Instead of hiding his weaknesses and attempting to project an image of perfection, he openly shared them in the hope that we may excel where he fell short.
Behind our father’s dark brown eyes are thousands of stories, recounting the journey from boyhood to manhood, from poverty in Somalia to life in the U.S., and from solitary graduate study to father of five. Among the earliest of these stories is one that highlights his character and embodies the values he has lived by. It was our favourite growing up. “Abo, Abo, tell us about when you tried to follow the sun!” we would exclaim as we tugged at his shirt. As children, the story of a boy pondering the sun’s final destination after dusk was both entertaining and humorous. As young adults, we appreciate the intellectual curiosity and recognise the qualities of a scientist in the making. His story gave us permission to ask questions and encouraged us to contemplate the seemingly mundane.
As our father shared more and more of his childhood experiences with us over the years, a comprehensive image of him began to form in our minds where only a shadow had once been. We began to understand some of the reasons behind the characteristics we admired but often objected to: his staunch commitment to using logic over emotion, his focus on academics, and his disapproval of what he perceived to be “time-wasting” activities. As a boy, his father had projected those values. In fact, playtime was a luxury; his father deflated each and every soccer ball he attempted to keep.
Our father’s decisions and actions later in life were no less extraordinary than the countless times he ran barefoot towards the sun, hoping to discover its resting place. He attended the University of Florida as a Fulbright Scholar and after completing a Master’s Degree in 1988 fought for permission to pursue a PhD in Chemistry even though he was told “there is no need for PhDs in Somalia.” Later he would jump for joy – literally – when his second attempt at obtaining political asylum was successful. While completing his research in 1991, he met and married a single mother and raised her daughter, Jenna, as his own, never treating her any differently than the four children he would later have.
Throughout our youth, our father repeated adages common to most households: “Work hard,” “Don’t give up,” and “Be a good Muslim.” Often these statements are met with a swift nod of the head, an eye roll, or an “I KNOW DAD!” We were no exception. Fortunately, in addition to the frequent reminders, we did not have to look very far for real world examples of what those phrases meant. Research and development in chemistry turned out to be an unstable field. Lay-offs were a constant threat and our father faced the grim task of job-searching and moving the family on more than a few occasions. Even when high-paying job opportunities in the winemaking industry presented themselves, he was not tempted, choosing instead to wait – however long it took – for a halal means to provide for his family. During those times, his faith was only strengthened, hardship and uncertainty serving as fuel for dhikr.
His patience and commitment to the tenets of Islam were rewarded when he was selected for a competitive position that involved studying corrosion in the oil fields of Kuwait for four years. For the second time in his life he jumped for joy and, for the first time, finances were not a major source of stress.
This all changed in 2006 during the family’s first visit to Somalia.
A car accident on a rocky road between Hargeisa and Burao took the life of our grandmother and resulted in life-threatening injuries to our mother. With fractures in her face, neck, spine, and arm, our mother received intensive medical attention for three months in the Johannesburg Hospital Trauma Unit, but would require regular follow-up care for nearly one year. The one-hour drive from their desert camp to the hospital in Kuwait City proved burdensome, and our father decided to move the family back to the U.S., two years before the end of his contract. We recall the furrows in his brow and the overwhelming moments of silence at the dinner table, but we also recognised the unspoken strength he exhibited in carrying the weight of a family tragedy on his shoulders. He did not utter a complaint nor did he question the course of events. He accepted Allah’s (SWT) will, expressed gratitude, and pushed forward.
Our father may have been a hero in our eyes, but he was also human. Instead of hiding his weaknesses and attempting to project an image of perfection, he openly shared them in the hope that we may excel where he fell short. “You will not succeed in life if you do not learn to speak up,” he would say, before delving into the ways in which his career and social life have been influenced by his communication and public speaking skills. “I should spend more time with you…with the children” he whispered once with tears in his eyes. His confessions helped us confront our own shortcomings and recognise the importance of ongoing self-assessment and improvement. They also helped us understand the unique ways in which he expresses his love; while daily hugs and kisses may be the currency some parents use, every hour of work and each decision he made was completed with the family’s well-being in mind.
Behind our father’s dark brown eyes are thousands of untold stories, roller-coaster accounts of success and strife. We have had the privilege of riding some of those twists and turns, and ups and downs. The Prophet Muhammad (SAW) said, “No father has given a greater gift to his children than good moral training.” [Tirmidhi] Our father’s gift, the legacy he leaves, are a set of life skills built on his own experiences…and the image of a boy, driven and unrelenting, running into the horizon.
Jenna Evans is a graduate student in Health Services Research at the University of Toronto. She enjoys the challenge of academic research and was inspired to pursue a PhD by her father.
Maryam Ali is a Senior at Stockdale High School in Bakersfield, California. She loves experimenting with different ingredients in the kitchen and aspires to follow in her father’s footsteps by studying chemistry.