in focus: interfaith dialogues

Fans of of Rick Sebak’s many local specials on WQED have probably seen “Happy Holidays in Pittsburgh,” which showcases the winter holidays celebrated by Pittsburghers, including Hanukkah, Christmas, Ramadan, and Kwanzaa. In one segment, a Brookline family prepares traditional foods for a feast to commemorate the end of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting. Much of that segment was taped and narrated by a family member, Humza Ahmed. At the time, Humza was 8 years old.

“They gave a camera to other kids in other homes, to film their families. Humza was the only one who narrated what was going on,” says Humza’s mother, Helen DiCola Ahmed of Lovingston Drive. “They used his portion on the show, and they gave him a cameraman credit.”

Humza, who moved to Mt. Lebanon with his family in 2004, is now 22 and preparing to enter medical school at Pitt. But his love for his Islamic faith, and a desire to share it, has stayed with him, though it hasn’t always been easy.

“I don’t remember much about September 11 (2001), just a lot of pain and negative emotions,” said Humza, who was in third grade at the time. But he does remember the taunts and threats from his classmates: “I’d be surrounded by kids who’d say, ‘He’s from Afghanistan, let’s kill him.’”

Humza Ahmed
Humza Ahmed

Humza’s father, Waseem, who emigrated from Pakistan as a young man, and his mother, a Pittsburgh native and Islamic convert, taught him and his brother Hashim that they might be treated differently because of their faith. But as a child, Humza says, “we would have study circles where we would learn about Islam. I grew up with this idea that we were to spread peace.”

Syed Farooq Houssaini, a close family friend who was the director of interfaith relations for the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, was a great influence too. “He was such an important member of the community. We all loved him very dearly,” Humza says. When Hussaini died in 2008, Humza, a freshman, wanted to honor his memory. He decided to start an interfaith group at Mt. Lebanon High School—and that, too, wasn’t easy, at least at first.

“There’s a lot of paperwork involved in starting a club,” says Peg Meyers, a German teacher who was also Humza’s homeroom teacher at the school. “Humza was so diligent, filling it all out. Then it got lost, and he had to fill it out all over again.”

Eventually, the Interfaith Alliance came together. Students of Christian, Jewish, Hindu, and Mormon faiths joined, as well as agnostics, atheists, and Deists. “We’d have a different discussion topic each week,” Humza recalls. “We started with (discussing) stereotypes, then prayer rituals—then we got into more hot-button issues.” They sponsored a blood drive and visited a mosque, as well as other places of worship.

“Many of my friends from today were members of the group,” he adds. “To talk about faith, you have to be friends.”

Humza graduated from high school in 2011, and went on to Pitt to study neuroscience. He started an Interfaith Alliance there as well. In addition, as outreach director of the SFH Islamic Interfaith Network, he has given talks at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and Friendship Village.

With his volunteer work, and in his everyday life, Humza always welcomes the opportunity to correct misconceptions about the faith that helps to sustain him. Recent terrorist attacks by Muslim extremists especially pain him.

“The first thing I always think is ‘Please don’t let it be by someone who calls themselves Muslim,’ because someone who would hurt innocent people is not a real Muslim. I get pretty upset, then I’m mad.

“The Quran is like a hammer,” Humza says of the Muslim holy book. ‘It can be used to build beautiful things. But other people take that tool and use it to destroy.”

As he prepares for medical school, Humza has big decisions ahead of him, such as a specialty. “It’ll be pediatrics or neurology. We’ll see. I know I love medicine, and I love to help people,” he says.

Farther down the road, however, Humza’s way is clear. “I definitely want my kids someday to experience the education and the life in Mt. Lebanon,” he says. “In high school we were all talking about leaving ‘the bubble.’ I used to tell my friends, ‘I’ve been outside. The bubble is pretty nice.’”

Portrait by Jacqueline Radin