West Hempstead native shares cross-country wheelchair journey in film

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Five years ago, West Hempstead native Suheil Aghabi completed a 3,100-mile, 100-day cross-country trip in his wheelchair, which was documented by a film crew. The resulting project, “Roll With Me: A Journey Across America,” made its debut at select theaters in New York and Los Angeles on Monday. The film is also set to premiere on Netflix on Saturday.

Aghabi, 48, who is of Palestinian descent, has appeared in shows such as “Dexter,” “NUMB3RS” and “Joan of Arcadia” and goes by the stage name Gabriel Cordell. He made the journey from Santa Monica, Calif., to his alma mater, West Hempstead High School, he said, so he could fulfill a promise he made in high school to accomplish a remarkable feat by age 45. While on the road, he worked through emotional strain and waning strength in his shoulders, as well as a number of issues that delayed his arrival date by 19 days. He found strength in prayer and sheer will.

“There’s nothing to prepare you for a challenge like this,” said Aghabi, who now lives in Castaic, Calif. “You have to be passionate about the project. People want something to cheer for and they want to be a part of something special.”

Aghabi, who was paralyzed from the waist down in a 1992 car accident, said the support during his journey from friends and strangers he met along the way was overwhelming.

“It was humbling and it was endless,” he said. “That was the lifeline that kept this project on track. It was definitely a team effort.”

He thanked his “Roll With Me” film crew — Joshua Streeter, Angel Marckwordt, Chris Yanke, Christian Link and Sharon Swart, Derek Gibbs, director Lisa France, and his nephew and Chris Kawas — for helping him achieve his vision.

On their way across the country, Aghabi and his crew faced challenges that tested their resolve to finish — from his shoulder pain when he reached Deming, N.M., to the torrential rains and high winds of a monster storm in Rolla, Mo., in the Midwest’s Tornado Alley. Through it all, he was determined to complete his journey.

Piecing the odyssey together

Capturing the essence of Aghabi’s tour in a 90-minute film proved as challenging as the trek, according to France, who met Aghabi in 2013. “It was crazy just to survive the physical and mental toll that this trip took on us,” said France, who once almost quit filmmaking to go to nursing school. “That trip gave us a new kind of high, and in the end, we became a family. The next high was for us to finish the movie.”

France said the crew had more than 4,000 hours of footage, and that the first draft of the film was three hours long. Swart helped trim it down to its current running time, and credits the film's editor, Jeff Buccellato, for pulling off this feat.

“The lengthy editing process would have been a Herculean task for any editor,” Swart said, “but Jeff went above and beyond.”

“It’s almost like an entertainment miracle that we were able to finish this project,” Aghabi said. “It makes me so proud, and I’m just really elated.”

A message of unity

France described her film crew — which comprised U.S. Marine and Army veterans, a mortgage broker and a lesbian  — as a bunch of people from different walks of life.

“Our movie is about a pioneer, and it’s about a massive array of people,” France said. “With everything that’s happening in our country right now, this movie shows people that we don’t have to fight. We can actually have peace together, accept our differences, and we can all come together for the greater good.”

She added that promoting unity and giving people a call to action were the documentary’s goals. “Gabe’s sheer determination to do this journey despite whatever obstacle was in his way . . . I was immediately drawn to him by his willpower,” Swart said. “His redemption story is so universal, and it really spoke to me.”

Swart also said that as the film gains more traction, the “Roll With Me” crew would like to share it with college students and at-risk populations.

Aghabi said he hopes the film leads to more motivational speaking opportunities. “I’d like for this film to inspire people in a way that’s going to make them question their lives, and that it will somehow enable them to live up to their full potential.”

Still rolling

Despite the trip’s physical toll, Aghabi has rolled for numerous other causes. In 2014, on the International Day of Peace, he completed a 62-mile trip for Roll for Peace, from Haifa to Tel Aviv. Roll for Peace asked people to see past physical, cultural and historical differences and focus instead on shared humanity.

Aghabi embarked on a four-day, 123-mile trip for Roll for North Shore Animal League America from the Montauk Lighthouse to Animal League America’s Port Washington campus in 2015. Proceeds from that effort helped save the lives and raise awareness of homeless dogs, cats, puppies and kittens.

In September, Aghabi rolled up 14,115-foot Pikes Peak, in Colorado, in just over nine hours. “That trip was very intimidating,” he admitted, “but after I came across Erik Weihenmayer’s story” — of an athlete who became the first blind person to reach the summit of Mount Everest in 2001 — “I decided that I still want to challenge myself and push my limits.”

Aghabi’s next roll will be a five-day journey through Death Valley National Park next summer. He said that because of the sweltering heat, which could melt his wheelchair tires, and the hilly terrain, this might be his most difficult challenge.

“This is literally a matter of life and death, so this might be my last roll,” Aghabi told the Herald. “I’m in pain every day, but my body is still functional. As long as I have the motivation, I think that we, as people, owe it to ourselves to see where our potential can lead us. The greatest gift we have is our will.”

For more information on Aghabi and his documentary, go to www.rollwithmethemovie.com.