The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A car struck this filmmaker in a parking garage, changing how she sees her own story and the ones she wants to tell

Nasreen Alkhateeb, a filmmaker, was struck by a car last year in a Whole Foods parking garage. (Andre Chung for The Washington Post)

When Nasreen Alkhateeb first decided to put into words what happened to her in the parking garage of a Washington Whole Foods, she was thinking about her friends and family.

She knew that at some point they would see her limping or invite her to join them for an activity she couldn’t do, and she would have to tell them about that day.

She would have to describe the car and the pain and the animallike scream that scared her even after it stopped coming from her mouth.

She would have to explain why she wasn’t the same.

To avoid having that conversation again and again, she wrote an essay and posted it online for them to read. In it, she detailed how she was walking through the parking garage of the H Street store on July 3, 2018, when she heard a woman scream “Please don’t take that!” and saw a teenager — a purse snatcher, she later learned — jump into the back of a white Volkswagen Jetta. She described how she watched the car barrel toward the exit ramp where she stood, slow down for a brief moment and, when she didn’t move, speed up. She held on to the hood as it accelerated up the ramp.

“Gripping onto the hood, my left foot caught the pavement under the car, snapping the bone that connects my leg to my foot,” she wrote. “An unfamiliar howl emanated out of me that haunts me when I think about it now. Even that sound, coupled with the look of horror on my face, did not affect the increasing speed of the driver. Unfazed, he accelerated more.”

It’s a powerful essay that touches on how she saw the worst and the best in strangers that day. After I read it last year, I reached out to Nasreen to ask whether she was willing to publicly share what happened to her. She wasn’t.

More than a year later, I finally learned why. The reason she couldn’t speak then is the same reason she feels compelled to talk now.

“I’ve had a really rough time in terms of identifying as someone who is broken, who is disabled,” she tells me on a recent afternoon.

“I always saw myself as someone who could do anything,” the 38-year-old says. “If I put my mind to something, there was nothing I couldn’t do. That idea, that belief is still there, but now I have this other thing to think about. I think I’m still coming to terms with the idea that although my body can’t do all the things it did before, I still can. I just have to find another way of doing things.”

Some people are born with their disabilities. Others grow into them with age. Nasreen gained hers in that third way — abruptly, during an otherwise mundane moment. It happened as ice cream sat in her car.

She had just bought groceries from Mom’s Organic Market, but the store’s water dispenser was broken. She figured she would run into the nearby Whole Foods, fill three gallon-size bottles and be back home before anything melted.

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The incident changed that plan, and much more in the year that followed.

Before the incident, she was a filmmaker, named NASA’s cinematographer of the year in 2016. She was used to lugging heavy equipment, squatting to get just the right shot and standing on her feet for hours. She also lived in an apartment that required walking up 49 stairs.

After the incident, she lay in a hospital bed, staring at a foot she could no longer move. Photos from that day show a large bulge on her ankle and her arms and legs covered in scrapes where her skin rubbed against the road when she rolled off the car. She says she held on until it reached the street and she realized it would only go faster. She repeated the license plate until someone wrote it down, but she says no arrests have been made. A police report supports her description of how the car struck her and notes her broken foot.

Nasreen explains that the bone connecting her foot to her leg didn’t just break. It broke in a way that was jagged and complete. Surgeons used two titanium screws to hold it in place, but she says it probably won’t ever be the same.

A year later, she still uses a cane and sometimes a scooter to get around. She also moved out of her apartment because getting up and down the stairs proved too exhausting.

“Now I’m negotiating every single little thing,” she says. “I’m negotiating how much I’m drinking, so I don’t have to go to the bathroom six times a day. I’m negotiating if I can make it to this industry event because there are 20 stairs and there is no handrail.”

She also looks differently at how people with disabilities are talked about and portrayed. She says she has always been conscious of diversity in her work. She identifies as a “multicultural woman of color” who is a survivor of assault and war. When she was 9 years old, The Washington Post wrote about how she and her father ended up trapped in Iraq because their trip to visit family coincided with the start of the Gulf War.

Before her injury, she confesses, she never gave much thought about including people with disabilities in conversations about diversity.

“I’m disappointed in myself that it took this for that shift to happen,” she says. Now, she says, when she looks at a script, she asks, “Where is the disability community?” in the same way that she has long considered, “Where are the racial minorities?” and “Where is the gender diversity?”

This summer, she participated in a program created by a Maryland-based organization, RespectAbility, that aims to increase the presence of people with disabilities in the entertainment industry. The program chose 22 participants who spent five weeks in Los Angeles meeting at major Hollywood studios.

Lauren Appelbaum, vice president of communications for the organization, says the participants all had involvement in the field and different personal experiences, which included deafness, blindness, spinal-cord injuries and mental-health diagnoses. Increasing the visibility of people with disabilities behind the camera is important, she explains, because it makes it more likely that realistic reflections of them will make it onto screens.

How people view and talk about disabilities needs to change, she says.

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“Sometimes I do these trainings and people will self-identify for the first time in front of their colleagues,” she says. During the summer program, one of the participants told her he forgot to take his medication and explained what might happen as a result. She says he told her, “I’ve never been able to tell a supervisor that before.”

It has been a year since Nasreen wanted to keep her story exclusively among friends and relatives, and she now speaks openly about how her injury shaped her story and the ones she wants to tell. A few months ago, she sat on a panel of entertainment leaders and said, “Everyone here, including me, has privilege in some way.”

“The question is: What are you doing with that privilege?” she said. “And that’s a question I ask myself every time I’m sculpting a story.”

She just finished working on a film featuring a lead character who is blind, gay and Jewish.

“And the story is not about his blindness,” Nasreen says. It is also not about him being gay or Jewish. “It’s about something that is much more accessible to people, which is his first crush.”

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