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Ismaail Abdullah Mohammad

on December 1, 2012

On a rainy and cold Saturday afternoon, Ismaail Abdullah Mohammad is busy going through his children’s school projects. Clad in an Islamic kufi (hat) and long traditional robes, Mohammad joyfully instructs his kids—who range between 8 and 23 years old—on how to do well in school. “The beauty of this country is if you stay focused, you’ll live a better life,” he says to them.

“Since my wife and I got married, I forgot how to cook. She is a good cook. I do the homework with the kids,” he says with a laugh.

At 56 years old, Mohammad still wears traditional Sudanese garb, even though he immigrated to the United States approximately 48 years ago. “In the part of the world where I was born, men wear traditional robes, and a length of cloth draped down under a skull cap. Women wear long dresses, like in the Will Smith movie Aladdin. It’s easy for me to explain it that way because Americans are moviegoers. Otherwise, I would say my people wear clothes that are similar to Indian sari, along with Islamic headscarves,” says Mohammad.

He was 8 years old when his mother, who is Sudanese, followed her husband to the United States. Mohammad’s father was a member of the United States Navy stationed in Sudan on a peace mission; that’s where he met Mohammad’s mother and fell in love. 

In Sudanese culture, older women have the responsibility of raising children. So, Mohammad spent most of his childhood with his maternal grandmother, who raised him as a Muslim. “Back then, my grandmother was ‘a grand tribe’s aunt’—a title given to women well-versed with our tribe’s culture,” says Mohammad.

Two things made Mohammad’s parents move to the U.S.—his father’s job with the Navy and escaping the raging civil war in the Darfur region between Arab and black Muslim groups. “My Shaigiya tribe is predominantly black. Funny enough, we’re all Muslims, like our Arab brothers in the north, but they can’t stand the fact that we’re black. They have been raiding and massacring my people for decades,” says Mohammad.

Mohammad’s family first moved to Shreveport, Louisiana, where he lived with his parents and brother. “My father always went to work. My mother couldn’t take care of my brother and me. She was overwhelmed by everything. After six months in Shreveport, she decided to move to Oakland, where she had her brother and half-sister,” says Mohammad.

Moving to the United States was a cultural shock. “I found it very disturbing to wear shoes. I couldn’t walk or run with them, so I could always hide them in my school bag while I was going to school. My mother didn’t care much because, for her, as a Sudanese woman, she didn’t see any children with shoes back home. My father thought wearing shoes was important and lectured me how shoes protected me from infections and other sharp objects,” he says.

In Oakland, Mohammad was often in the care of his uncle, who ran a church in Berkeley. “Uncle Davis raised me in his Christian faith, which I always felt conflicted with what my grandma had introduced me to,” he says.

So, during his early teenage years, Mohammad began to long for his Islamic faith. “Up to my teens, I was going to church. But inside me, I wanted the religion of my grandmother,” he says. “I started looking for any Sudanese people or Muslims. Lucky, I wrote to my grandmother, who was still in Sudan. She sent a Quran.”

Mohammad used the Quran his grandmother sent to study Islam on his own. To him, Islam offers identity and a sense of belonging. “There’s a whole fulfillment that comes to me when I think about the religion of my grandma. Islam is peace—that’s why I earnestly follow it,” he says.

But still, most people in Oakland mistook him to be a Christian, until he began to be more open about his faith. “I remember while at Oakland High, I was making a speech, and I opened with Bismillāh—which is an Islamic way to open an undertaking. Everyone was shocked. I was relieved,” says a beaming Mohammad.

At the age of 16, he started going to a mosque in Alameda. His parents never minded, but he says his uncle didn’t approve.

Even though Mohammad faced many challenges as an immigrant kid who didn’t conform to many cultural norms of Oakland—including religious ones—he excelled in academics. “I started from different elementary schools. The one I remember well is Bella Vista. But I did all my high school at Oakland High. At the age of 14, the school had nothing left for me. I skipped two grades and finished ahead of my other classmates,” says Mohammad.

With his father always gone due to his military service, Mohammad faced the challenge of choosing the right college. Due to his excellent grades, he says he was offered scholarships at some Ivy League schools, but with no proper guidance, he couldn’t go to any of them. Mohammad wanted to join a historically black university, but the only one he liked was Howard, and it was very far from Oakland.

