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8 February 2020

How QF unlocked the musical talents of a boy with Williams Syndrome

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The development disorder meant Salman Saleem faced educational and social challenges. Music – and Qatar Music Academy – are now helping him follow his dreams.

In one of the halls at Qatar Music Academy, a woman sits in the audience and listens with wonder to a boy on the stage. The boy is playing a drum known as the darbukkah, and making a beautiful sound that, with every beat, makes the woman’s heart flutter. She is unable to hold back her tears – because this talented 18-year-old boy is her son, and she knows the journey that has brought him here.

The stage before her takes her back many years when three-year old Salman Saleem used to bang on a wooden table in their house in India. Despite the reasons behind his distinctive appearance, his growth delay, Salman’s passion for music shone as brightly back then as the sunlight glistening through the hall’s windows now.

Salman Saleem has overcome a medical disorder called Williams Syndrome to unlock his musical talent.

Genetic deletion

The story began when Bushara Saleem, Salman’s mother, was eight months pregnant. "I was constantly checking my belly and wondering about the reason why it was so small,” she said. “The ultrasound did not detect any symptoms, and my child was born weighing no more than 1.5 kg.

“Deep down, I felt something was wrong, but things did not become clear until we moved from India to Qatar, where Salman was diagnosed.”

When Bushra used to check on her unborn baby by placing her hand over her pregnant belly, she did not know that her fetus’ genetic materials were already being randomly deleted from a specific region of chromosome 7 for unknown reasons. This is the cause of a developmental disorder called Williams Syndrome, which Salman was diagnosed with, at Hamad General Hospital, when he was four years old.

I wondered how the absence of a small number of genes in a chromosome could be the cause for this huge change in the human body and make my son different.

Bushara Saleem

Williams Syndrome affects many parts of the body, with its characteristics including learning difficulties and distinctive facial features. Around the world, 1 in 8,000 children have it. Salman is one of them.

" I wondered how the absence of a small number of genes in a chromosome could be the cause for this huge change in the human body and make my son different," said Bushara.

Unconditional love

While her eyes follow her son as he continues to play the drums at Qatar Music Academy (QMA), a member of Qatar Foundation, Bushara ponders, for the umpteenth time, Salman’s facial features as they become clearer under the sunlight. “I love his unique features that he was born with: his wide mouth, full lips, spaced teeth, small nose, and short stature that does not hide his teenage characteristics, and most of all, his unconditional and endless love that he carries in his heart towards everyone around him,” she says.

But Salman’s love and affinity for the people around him, which sees him being is quick to greet and hug them, was not always reciprocated by his colleagues at school. Bushara recalls how he sometimes used to come back from school upset. telling her how his fellow students would avoid speaking with him because he looked different. This led Salman to mix more with children younger than him.

Learning challenges

"When I discovered the cause of my son's sadness, I became more determined to do everything for him, starting with enhancing his self-confidence and developing his skills,” says Bushara.

“It was not easy because he deals with Williams Syndrome, which causes learning and writing challenges as well as attention deficiency. But instead of making him feel inferior to his classmates for not getting good grades in school, I focused on developing his skills and capabilities.

"Often, people would try to convince me to enroll Salman in a specialized school instead of a normal school. But I insisted that he learn in the same school that his brother goes to, which has really supported him. He now excels in history and is able to memorize historical dates, events, and figures. His favorite historical figure has always been Mahatma Gandhi since he was a child. He also studies the history of Qatar, participates in the Qatar National Day activities, and loves this country."

I sometimes listen to him playing tunes that I have never heard before. They may seem difficult and complicated to me, but to him they are melodies that come easily.

Bushara Saleem

Passion for music

And Bushara recalls the day Salman joined QMA as part of her goal of helping to cultivate her son's artistic talent. At QMA, Salman met teachers who welcomed him, praised his skill, and helped him overcome his reading challenges through the programs the academy offers. Salman would learn musical notes through listening and repetition instead of reading from a book.

The appreciation of Salman’s talents at QMA gave his mother a new drive to support him further. She started to accompany him to the classes in QMA’s Arab Percussion Ensemble program, recording the lessons and revising them with her son when they were back home until he learned the musical notes and was able to play the music on his own.

"I sometimes listen to him playing tunes that I have never heard before,” she says. “They may seem difficult and complicated to me, but to him they are melodies that come easily. He is now full of knowledge thanks to the lessons he received and to Qatar Foundation for unlocking his artistic potential.

Qatar Foundation has not only strengthened my son's artistic capabilities but developed his personality.

Bushara Saleem

"Qatar Foundation has not only strengthened my son's artistic capabilities but developed his personality. He has become more confident in himself and more inclined to communicate with others. People even greet him when he returns to the places he usually goes to. Salman also became attached to his teacher, George Oro who he sees as a role model “

On her vision for her son’s future, the emotional Mrs. Saleem says: "I believe in my son. He was born like this and I am thankful to God for everything. My role and goal are to make Salman independent, so that he grows like any other ordinary person. One that would have a partner that accepts him as he is and that would create a family with him.”

"Salman dreams of becoming a famous artist. He often tells me that one-day, he will follow in the footsteps of the Indian musician, Zakir Hussain, one of the best Tabla musicians in the world. I will not stop supporting him until he finally fulfills his dream," adds Salman’s mother.

Personality trait

Like most children with Williams Syndrome, Salman faces many dietary challenges., and – despite his love of music - is sensitive to noise.

Children with Williams Syndrome also have personality trait means they often may not be able to stop themselves embracing others, show love to other people and never fear strangers. They are also deeply affected by other people’s emotions, which is something that Mrs. Saleem believes is a gift.

“Salman is a wonderful, amazing, fun, and beautiful person,” she smiles. “One of the small things he does is when he sees me sad, he gives me a hug and asks what’s wrong. He is proud of how much I love him. And when I cry, he comforts me by saying he loves me and is worried for me. Such moments make me forget any challenges that I may face and make me stronger and more determined to reach our goal."

Salman’s goal is to become a famous musician, and his mother Bushara says she is determined to help him achieve that dream.

Closer to a dream

Although the sunshine is now receding from the QMA hall, Bushara’s face continues to radiate her love for her son as she and the other audience members applaud him when his performance ends.

Salman turns toward his mother to witness her reaction to his performance, only to find tears streaming down her eyes. These are the tears of joy and pride that come with everything Salman accomplishes.

Having Williams Syndrome has not prevented Salman from growing and improving. Instead, it has motivated him to dream big. And as he takes the applause at Qatar Music Academy, his confidence that he can one day become a star, cheered and loved by millions around the world for his music, is clear for all to see.

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