Albany obviously has a good PR machine if its making news all the way here in the UAE....
Renewing faith in human nature
Last Updated: December 13. 2008 8:49PM UAE / December 13. 2008 4:49PM GMT
ALBANY, NEW YORK // Amin Abdullah says Islam helped him to change his ways and begin a new life without drugs and crime, and now he is determined to help others do the same.
Mr Abdullah, 70, is the driving force behind a faith-based, Islamic shelter and treatment programme that he says will be the first of its kind to rehabilitate former prisoners who are Muslims.
“Muslims are shortchanged here because there’s nothing geared towards helping them. There’re lots of Christian programmes aimed at helping the homeless and those just out of prison but not Muslim ones,” he said. “We aim to help anyone, including Christians, but as long as they pray.”
His group has raised US$20,000 (Dh73,454) so far and spent almost $7,000 to buy a large house in a working-class district of Albany, the state capital of New York. Once they have the $75,000 needed to renovate the building and cover costs, the House of Forgiveness will open to help up to 12 residents in a year-long programme.Mr Abdullah does much of his community organising at the Masjid As-Salam mosque, where faithful regulars have helped him to raise funds and register the House of Forgiveness as a non-profit group. The mosque was raided by the FBI in 2004 and one man was charged with money-laundering. Locals said attempts to bring charges of terrorism were unfounded and justifiably failed.
The US has the highest prison population in the world with more than 2.3 million behind bars. A rising proportion of prisoners are Muslim – some groups said as many as 15 per cent – and a majority of these Muslims are African-American. Mr Abdullah hopes to stem a tide of recidivism, using a Muslim framework to prevent former prisoners drifting back into drug addiction and crime upon their release.
Sitting on his mosque’s green rugs, Mr Abdullah looked back sadly at his life. Born a Christian in Puerto Rico with the name Felix Manuel Vega, he became involved in alcohol and drug-smuggling at a young age.
“I had a very painful childhood. My father was a merchant sailor and had access to everything. I had my first drink at age three and would deliver alcohol for the local gangs on a bicycle,” he said. “There was a lot of machismo around and I soon graduated on to guns, drugs and prostitutes.”
He moved to New York in 1956, married and had five children but was hooked on heroin. “I was in and out of jail, don’t ask me how many times.” Around this time, he also started a long process of learning about religion through the black Nation of Islam group, which grew in popularity among African-Americans in the 1960s and is considered heretical by a majority of Muslims.
Mr Abdullah said he was now a “mainstream Sunni Muslim” and changed his name in 1989.
“Since I became a Muslim, little by little there were changes in me before I made a 180-degree turnaround,” he said. “I always say I was meant to have the experience of being a drug addict because it made me so much more effective as a counsellor.”
Ibrahim Wilson, another Muslim youth counsellor who helped Mr Abdullah to found the House of Forgiveness, said it was a fallacy that African-Americans only became Muslims in prison. “I have never been in prison and I’m here to learn from Amin and his experiences,” he said.
Kareem Abdul-Matin, another colleague, said African-Americans were not the only group of people to take drugs in the US. “In this neighbourhood we have addicts from Pakistan, Syria, Egypt, Somalia, Sudan, Afghanistan – all over,” he said. “Some cultures prefer to sweep the problem under the carpet.”
Albany, a small and provincial town compared to New York several hours away by car, already has a high concentration of drug treatment centres. The theory is that addicts are less likely to be healed in big cities where drugs are more easily available.
Rules at the House of Forgiveness will be particularly strict and are listed in paperwork filed with the local authorities. They include obligatory prayers five times daily and attendance at prayer classes six times a week; zero tolerance for drugs, alcohol, gambling, sexual activity on or near the premises; no eating in individual rooms; no going to bed until after the evening meal; restricted telephone calls; and pre-approval for any outside excursions.
Staff will be “duty-bound to respect and follow the injunctions of the Quran”. They will assess residents in different educational and vocational goals including money and food management, personal hygiene and interpersonal skills.
“It is our prayer that House of Forgiveness be a place of refuge and a beacon of hope for Muslims or those who are homeless, suffering from drug and alcohol addiction and other social problems,” the mission statement said.
Mr Abdullah said most rehabilitation programmes were akin to big business with an eye only on the profit margin.
He spoke about restoring a sense of dignity to former prisoners. “I didn’t love myself and it was only through Islam that I got to understand about love.”http://www.thenational.ae/article/20081214/PAGETHREE/487892311