Giving thanks for an extraordinary mother
Originally posted in Mercury News
Just five weeks earlier we were laughing and arguing as mother and son often do. But on Oct. 22, 2015 I hugged my mother, Amatul Karim Nusrat Chaudhry, for the last time.
On Sept. 14 all appeared well. On Sept. 17 we discovered end stage cancer in her liver, rapidly spreading throughout her abdomen. By Oct. 22, my mother’s vitals began to fade, and I pleaded with her doctors to revive her. I was soon forced to make the hardest decision of my life–order her physicians to stop the code. In other words, stop efforts to resuscitate her. She gave me life, and I had the painful privilege, and burden, to ensure she went in peace.
A few days later on a sunny California day I held my father’s tender hand as we lowered my mother to her final resting place. In the whirlwind that was the previous month, my mind wandered to the start of a journey we began in February of 1983, when I was eight, and my family first migrated to the United States.
I didn’t know the culture. I didn’t speak the language. I didn’t come from a wealthy family. And I didn’t have access to California’s best private schools. I was thrown into our public school system mid-year with little more than a pencil in my hand.
Today in 2015 I am privileged to serve as the President & CEO of Silicon Valley Education Foundation. As one of the nation’s leading education non-profits, we serve the Silicon Valley, and beyond, to provide educational resources for all children, but particularly to underprivileged children, girls, and children of color. Our goal is to work with public schools to provide every child the opportunity to maximize their potential.
But some 32 years ago my then 32-year-old mother had access to none of these incredible resources. How, then, did a Muslim immigrant woman who didn’t speak the language and didn’t know the culture guide her son to achieve the success with which I have been so fortunate?
In her brilliance, my mother turned her seeming disadvantages into unbreakable strengths. By quickly recognizing the tolerance and diversity that makes our United States so beautiful, my mother made the difference through her service, her identity, and her unyielding compassion.
In the public eye, I am supposed to be the strong leader–and have even received the honor of President Obama’s personal recognition at the White House for my work in education. In reality, I can’t do half of what my mother accomplished, and everything I am is due to her.
Her sense of service inspires me daily because she walked the walk. At the young age of only 18, she committed to donating one-tenth of her income to charity for the rest of her life. After migrating to San Jose, we didn’t yet have a mosque in which we could offer our worship services. My mother took the lead, refusing to let anyone waste money on renting office space. She opened our home every Friday to guests and strangers alike, just so San Jose area Muslims could have a place to pray.
And I smile as I reflect that she never ignored the supposedly small things. To this day I recall her lovingly teaching me to double-knot my shoelaces to keep them from coming untied.
Following this lead, I knew only one thing as I attended school that February of 1983–above all else my job was to serve my fellow man. That attitude fostered friendships, helped me understand the new culture, and eventually landed me the opportunity as a teen to serve as a mentor to young children. In hindsight, that foundation of service was the platform upon which I began my tenure some 20 years later at SVEF.
But my mother’s dedication to service wasn’t complete without her unshakable sense of personal identity, informed by her faith as an observant Muslim woman. In Pakistan, and every single day since migrating to the United States, my mother proudly observed a strict regimen of healthy eating, regular prayers, and modest Islamic dress. She wore the head covering known as the hijab, an outer coat known as a burka, and a face veil known as the niqaab. And nothing could shake her from her self-chosen identity.
Imagine our concern when she was scheduled to fly mere days after the horrific 9/11 terrorist attack. Having left Pakistan due to persecution for our faith as members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, we recognized the real possibility that she may face harassment from some out of ignorance of her observant Islamic attire. Rather than waver in her identity in a potentially unstable situation, my mother proudly sustained her values and observed the same dress she’d worn her entire adult life. We breathed a sigh of relief when she arrived safe and sound at San Jose Airport.
As I began my tenure at SVEF in 2001, I remembered how critical and valuable a sustained identity is to both a person and an organization. It might be tempting for SVEF to change our goal, purpose and vision to attract more donors. But, as my mother taught me, what value is an identity when it changes for the sake of convenience?
Through the economic recession and beyond, SVEF has sustained its values on helping underprivileged children, girls, and children of color. And as we continue to grow to serve more and more children, we do so while proudly eschewing short-term situational thinking, while embracing our sustained value of a strong identity.
My mother’s sense of service and identity found strength in her relentless compassion for all people. Despite us leaving Pakistan due to religious persecution, she refused to miss an opportunity to show compassion to destitute Pakistanis of all faiths–regularly sending money to Pakistani charities. When the Khalifa of Islam and head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community made a call for donations to build a state of the art cardiac center in Rabwah, Pakistan, my mother leaped forward to contribute. When family and friends needed a confidant to assist in marriage counseling, child rearing, Qur’an studies, or simply funds to buy groceries and pay rent, nothing prevented my mother from stepping up and caring for them.
Fulfilling such obligations meant making immense sacrifices. She sold her jewelry so people could eat, awoke at 3 am every day to offer extra prayers, and increased her charitable giving from one-tenth of her income to an astounding one-third of her income.
In leading by example, she became the greatest fundraiser I know. My mother’s infectious smile and irresistible compassion inspired countless to increase their charity. One night in her final days she lovingly asked me for only one thing–to increase my personal charitable donations. I readily obliged. Her final request–a reminder of her earlier service–was to allocate extra funds to our local mosque fund.
Where else but America could such a story be possible? My mother embraced the diversity and opportunity our country offers, and did so while maintaining her focus on service, her sustained values of a strong identity, and universal compassion. Such progress from an immigrant Muslim woman would not be possible in a less tolerant environment.
And in maintaining sustained values, I know we must continue to work hard to advance the tolerance my mother experienced. We have work to do.
As I begin my fourteenth year at SVEF and observe our nation’s landscape, I see a frightening picture in which underprivileged children, girls, and children of color are increasingly discarded, rejected, and ignored. I’ve realized that in addition to providing educational opportunities for these amazing kids, I’ve got to work that much harder to teach adults the value of compassion for all kids. Until and unless we develop sustained universal compassion for all kids of all backgrounds, we undermine our country’s future. And truth be told, teaching that compassion is the hardest part of all because it requires the biggest sacrifices of all.
My mother knew this and led by example in financial sacrifice and in unrelenting prayer. In making the immense sacrifices she made with pride and conviction, she infused that compassion in her entire family and in everyone she knew. She taught me the power of financial sacrifice. She taught me the power of prayer. She truly made all the difference.
As I raise my twins in San Jose, I cannot help but compare myself to my parents back in 1983. Unlike them, I know the culture, I know the language, and I have the financial means to send my children to the best schools around. But as I offered the funeral prayer for my mother on Oct. 26, I realized this profound truth. That is, because my mother embraced the value of service, identity, and universal compassion, we were never at a disadvantage back in 1983. And just as importantly, all these seeming advantages are meaningless if I don’t first embrace the same values.
The Islamic tradition teaches that heaven is under the feet of your mother. I don’t control what happens after we die, but I know for sure I can create a living heaven here and now for my children, and children everywhere, if I follow the trail blazed by my mother.
I may have hugged my mother for the last time in this life, but in following in her footsteps, I know I’ll find my heaven.