IRUSA Awardees Making Black History Today

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The Price of Doing the Impossible

Decades removed from Dr. Martin Luther King’s infamous appeal to the moral organs of America, the nation is still grappling with what his dream meant. It may very well be true that vast collections of Americans are still learning what it means to even dream. Dreaming in the land of opportunity is a prerequisite to survival. Without a self-induced slumber, and wondering on the grand possibilities of our lives, you can’t quite call yourself an American.

This isn’t to say that in lands known and unknown people aren’t submerged in their own prophetic visions, but as it stands, we have told the world: in America anything is impossible. Or, in the words of the great Muhammad Ali, “Impossible is nothing.”

There’s no denying that this possible has been paid for by the lives of the enslaved and their descendants. And what these fugitive 28 days remind me of are the wages of dreams, the enduring price of possible, and those who step up to the mantle.

There’s no denying that this possible has been paid for by the lives of the enslaved and their descendants.

This Black History Month, we will never be blessed with enough time to engage every sacrifice that should be charted. Some day, that may be true. Yet in light of fleeting time, this Black History Month I’ve chosen to continue honoring two people breathing the example of doing the impossible. How can we learn what route we should take without considering the living luminaries lighting the path? What is truly understanding the sacrifices made by those in the past without seeing those who are sacrificing now? This Black History month, the possible they exemplify has truly made the hardest bargain for my attention.

What a ‘Principle’ Is

Image result for akbar cookAt one of Islamic Relief USA’s galas celebrating its 25-year anniversary, I watched Akbar Cook, a heavy-faced, dark complexion man with mountainous stature, lay his hands around the podium. He was the recipient of IRUSA’s Custodianship Award, given to the community leader who put the survival of others far before himself. I’ve heard this story before: A young man encounters a body of youth being enclosed by a neighborhood pulsating with violence, and does what’s necessary to become a barrier between them and unnamed bullets. Cook is the principal for West Side High School in New Jersey, a school once known for having as much conflict within its halls as the streets outside could provide.

I’ve heard this story before: A young man encounters a body of youth being enclosed by a neighborhood pulsating with violence, and does what’s necessary to become a barrier between them and unnamed bullets.

Imagining the Possible

When Cook started to lose students—either by violence or the burden of being responsible for far more than what school-age children should have to bear—he began to open the school after hours as a safe space. He called this program “Lights On”. In the beginning, few would walk through the gym doors. By the following summer, the school gym was bursting at the seams with over 300 youth a day—not all whom were his own.

The glow of what was occurring hadn’t yet caught the eye of the wider public. As always with humble efforts, a single moment of compassion folded with imagination led to the illumination of an entire community, in this case at an understated school tucked away in New Jersey.

As always with humble efforts, a single moment of compassion folded with imagination led to the illumination of an entire community.

When a student missed multiple days because of being bullied for a dirty uniform, Cook installed washing machines in the school. It shifted the possibilities of what a school should and needs to be in a divested area. With the media attention garnered over the past two years, Cook even had to turn away donations of detergent from people across the nation who were inspired to keep paying it forward. It’s what Cook imagined in the here-and-now that makes his story not only great, but veer away from myth. He made a decision in real time and effected real change for real people. 

Her Calling to Mercy

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Suliman Abdul-Mutakallim lost his life in 2015 to a gun held by a teen that hadn’t reached the legal age to rent a car. The young man who pulled the trigger would also later lose his life in an instant. For the foreseeable future, his days would be spent touching the bed of his cell, and the stoic food of a state penitentiary. After the gavel sounded, Suliman’s mother, Rukiye Abdul-Mutakallim, asked for permission to touch the youth who had taken her son while he was bringing food home to his family. The judge agreed, and Rukiye embraced him, and reminded him of the comfort found in God’s mercy. She then turned to his mother and reassured her that she held no hatred for them.

After the gavel sounded, Suliman’s mother, Rukiye Abdul-Mutakallim asked for permission to touch the youth who had taken her son while he was bringing food home to his family. The judge agreed, and Rukiye embraced him, and reminded him of the comfort found in God’s mercy. She then turned to his mother and reassured her that she held no hatred for them.

The Possibility of Forgiveness

“Those young men—although they took my son’s life in the manner they did—we need to fight for them. Because they are going to come back out. And they will be older. But if they have no light, then this same disease is going to repeat itself, and they are going to take another person’s child’s life and eventually their own,” Rukiye said. She continued, “And every mother’s heart must feel this.” Rukiye was selected as the recipient of Islamic Relief USA’s Compassion Award, for her far-reaching service of community, including the limitless compassion that punctuated that moment inside the courtroom.

We are often taught to forgive in passing, and the actual practice of how it happens in real time escapes us.

We are often taught to forgive in passing, and the actual practice of how it happens in real time escape us. How could we estimate our own heart’s capacity for it, without trials? For Rukiye, she was pushed to the margins of a human’s forgiveness through the loss of her child. At a time when two lives could be thrown away, Rukiye bore forgiveness for a young man traveling the canal of being marked for life as a criminal. She opened the door to the ephemeral possibilities of forgiveness, and embodied love.

Still Doing the Impossible Today

The experience of African Americans is dynamic, tragic, and triumphant. It’s through this lens that humanitarian work has been centered. This Black History Month has to also be about the countless trailblazers and soul workers who are paying the price to do the impossible today. Akbar and Rukiye are not phantoms passing by night. Both carry on a legacy embedded in the stories of the millions of others who’ve tilled the societal lands of America. It’s through examples like theirs we gain a compass. Choosing to see, acknowledge, and celebrate the fruits of their journeys allows us to walk with them now and prayerfully carry the torch tomorrow. 

Choosing to see, acknowledge, and celebrate the fruits of their journeys allows us to walk with them now and prayerfully carry the torch tomorrow.

Article written by:

Tariq is part of the Communications & External Relations team at Islamic Relief USA.

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