His mother, who didn’t know much about the U.S. school system, enrolled him at Laney College. “I got a good number of credits from Laney College and later transferred to Georgia State University in Atlanta,” says Mohammad.

At Georgia State, Mohammad got two degrees, graduating with bachelors’ degrees in neuropsychology and electrical engineering. “I did these two degrees because I felt I could—and by the way, I got a 4.5 GPA in both of them,” he says.

After graduating from college, his father wanted to reward him. “It was 20 years since I left Africa, and I wanted to go back. I told my dad, ‘I want to go home and learn about the African culture,’” he remembers.

His father accepted. However, the war in Darfur was still going on. And, he says, around 1990, the government of Sudan had begun blacklisting people who had gone abroad. “The only place I could probably visit was Khartoum, the capital city, but even [there] you couldn’t tell what could happen to you. I didn’t feel safe,” says Mohammad.

Instead, they decided he should go to South Africa. For six years, Mohammad lived in Cape Town and Soweto, South Africa, studying his religion along with a sheik who was carrying out Islamic teaching on Hadith and Fqih. Hadith is the record of the traditions and the sayings of the Prophet Mohammad. They’re revered and regarded as a significant source of Islamic law and moral guidance, while fqih is the human understanding of the precise terms of Islamic law.

“I concentrated on understanding my faith, and more so how to practice it back home where they misunderstood me,” Mohammad says. Living in Soweto was vital to him, he says, because it has the largest population of indigenous black South Africans, and he wanted to get a clear understanding of his people.

“South Africa was great, but I had no intentions of staying. After completing my religious training and a good understanding of my heritage, I came back to Oakland, the place I call home,” he says.

In his career, Mohammad has never used his psychology degree for money; he volunteers with community-based organizations to help people navigate behavioral challenges. But he has relied on his electrical engineering degree for jobs. During the early 2000s, he worked for Bay Area Rapid Transport (BART) as an inspector for over five years. As an inspector, Mohammad was responsible for the technical aspects of the system. “My job was to check the lines. I worked a lot on the K-Line, S-Line, and A-Line. K-Line is the core of the system that runs from the Oakland railroad triangle to north of MacArthur Station, while the S-Line runs from south Fremont to Fremont. The A-line runs from Fremont to Lake Merritt.” 

“I was part of the team that worked on the bicycle wave rack program,” he continues. “The BART bicycle wave rack program provides secure racks where riders secure their bikes as they ride to and from their destinations. I made sure that we had all lockers properly installed.”

After working for BART, Mohammad was hired by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). He’s been working for them for close to 15 years now, monitoring facilities that can affect the environment or the public health, such as oil refineries, restaurants, pools, schools, and many others.”I work as an environmental specialist.  My job is collecting and analyzing samples, including water, plant materials, and soil,” he says.

Mohammad has been married to his wife, Lucy Garcia, for seven years. They met online. “My wife is originally from El Salvador. She wasn’t a Muslim before, but after three years together, she voluntarily asked me she wanted to become a Muslim and yep—she is,” says Mohammad. They have one child together, and Mohammad has four other children from previous relationships.

Most of his older children live with their mothers and only come to his home on weekends, when he gets them all together and teaches them different things according to their needs. They all like fishing, an activity their father introduced them to. They go fishing up north at Clear Lake twice a year; more frequently, they go to Lake Temescal in the Oakland hills.

Mohammad’s oldest son is now 23. “He just converted to Islam,” he says happily. “I teach him how to be a good Muslim.”

Mohammad also wants his children to always do good for humanity. “I have on several occasions together with my children prepared and served meals to the homeless. It’s one thing that has always brought joy to all my children,” he says.

On top of being a husband and a father, Mohammad is trying to finish his online PhD. in Islamic studies from a university based in Medina, Saudi Arabia. “I always wanted to study from the University of Medina, but with the family involved, I couldn’t afford to be away. The online program was my best bet,” he says.

Mohammad intends to use his PhD. to teach others about Islam, and he hopes to continue raising his family in a way that emulates the care he received from the women in his family. “I wish my children can take something from their grandmothers. Those women are the pillars of my family. They sew us together in all aspects,” he says.

Return to the main page to read stories of other East Bay immigrants.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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