Monday, July 23, 2007

How to Help

To create the Alia Ansari Friendship Park will require a team of people to do everything from fundraising (to purchase the land) to traveling over to Mazir e-Sharif to help with the construction and playground equipment installation. We need people who can help manage this blog and keep the information fresh. Subscribe to this feed and you will be updated through this blog about how to get involved. The comments are moderated, so if you want to send a private message by adding a comment, please do so. If you put your contact information in the comment we will not publish it, but we will respond to you personally. If you have some encouraging words or good advice then we could display such comments.

Friday, July 20, 2007

April Trip to Visit the Ansari Family in Afganistan

In April 2007 I traveled to Afghanistan with a primary goal to visit with the Ansari family. The following links take you to AOL Pictures where you can sign in as a guest and view my pictures from my trip. The best way is to view them as a slide show because many of the pictures have captions which explain the photo.
Visiting Mazar e-Sharif
Ansari Family Visit
Visiting Pol e-Khumry
Ghazni Sister City Visit
Visiting Kabul and MMCC

I had a great time in Afghanistan, and I am looking forward to working on follow-up projects, especially the MMCC tour to California in January 2008 and a proposed playground/soccer field in Mazar e-Sharif in honor of Alia Ansari.
Funeral for Alia Ansari

On October 27 & 28, 2006, in honor of Alia Ansari, a Friday funeral and Saturday memorial service complemented each other, and Alia’s husband Ahmad Ansari embraced them both. On Friday a traditional Islamic funeral was held at Lake Elizabeth in Fremont. The next day a community memorial service was held at Centerville Presbyterian Church. Both services honored Alia’s memory and were dignified and respectful ceremonies.

The Islamic Funeral at Lake Elizabeth was characterized by somber duty. It is extremely important to Muslims that their dead are correctly cared for through proper rituals and prayers. Usually this happens in one of their mosques, but due to the large crowd expected the decision was made to hold this ceremony at Lake Elizabeth, with the blessing of city officials. Various Islamic lobbying groups like CAIR (Council of American Islamic Relations) put pressure on city officials, but thankfully there was no grandstanding on the hate-crime issue. I was concerned when Sheikh Hamza Yousef, an American convert to Islam, showed up to lead the prayers, but he was circumspect in his comments and the whole affair was beautifully somber and respectful.

Before the ritual funeral prayer, there was an opportunity to pray the regular Friday noon prayer. About 50 men participated, with many Muslims casually standing and visiting during this daily ritual. My friend Dr. Rajabally was among those standing with me and he explained that many had already preformed the duty of the noon prayer, so they didn’t need to repeat it.

After the standard Friday prayers Sheikh Yousef gave a short message and then everyone was directed away from the shady grove of trees into the bright sunlight for the traditional Islamic prayer for the dead. Park officials would not allow Alia’s casket to leave the hearse, so the driver took some care to position the vehicle in order that her body was facing the East, just so. Then all the men lined up in straight rows, making sure there were no gaps as we stood shoulder to shoulder. Pastor Roth and I joined in one of the back rows of men and when a gap appeared in the line in front of me I was motioned to step in and fill the gap. Muslim women formed their straight lines a few paces behind the men and everyone else just watched from the fringes of these uniform rows. The Islamic funeral prayer, called janazah, only takes 3 to 5 minutes with everyone standing with their shoes on. There are four sections to the silent prayer, each transition marked by the leader announcing “Allahu Akbar” (meaning “God is great”) and a motion bringing the hands to the ears, symbolizing listening to God. The concluding action is to say “Salaam Alakum” (meaning “Peace unto you”) to the right and left shoulder. The two pictures (above and below) of Friday’s funeral service are from the San Jose Mercury News, which produced a tasteful slide show with sound. Here’s the link:

One picture is captioned “Ahmad … hugs a participant.” At first I didn’t realize that I am the unnamed “participant.”

The church-hosted memorial on Saturday, October 28, was not covered much by the media, in spite of the fact that Ahmad brought his 6 children and both their grandmothers. Only one newspaper, the Fremont Argus, published this photo of the family. Most of the news services picked up the “possible hate crime” mantra and ignored the community memorial service and the great photo opportunity to touch the heart of this community and reach out in love to this beautiful family.

The Ansari family arrived very late, partly due to their mistaking our church with the nearby Catholic church, but fortunately I had prepared a slideshow, which scrolled verses from the Quran and Injil over-and-over as we waited. In deference to their traditions and culture we did not have any music, but maintained a respectful silence until they arrived. When they entered, the entire group of about 200 spontaneously arose to their feet, and I ushered them to honored positions in the front row.

I welcomed everyone and introduced Centerville Presbyterian’s senior pastor Dr. Greg Roth who opened the ceremony in prayer. Then Alia’s younger brother, Hassan, shared about the family history and how Alia helped raise him after the death of their father soon after they arrived in the US as refugees in the 80’s. Then at the request of Ahmad, the children’s pediatrician and care nurse both shared their love for the children, and assured us of their well being and support through this tragedy. I then introduced Dr. Mohammad Qayumi, a highly respected Afghan leader and the newly installed president of California State University East Bay. He narrated a video segment of the previous day’s funeral service at Lake Elizabeth and explained the funeral customs and meanings of the rituals. He also challenged the community to contribute funds for the future education of the children. Then Ahmad specifically wanted Rona Popal, the executive director of the Afghan Coalition, to say a few words.

Also sharing during the service was Imam Shakir who recited some verses from the Qur’an and closed the ceremony in prayer along with Pastor Roth. The reason I see comfort as a defining characteristics of our church-hosted ceremony should be evident from the presence of the children and the loving support they have received from the community. The aspect of unity was apparent in the obvious interfaith participation.