Hajer Salaam is all smiles with a bright voice and cheery disposition who wears a long braid, pink hair bow and polka dot tights on the day we meet. A 12-year-old about to enter sixth grade at Walker Upper Elementary School, she loves ballet, art, singing, and has taken up flute. “I went to camp with my brother this week and got to pet a horse!” Hajer says exuberantly. “And I got to ride on it,” says her brother Saeed, just a year younger than his sister. Hajer Salaam was born with spina bifida and lives daily with the many obstacles and challenges it presents.
The Salaams, a family of six, were displaced from their home country of Syria and have called Charlottesville home since 2015. Though they own their home, it has become increasingly more apparent that the house is not conducive to Hajer’s needs, including an exterior access ramp, main floor bedroom and handicapped bathroom. Currently Hajer shares a room with her brother on the second floor and Hajer must be picked up and placed in a special chair in a standard bathtub to bathe.
“Sometimes it takes over an hour to bathe her and wash her hair,” says her mother Dareen. “It’s getting harder as she grows to be able to do these things. My husband hurt his back and I had to do it by myself for a while.”
Though life is challenging, Hajer’s sister, Laila says the family sticks together. “We’ve helped each other a lot to get to where we are today,” says Laila, a recent high school graduate and incoming freshman at VCU. In August, Hajer will have another major surgery at UVA place a rod in her back to help stabilize her spine. Her recovery will be upwards of a year during which time, Hajer’s mobility will more limited than it is now, making main floor accessibility in their home even more important.
In 2019, the Salams had an agreement with Building Goodness Foundation and AHIP to build an addition onto their home. An architect rendered the drawings, but before construction could begin, the pandemic canceled the project. Still, Hajer has hope someone will step in to help.
“I could be so much more independent [with a first floor addition],” Hajer says. “I could help my mom more, too.”
The Salaam family sees a bright future for their youngest daughter. “Hajer sits down every year with the medical students at UVA to teach them about her condition and how to make connections with patients who don’t speak English. A lot of people think she’ll go into medicine,” says Dareen who works as a CNA at UVA’s NICU.
“Yes, but I’ve always said I want to be an elementary school principal!” says Hajer beaming.