When doctors diagnosed Bilal Mallick with leukemia in January, they told his parents a bone marrow transplant often presented the best chance for survival and a cure.
But of 9 million potential donors on the national registry, only 160,000 are South Asian, making the likelihood of finding a match unlikely.
So as Bilal, 15, began his first round of chemotherapy at Advocate Hope Children's Hospital in Oak Lawn last month, his congregation at the Islamic Foundation of Villa Park set out to save his life, spawning a movement in mosques across suburban Chicago and the nation.
On Friday, hundreds of Chicago area Muslims will flock to mosques in Villa Park, Des Plaines and Naperville to participate in weekly congregational prayers. They also will have the opportunity to swab their cheeks and add their names to the roster of bone marrow donors ready to step up if their DNA is a match.
Unable to fight off a sudden infection, Bilal died Sunday before many of the drives could take place. His unexpected death has fueled the urgency of the cause for the Muslim community.
"It's not just about Bilal," said Shaheen Ahmed, a family friend. "They could be a match for someone else. It's been a teachable moment for us."
The movement reflects an about-face for many in the Muslim community who previously shied away from bone marrow donation because religious teachings discouraged them from putting their own well-being in jeopardy.
But a nonsurgical innovation in bone marrow harvesting has made it more acceptable and even encouraged, said Sheikh Abdool Rahman Khan, resident scholar at the Islamic Foundation of Villa Park, where Bilal's family worships.
"Saving one life is like saving humanity. So we see the saving of a life any way we can so long as our life is not endangered," Khan said.
While a bone marrow transplant does not guarantee a full recovery, it enables a body weakened by chemotherapy to create enough white blood cells to fight off infections and handle more aggressive chemotherapy or radiation treatments. But bone marrow registration drives are rare.
Organizers of the registration drive hope to recruit at least 1,000 participants in the Chicago area. They hope to add 20,000 names nationwide. They also want to pay tribute to a young man who overcame obstacles and built an unlikely social network as soon as he arrived at Naperville North High School in 2009.
"Unfortunately it takes someone to become afflicted for this to happen," said Jennifer Baird, who oversees regional recruitment for the National Marrow Donor Program, also called Be the Match. "(Bilal's) story is what drove this."
Bilal was born March 23, 1995, in London. Four years later, his family moved to the Chicago area, where his father was raised. They now live in Lisle.
Named for the first of Prophet Muhammad's companions to call people to prayer, Bilal spent his eighth-grade year studying with a private tutor to become a hafiz, a person who can recite the Muslim holy book by heart.
Bilal had learned a portion by the time he enrolled for his freshman year at Naperville North. An avid soccer player for several west suburban leagues, he went out for the high school football team.
Teammates say the wide receiver and offensive guard was persistent on and off the field. He rarely warmed the bench, even while fasting during Ramadan. When the other players ignored him in the cafeteria, he kept sitting at their table.
"It's very special when someone makes the effort to try to befriend you," said sophomore defensive end Zac Martin. "I really liked that about Bilal. He was always open to everyone."
His father, Tanveer, said his son was also protective. In the hospital, he worried more about his parents and three younger siblings. He also sent numerous text messages to friends and teachers from his hospital bed.
"He was just darling," said Spanish teacher Emily Bishop, who received one of those texts, adding that he walked into her class every day eating a sandwich. "Whatever he had, he shared. He shared his heart. He shared his sandwich. He shared his smile. That's how he lived his life"
Khan believes the bone marrow campaign organized in Bilal's honor is one final opportunity for him to share life with others who need a fighting chance.
"His time was up, we believe," Khan said. "But our responsibility still continues — to help. Who knows? Out of this drive we can save 10 lives, 20 lives. His legacy lives on."
Muslim teen inspires bone marrow drive
15-year-old's death fuels urgency of adding South Asians to registry
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