For­ti­fied by his fa­ther’s, oth­ers’ love

Albany Times Union - - FAITH & VALUES - — Rob Brill

salah Yassin Muhid­din

Back­ground: Now 21, he was born in Syria, the son of Kur­dish par­ents who fled Iraq and brought their fam­ily to Al­bany as refugees in 1999 when he was 2 years old. He grad­u­ated from Al­bany High School and the Uni­ver­sity at Al­bany where he ma­jored in Amer­i­can his­tory and phi­los­o­phy. He has two sis­ters, Alaa, who is 22, and Ayah, 12, and a brother, Az­zam, 18. Their fa­ther, Yassin Aref, was the imam at the Masjid As-salam in Al­bany, when he was ar­rested in the sum­mer of 2004 in an FBI counter-ter­ror­ism sting in­volv­ing a fic­ti­tious as­sas­si­na­tion plot. He will be re­leased from fed­eral prison this fall.

You just com­pleted a year as an imam at the Is­lamic Cen­ter of the Cap­i­tal Dis­trict. Spir­i­tual lead­ers bring some­thing in­di­vid­ual to their con­gre­ga­tions. How do de­scribe your role?

My re­li­gious ed­u­ca­tion so far has fo­cused on the study of the Qu­ran. By God’s grace, I com­pleted mem­o­riz­ing the Qu­ran as a ju­nior in high school. I’ve since been study­ing the proper pro­nun­ci­a­tion of the Qu­ran and the dif­fer­ent meth­ods of recita­tion.

I teach chil­dren to read and mem­o­rize the Qu­ran. At times, I lead the five daily prayers at the mosque. Dur­ing the month of Ra­madan, I lead the longer night prayers where the en­tire Qu­ran is re­cited from me­mory over a pe­riod of 30 nights. I am of­ten the one to ini­ti­ate events with the tra­di­tional recita­tion of the Qu­ran. On oc­ca­sion, I de­liver the ser­mon and lead Fri­day ser­vices. The many other roles of an imam are filled by those in our com­mu­nity more learned and ex­pe­ri­enced than me.

You were 7 when your fa­ther was ar­rested. What’s your me­mory of that night and of its im­pact on you and your fam­ily?

I re­mem­ber wak­ing up to com­mo­tion out­side my house. I looked out the win­dow and saw the area filled with law en­force­ment of­fi­cers. I did not make much of it at the mo­ment, rea­son­ing there was some un­re­lated prob­lem on the block. I went back to sleep and woke up in an un­fa­mil­iar place with my sis­ter and brother. I reached for the door and found my mother in an­other room with two women I did not rec­og­nize. They soon took us home. On the way back, my sis­ter, then 8, told them how ex­cited she was be­cause our fa­ther would be tak­ing us to the Great Es­cape that day. The ladies feigned amaze­ment. I only learned about — but could not com­pre­hend — what hap­pened when swarms of re­porters came to our door that morn­ing and spoke to my mother. My fam­ily was moved to a ho­tel so the FBI could raid our house.

It sad­dened us that our fa­ther was taken away, but, as Mus­lims, we are taught to fo­cus on our bless­ings rather than our hard­ships. My fa­ther had ded­i­cated the few years he spent in Al­bany to serv­ing peo­ple, not just by lead­ing them in prayers and teach­ing classes, but also by be­ing with them in times of dif­fi­culty and car­ing for them as fam­ily. He touched the lives of so many and left be­hind a com­mu­nity that cared for his chil­dren as though their own. That was a bless­ing, but God would bless us with even more.

A group of open-minded peo­ple learned of my fa­ther’s case and were ap­palled. They called the frame-up for what it was and voiced anger at the mis­car­riage of jus­tice. They as­sisted dur­ing his trial, pick­eted out­side the court­house on bit­ter winter nights, marched to Bing­ham­ton to de­liver thou­sands of sig­na­tures de­mand­ing jus­tice and ral­lied for his free­dom ev­ery year. The level of sup­port from peo­ple who had not pre­vi­ously known my fa­ther is up­lift­ing. It gave us the courage to stand with them for jus­tice.

How is your fa­ther?

As good as one can be in prison. The hard­est thing for him is think­ing that he was not there while his kids were grow­ing up. He tells me he would have traded the rest of his life in prison for the abil­ity to be with us as we grew up. I tell him I al­ways felt he was with us. If he could not be phys­i­cally present, I knew we were al­ways in his most sin­cere prayers, which com­forted and mo­ti­vated me.

He is near­ing the end of his term in ex­cel­lent health and with an even better psy­che. His faith got him through it all. He tells me that noth­ing can bother you if you ac­cept God’s de­cree and put your trust in him. My fa­ther may have lost his free­dom, but he did not lose his soul. The sys­tem could not break him. What’s next for you?

In col­lege, I viewed study­ing as a means to ex­pand my knowl­edge and broaden my hori­zon. I spent the last year teach­ing as a break from for­mal ed­u­ca­tion and to ex­pe­ri­ence the world in a slightly dif­fer­ent way. My dad will be re­turn­ing this year and will seem­ingly be sent back to Kur­dis­tan. My mother has long been await­ing the chance to see her rel­a­tives again and is pre­par­ing her own re­turn. I want to be there and spend time with them as they go through this tran­si­tion. Af­ter that, it’s back to for­mal ed­u­ca­tion for me. Life is too precious to waste a sec­ond. Study, work, play, and re­lax, but be sure to live ev­ery mo­ment.

Will Wal­dron / Times Union

Salah Yassin Muhid­din, out­side the Is­lamic Cen­ter of the Cap­i­tal Dis­trict in Colonie, where he is an imam. Born in Syria, the son of Kur­dish par­ents who fled their na­tive Iraq, he and his fam­ily came to Al­bany as refugees in 1997.

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