Courtesy of Nathan Youssef
Catholics. Protestants. Evangelicals. Jews. Buddhists. While Durango welcomes congregations of many faith traditions, it is home to only a few followers of Islam. The most prominent, perhaps, is the Youssef family.
In a town that’s far away from the nearest mosques in Grand Junction, Albuquerque and Abiquiu, N.M., Dr. Jim Youssef of Spine Colorado said following his faith hasn’t always been easy.
“But Islam is pretty individualistic,” he said. “It doesn’t require fellowship. It’s your personal duty to interpret the Quran.”
Youssef, whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from Egypt, said he and his family have experienced some discrimination, including the vandalism of their home in New Hampshire after the Oklahoma City bombing when it originally was thought to be the work of Muslim terrorists.
And after Sept. 11, he decided to drive to Los Angeles for a medical conference rather than fly because he was worried about being detained at an airport.
But he said the response he has gotten in Durango is acceptance.
“All the things that have happened in the past 10 years have created a little fear,” he said. “Durango evolved for me, and now I feel happy and appreciated here. I’ve never been judged on anything but my skill set. I’m so touched by the hugs on the street.”
Interfaith love story
Youssef and his wife, Melissa, who was raised Catholic, had a whirlwind courtship. After meeting on a blind date, they moved in together after six weeks, were engaged after 10 weeks and married within a year. They’ve now been married for 20 years.
“But religion didn’t even come up until we were living together,” he said. “She said ‘Aren’t you Mormon?’ I realized we had some talking to do. We both had devout mothers, so there were a lot of interventions from both sides to break us up.”
The couple attended spiritual retreats in both faiths and had long talks.
“It forced us to explore the commonalities: the Old Testament, the New Testament, the concept of life after death, heaven and hell, Muslims including Jesus, as the son of Mary, among the prophets,” he said.
The couple had both a Catholic priest and an imam presiding over their marriage. The imam was a cardiothoracic surgeon with whom Jim Youssef had interned.
It also helped that both are quite ecumenical in their friendships. Youssef has been the best man at seven Jewish weddings, he said with a grin.
Ultimately, though, they decided it would be too confusing to raise their children in two religions.
“I was the one who was more passionate about my religion, while Melissa had some problems with hers, including how it treats women,” Youssef said. “So we decided to raise our children in the Muslim faith.”
A delicate balance
“I wouldn’t say religion rules our lives in Durango,” Youssef said, “But it’s not hard to see God with all the beauty here. Rather than interpreting my religion to criticize others or following a strict life that may not be practical or using it as an excuse to do bad things, I try to extract the pillars and live them in my life.”
Giving to those in need is a Youssef family value imparted to children Nathan, 17, Natalie, 16, and Amina, 12, and it follows one of the Five Pillars of Islam.
Youssef goes on humanitarian surgical trips once or twice a year, and their mother is president of the board of directors for Animas High School and the former president of the board of the Durango Discovery Museum.
“Every night, I think about what I did that day to follow the core principles of my faith,” Youssef said. “And every morning, I think about what I’m going to do that day. When I come home, I always ask my kids, ‘Did you contribute today?’ If the answer’s ‘no’, I say, ‘Well, take out the garbage or something.’”
Nathan started his volunteer efforts by helping establish Animas High School and will be a member of its first graduating class in May.
Not only has he given time to local political and environmental causes, he has traveled to Southeast Asia twice on Loop Abroad volunteer trips, trips designed to give students an international experience that teaches the complexities of solving some of the world’s issues.
His first was to the Elephant Nature Park in Thailand, where elephants that have been abused find sanctuary, then to Cambodia, where he worked on the beginning stages of a similar refuge and developed an advanced English curriculum at an orphanage.
His experiences led to an extensive blog, which he has turned into a book, 101 Ways to Contribute.
“There’s not much of a Muslim community to be found in Durango, and by not much, I mean none,” he said.
But he has discovered through volunteering that one can become accepted by reaching out and helping.
“I don’t think kids realize how much we can do,” Nathan said. “We can draw attention to causes that matter. And most importantly, we can give our time and energy and help our neighbors.”
Nathan has been made uncomfortable by remarks from friends, he said, “but it’s mostly ignorant, said in a joking manner.”
He lost 35 pounds while on his six-week trip to Thailand in 2010, mostly, he said, because the food was healthy, and he wasn’t going to the freezer for ice cream every day.
He came back with a new appreciation for local, sustainable food, greatly expanding the family’s garden.
When he was growing up, Jim Youssef’s family mostly followed halal, the prescribed diet for Muslims. (Its most well-known tenants are prohibitions against pork and alcohol.) A healthy diet is the family focus today.
“We don’t eat pork, and we don’t eat carnivores,” he said. “And I drink a little, but for the first 12 years we were in Durango, I was on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so I didn’t drink at all.”
A family of moderation
When Youssef’s parents fled Egypt after Gamal Abdel Nasser took power in 1952 and ended up in America a few years later, they brought with them their faith and culture and a commitment to be part of their new country.
“It was 1961 in Middle America, and you can imagine the climate for dark-skinned people,” Youssef said about his family’s journey to America, when his father was accepted to the doctoral program in business management at the University of Minnesota. “We had nothing, but I just remember how happy my parents were.”
His father, born Abdel-Fattah, which he changed to Leon after coming to the U.S., was the son of an Islamic scholar who taught at a mosque in Cairo and at Ain Shams University.
Once in the U.S., he and his wife, Carmen, née Kariman, wanted their children to be Americans.
“Moderation was my dad’s mantra,” Youssef said. “My parents were friends with other immigrant families and saw how they imposed their culture on their kids, and how hard that made it for the kids to assimilate.”
Youssef said he feels 100 percent American.
“They took their American citizenship (went through the citizenship process) as soon as they could,” Youssef said about his parents. “My dad was a staunch Republican with an American flag at the front door. He kept a picture of Reagan in the living room.”
He saw how his father lived his faith every day, and learned more about him at Leon Youssef’s death at the age of 67.
“It was my first Islamic funeral,” Youssef said. “I bathed my father’s body and wrapped it in linen. There were so many people there: the checkout lady from the grocery store, the postman who said my dad always greeted him. He was fundamentally such a kind person.”
A lack of opportunity
“What people don’t understand in America is that prior to the Arab Spring, most Islamic countries in the Middle East were under dictatorships that took opportunities off the table for young people,” Youssef said. “Those young people have been politically leveraged to twist the meaning of martyrdom to commit random violent acts.”
The young people in the militant groups are bound by religion rather than nationality, he said, but even more by hopelessness and anger.
“If they tell a young person’s father that if they do this suicide bombing or whatever, they’ll go straight to heaven, and their family will get a lot a money, that’s pretty persuasive,” Youssef said, “But I have great hope for democracy because the true meaning of Islam is ‘peace.’”
STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald
STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald