For Dr. Zaher Sahloul, the holy month of Ramadan has tested his strength and recharged his spirit.
Gathering with thousands of other Muslims in Bridgeview’s Toyota Park on Sunday to celebrate Eid-ul-Fitr, a day of prayer and festivities to break the Ramadan fast, Sahloul made the same supplications he had offered for the last 30 days.
He asked God to grant a sense of responsibility to politicians who condemn Islam just to win votes. He prayed for his brethren whose sacred spaces have been targeted by vandals. And he grieved for his homeland of Syria, which suffered more bloody violence this weekend.
But he also thanked God for getting him through the 30-day trial and preparing him for even greater ordeals to come.
“You always try to find solace and reflect on your faith and your understanding of the faith to connect it to what’s happening to you,” said Sahloul, 47, of Burr Ridge. “There are plenty of things in the Quran to connect to what’s happening in Syria. We believe patience is the best virtue in a crisis you have no control on. The whole fasting is about patience … because God wants you to be patient. … This will help you deal with crisis and calamity.”
Through the past decade, Sahloul, a physician specializing in pulmonary critical care, has emerged as one of just a handful of high-profile leaders who speak for Chicago’s Muslim community. This year, he has served simultaneous presidential terms with the Council for Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago and the Syrian American Medical Society.
But few people know the tale of how a young medical student from Syria who sought a better medical education in the U.S. has become an activist both on the American Muslim landscape and in the land he left behind.
Sahloul came to Chicago in 1989 to improve his medical education by specializing in internal medicine and pulmonary care at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Like many of his countrymen, he intended to go back to Syria, but he never did. He met his wife, Suzanne, an American citizen of Syrian origin, and began working at St. Anthony Hospital in an underserved community on the West Side; he has been at the hospital ever since.
He worshipped at the Mosque Foundation in Bridgeview, where a majority of Chicago’s Arab Muslims go to pray. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he found himself thrust into leadership roles that he never expected and eventually became the mosque’s president.
“This country also has given me a lot. I grew as a person. I grew as an activist and as a community leader,” Sahloul said.
That sense of activism has led him back to Syria. In July, right before Ramadan began, he directed a delegation of doctors in Turkey, taking care of refugees who have fled violence in Syria. Those medical missions have divided the medical society’s leaders, some of whom believe they amount to a condemnation of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
Sahloul believes a professional humanitarian organization has no choice but to help. No one expected the conflict to last this long or become this bloody, he said. Syrians expected the U.S. to support a revolution, he said, but the Syrians are on their own.
“Seventy-five percent of the (refugees) are women and children. ... These are people who are afraid about their safety, and they need to be treated,” Sahloul said. “As a doctor, you treat whoever is in need, whether they are the enemy or friend. This is our responsibility. If we do not do that, there is something wrong with us.”
Sahloul does not know when he will return to the region. In the meantime, he has plenty to keep himself busy at home.
Just a few weeks ago, Republican U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh told a town hall crowd that the threat of radical Islam existed in the Chicago suburbs. Sahloul expected politicians to mention Islam during election season. He also expected fallout, pointing to the vandalism of Muslim graves and damage done last week to a Morton Grove mosque and Lombard school as inevitable consequences.
“When you demonize the Muslims, unfortunately that will energize their base,” Sahloul said. “This type of language does not help. It creates an atmosphere of fear and suspicion.”
He found comfort in the words of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who refuted Walsh’s comments to Sahloul last week and told an audience that her department remained committed to keeping faith communities safe.
“Communities of faith have been one of our most steadfast allies in our efforts to secure our nation and combat violent extremism,” Napolitano told the crowd gathered in Washington, D.C., to break the daily fast with a meal known as iftar.
After a long day at the hospital, a difficult conversation with a dying patient’s family and a flight to Washington, Sahloul sat in the crowd wondering if he was in the right place. It was the Night of Power, when Muslims believe God decides everyone’s destiny.
“I wasn’t sure that was the divine purpose of this visit,” he said. Then, he realized, he was in a city of strangers where he could enjoy and embrace anonymity. He went to a mosque and stayed up the entire night to pray.
“In a mosque where you know many people, you spend the time talking to people between prayers,” he said. “You don’t connect with the Almighty. That helped that night to be special for me.”
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