Muslim Man Builds Homes, Trust, Legacy in Detroit
Muslim Man Builds Homes, Trust, Legacy in Detroit
by Rochelle Riley 2015 Restorative Narrative Fellow
This story was originally published in The Detroit Free Press on July 5, 2015, as part of ivoh’s Restorative Narrative Fellowship. Photos by Seth Herald.
Waseem Ullah’s outlook on life was cemented before he was born.
He immigrated to the U.S. 50 years after his parents joined millions of families in the largest migration in history following the partition of the Indian Empire into India and Pakistan in 1947.
His parents fled India for Pakistan, tragedy dogging them the entire way.
“My dad lost his son and his mom on his way,” Ullah said. The two were killed in mob fighting during riots that began after the partition. Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs were killing each other on both sides of the new India-Pakistan border, and they all suffered great loss of life.
The Ullah family chose their new home while in despair and by happenstance. When their train stopped in the small city of Mandi Baha-Udin, “they saw the minaret of a mosque, and they said, ‘This is where we want to make a home in Pakistan.’ ”
And like that, they were starting over.
New life, new country
“In their first few nights off the train, they lived in the mosque,” Ullah said. “They were homeless. My dad was homeless! And after two or three days, a family gave them room in their home, and that was where they stayed, with this family, for a month or so. Then they started getting on their feet.”
His parents raised his five boys and three girls. Ullah immigrated to America in 1997, three years after completing medical school in Lahore, Pakistan. After seven years of training at American universities, he came to Detroit in 2004.
He worked four years at the John Dingell VA Hospital, then four years at Henry Ford Hospital. He now works at Allegiance Hospital in Jackson.
The youngest of the boys, Ullah lives in a typical suburban home, a two-story, four-bedroom, brick house in Ann Arbor, three houses down from his brother, a gastroenterologist. His other brother, an engineer, lives in California.
When his parents died, they left an inheritance to their children that Ullah felt he should not spend on himself because his parents had already provided him an education. He said his faith dictated that he spend it to help others.
“We believe we live this life for a limited period of time, and we just go away,” he said. “We have been here, and we didn’t get a chance to visit my parents, and they visited only once. So we didn’t get a chance to spend that much time to help them, to be with them.”
So he chose his father by helping him, even in death, to build a home for a new Muslim family.
The project Ullah is helping to fund in Detroit mimics one done by the Inner City Muslim Action Network, which offered a tour during the 2010 Islamic Society of North America conference in Chicago. The network wanted to showcase what was being done with donations in a single area on the city’s south side.
The tour guide, Rami Nashashibi, gave the group a history of Chicago, the role Muslims were playing and how faith and community were tied together.
“All of that sounded inspirational,” Ullah said. “Then they took us to this house they wanted to rehabilitate. As we were leaving, I asked Rami, ‘How much do you think you need to start the house?’ Rami gave me the amount. That was the end of it. I came back to the hotel to the conference.”
But later, he told his wife he had decided to donate the money to the Muslim Action Network.
“She said, ‘Oh no! You’re crazy! You don’t know them. You don’t want to get into trouble trying to do a good thing.’ ”
Ullah was used to people looking at his community “through a security lens.” Even in the best neighborhoods, even with the average Joe, there is a fear that has permeated life since 9/11. But he decided the project was too important to let fear stop him.
That wasn’t the case when his 17-year-old son, Subhan, president of student government at Washtenaw International High School, chose his topic for Model United Nations. Despite great grades and involvement in a congressional campaign, Subhan’s topic left his father with a tough decision to make.
“He told me briefly about it, I ignored it. I figured he was doing a history thing,” Ullah said.
“But then I said, ‘What’s the topic for Model UN?’ He said, ‘It’s ISIS.’
“I said, ‘What?!’ “I told him, ‘You cannot go on my computer and start researching ISIS. You are a 15- to 17-year-old youngster who is going on the Internet doing research on ISIS. There are only two outcomes. Either you will do bad research and present a good point of view or you’ll do good, extensive research, and then you’ll be in trouble.’ ”
Their heated argument ended with his son skipping the competition.
But Ullah said he thinks the time of fearing Muslims will one day pass. He is undaunted about the future of Muslims in America.
“My hope is these things will settle down in a few years, and we’ll have a reset and the boogeymen will change as it did with Japanese Americans. This experience will pass, and we’ll be better than we are now. I’m very optimistic.
“There are things that are in my control, and there are things not in my control. What somebody else does here with my faith, I don’t have any control on it. All I can control is what I do with my faith.”
And that faith, right now, is telling him to build houses in Detroit.
Contact Rochelle Riley: 313-223-4473. Listen to her on “In the Mix with Marie Osborne and Rochelle Riley” on WJR-760 (AM) at 4 p.m. Sundays.
Occupation: Radiologist; Founder of Indus Community Action Network and partners with nonprofit Neighborly Needs.
Career: In 2004, Ullah came to Detroit, where he worked four years at the John Dingell VA Hospital, then four years at Henry Ford Hospital. He now works at Allegiance Hospital in Jackson.
Education: Completed medical school in Lahore, Pakistan in 1994; completed a one-year medical internship in Chicago; a four-year radiology residency in Bryn Mawr, Pa.; and a two-year fellowship in neuroradiology at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia.
Quote: “Somebody said ‘Home is not where your grandparents are buried. Home is where you’re going to raise your kids,’ ” Ullah said. “So this is where we are going to raise our kids.”