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November 6, 2019

A life well lived


November 6, 2019

In September 1977 I arrived in Cincinnati, Ohio to attend graduate business school. I knew almost nothing about this place except that they offered me a full scholarship. That was sufficient reason for me.

As I settled in, I realized there was a very small Muslim Community here. No organized mosque and no Halal meat shop.

Today, 42 years later, the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati is one of the largest and best designed Muslim Community Centers in the US. It is spread across 17 acres with a fully functioning mosque, Community Center and Islamic school. A testament to how the Muslim community has grown and thrived in this part of the country as it has in many parts of the US.

How well the Muslim community has organized itself showed up recently in a very personal way to my family and I. After a prolonged decline in health, my father Syed Hasan Shareef, passed away in Cincinnati aged 91, on October 24, 2019. Knowing where things were headed, we had contacted the Islamic Center a couple of days ahead. They connected us with a funeral home that had been fully trained in Islamic funeral and burial procedures. Within an hour they came to pick up the body.

Later that day, my siblings and I went to the funeral home to prepare the body for burial. Two gentlemen from the Islamic Center joined us and guided us through the process. My father was buried with dignity and affection after namaz-e-janaza following Juma prayers at the Islamic center.

The loss of a parent is a tragic milestone in anyone's life but it is also a moment to reflect on the departed parent’s legacy. My father was a civil engineer, graduate of NED Engineering College soon after the creation of Pakistan. He worked for various government departments – Pakistan Railways, Navy, and the Atomic Energy Commission.

In this last role in the 1960s he supervised the construction of Pakistan’s first nuclear reactor just outside Islamabad, at a place called Nilore. Most of Pakistan’s nuclear scientists were trained at this facility called the Pakistan Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology (PINSTECH).

After leaving government service, he started his own construction company. Most important to him was the work he did in the development and construction of low-income housing in North Karachi. He had determined that Pakistan was facing a severe shortage of housing in a price range that a lower-income family could afford. He built several hundred independent houses on small plots that could be purchased for Rs50,000 to Rs75,000.

In 1971, a humanitarian crisis erupted in newly independent Bangladesh following the civil war. There were thousands of Urdu speakers in the country who were stranded. Some managed to return to what was then West Pakistan. But 100,000 or so were left stateless.

Pakistan was unwilling or unable to take them and, having sided with Pakistan during the civil war, they were not accepted in Bangladesh. Today almost 300,000 descendants of these people remain in refugee camps in Bangladesh. My father worked tirelessly to find a way to bring these unfortunate souls to Pakistan.

At several points in time, various Pakistani governments agreed to it. Financing was lined up through various global Muslim charitable organizations, but in the end this effort failed.

Now, almost two generations later, most of these refugees are starting to assimilate in Bangladesh, having lost all hope of repatriation to Pakistan. American charitable organizations such as OBAT Helpers are trying to support these communities with investment in education, health and infrastructure.

My father lived a meaningful life dedicated to helping those less fortunate. May his soul rest in peace.

The writer is a freelance contributor based in Washington DC.

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