “I would be lying if I said this doesn’t effect the way it’s going to happen and the partner that would be okay with it,” says Wali.

Wali says he has experienced “caregiver burnout,” as the eldest son in his family, he became the beam that everyone else in his family – his mom and younger sister — leans on for both financial and emotional support. Stepping into his father’s shoes was challenging at times. Wali is currently looking for a mental health professional , a step that he’s very proud of himself for taking. “This is tough as a man to open up about, but I haven’t felt this alone in a while,” says Wali.

Asked what has helped him cope, Wali compared himself to a seed. A seed needs to be put in the dirt in order for it to grow. Wali says he was “buried in that dirt.” He added “being buried means I can grow now.”

Wali said Islam and faith have been his biggest motivator through the last seven months. Quite by happenstance, almost a year before his father’s motorcycle accident, Wali had started documenting, on his Instagram page, his journey of committing to his morning prayers.

He recalls his feelings when he received the news about his father. “God why would you allow this to happen, why would you do this after I made such an effort towards you?” he asked himself. “I was so bitter, so angry about the situation I didn’t know what to do with it,” says Wali.

Wali gained comfort when he looked at his situation from a new perspective. “It wasn’t that I was wasting my time praying and this was my punishment, this was God preparing me for months before this happened because God knew what I was about to go through,” he says.

Wali has co-written a book with Eric Walters, published by Orca Books in March 2024. The book, Call Me Al, showcases the experience of a Pakistani middle school boy from Mississauga. The main character’s father is named Salim, after Wali’s father. “Growing up in Mississauga, we didn’t have a lot of representations for Muslim stories. I would go to the library and maybe see a handful of books and even those books were not authentic to what we’d go through,” says Wali. He adds: “I didn’t want to make it about me, I wanted it to be about everyone’s experiences that came as immigrants to this country that had that Muslim background.” The book is now available in several bookstores and libraries across Canada.

Even as his career may face difficulties moving forward, Wali continues to push through it. He takes these lessons that he gained through prayer with him to the classrooms and the auditoriums where he performs. “It’s not just about Islam,” he says. “Whatever religion you have, God is God, lean on God in these moments and let you prayer protect you in these moments.”