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BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | In the wake of the horrific incident two months ago when local florist Akkas Ali, 63, was critically injured by a drag-racing driver high on drugs who careened up onto the sidewalk, the community has rallied together to raise funds to help the stricken man’s family.
Last week, Chad Marlow, a member of Community Board 3, presented Ali’s son Rukanul Islam, 22, with a check for $18,047.32. The cash was collected through the GiveForward crowdsourcing Web site, under a campaign initiated by Marlow.
Two hundred and ninety people contributed amounts ranging from $5 to $500 during the one-month-long effort. Many of those who gave live on E. Fourth St. and in the East Village and Downtown area. But a couple of people from as far away as Australia also gave — one of the ID’s said, “A Villager reader from Australia,” according to Marlow.
Ali worked for 22 years at East Village Farm deli, at Second Ave. and Fourth St., doing everything from making fresh-squeezed juices and salads to manning the flower stand.
However, his daily work routine — and his life — were shattered early on the morning of June 19. That’s when Shaun Martin, 32, a Queens resident, came speeding and swerving down Second Ave. in a white Nissan, reportedly at around 80 miles per hour, lost control and went flying up onto the sidewalk. Ali was one of three of the deli’s workers to be injured, and was the most seriously hurt.
Martin was allegedly high on PCP and methamphetamine, according to Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance. A grand jury indicted Martin last month on charges including aggravated vehicular assault and driving while impaired.
Last Friday, Marlow handed over the check to Islam — who lives nearby on E. Fourth St. with his mother — inside the Starbucks on First Ave. at E. Third St.
The C.B. 3 member invited The Villager along to cover the story, saying he wanted to give the newspaper the exclusive.
Islam’s father is still recovering, and is currently at the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in West Orange, N.J. It’s the same top rehab facility where “Superman” actor Christopher Reeve was treated after injuring his spine in a horse-riding accident, and also where Marlow’s own father was treated after he — just like Ali — was critically injured by an intoxicated driver in 1995.
Islam, who goes by the nickname “Rinku,” said his father is conscious, and will open his eyes if someone is in the room and talking to him. He can turn his head and point to people with his right arm, and can raise his right leg. But his left leg and ankle are injured, and he’s not moving that leg or his left arm, either.
He is also intubated — periodically put on a ventilator to help him breathe — and because the tube crosses over his vocal chords, he cannot currently talk.
In addition, as a result of brain injury suffered from the force of the impact, he has completely lost his memory, and currently doesn’t even recognize his own family members.
Describing how doctors explained the brain injury, Islam said, “They gave the example of eggs — when you shake the egg. … He lost his whole memory. They don’t want to give a guarantee. They’re not 100 percent sure if he’ll get his memory back.”
Islam is the youngest of five children, four brothers and a sister. However, he said, they recognize that it’s their father’s life partner, their mother, who is most affected by his situation.
“We’re just worrying about my mom,” Islam said.
Nevertheless, Islam said of his father, “His condition is getting better.”
Marlow encouragingly said that the brain is a funny thing, and that it can suddenly and unexpectedly snap back after a traumatic injury. For example, after his own father suffered brain injury after being struck by a drunk driver, his dad at one point had a brief personality change and began cursing, which he had never done before. But then, just as suddenly, he stopped doing it.
However, Marlow’s dad never fully recovered from his injuries, and it was devastating for the entire family.
Islam said it’s not known when his dad will be released from the rehab facility. But Marlow said, again speaking from the experience of having his father go through a similar recovery, that even after Ali comes home, he’ll need to continue rehabbing for some while.
Among the many who gave funds to the campaign for Ali was Veselka restaurant, which made one of the biggest contributions at $500. The biggest donor, though, was a tattoo shop, which went only by the tag “STI,” which gave $1,000. The tattoo shop is reportedly located near East Village Farm, but apparently wished to remain anonymous. The Lower Eastside Girls Club gave $100. Bob Holman of the Bowery Poetry Club also contributed, with the encouraging message posted on the GiveForward site, “Strength.” Activist and journalist Bill Weinberg, who leads tours for the new MoRUS museum on Avenue C, donated. Also giving was State Democratic Committeewoman Rachel Lavine, who lives in the West Village. (Lavine’s partner is attorney Roberta Kaplan, who represented Edie Windsor in the recent historic Supreme Court case overturning the Defense of Marriage Act.) Katharine Wolpe, a leading member of Village Independent Democrats, pitched in $200. Fourth Arts Block also gave. The list goes on and on.
“I was kind of the catalyst for this thing,” Marlow said. “But I was one of 290 who gave. At the end of the day, a bit of the money is from me, just a bit. [Marlow gave $100.] I’m very grateful for having this opportunity to help. It’s been a bit of a healing experience for me. I walked past [the site of the crash], and it was all I could think about. I was really gratified that I could play a role. But it was really the East Village that did this.
“There were people of the East Village that have limited ability to pay, that don’t have bank accounts or credit,” Marlow added, “that literally came to my building and gave me $5 and $10 bills.”
Islam works at Soho House in the Meatpacking District as a food runner, taking food from the kitchen to the servers. He attended P.S. 19. His family immigrated from Sylhet, Bangladesh’s second largest city, settling in the East Village, where there was a sizable Bangladeshi community. Due to the economy, the size of that community has waned a bit in recent years, he said.
The money, he said, will go to help his mother. Meanwhile, his father’s insurance is paying for his medical care.
Asked what he’d like to see happen to the driver who so severely harmed his dad, nearly killing him, Islam didn’t express a desire for extreme vengeance.
“He’s in jail right now. But…,” he said, and paused, “…I don’t know if I have anything to say. He was drunk and driving. His mind was on drugs.”
“I feel the same,” added Marlow, recalling his feelings about the driver who injured his own father. “It’s not going to make things better, whatever happens to the guy. It doesn’t matter. If this guy going to jail for 20 years could have helped my father…,” he said, his voice trailing off.
Asked if he had anything to say to the people who funded the crowdsourcing campaign for his dad, Islam said, “I want to tell the people that care about us and are fans of my father, that we are happy. They really care. So we are very happy. I want to say thanks to everybody.”
He shook hands with Marlow, then embraced him in a hug.
“I’m glad I could help,” said Marlow.