Anyone who thinks immigrants from Muslim countries are here to wage war on Christianity, or that Islam is a “terrorist religion,” would have left yesterday’s “Young African Immigrant Voices” panel at Fordham, organized by the Bronx African American History Project, with their belief system shaken to the core.
On the outside, the panel looked like White Conservative America’s worst nightmare. Five of the seven young women on the panel wore hijabs and both of the men–and one of the women–had “Muhammed” in their names.
But once they started speaking, every stereotype started to shatter. One young woman, a recent immigrant from Ghana who attended Kappa International High School across the street from Fordham, wore an Army ROTC sweatshirt along with her hijab, and spoke how much she loved the military and of her plans to pursue a career in the United States Armed Forces.
One of the men on the panel, an artist and teacher whose work promoting peace and gender equality has taken him all over the world, spoke of how his father, an Imam in Ghana, sent him to a Catholic boarding school, allowing him to sing all the same songs as his Christian friends and endowing him with a lifelong commitment to bringing people of different nationalities and faiths together.
A young women recently arrived from from Nigeria, now a student leader at Lehman College in the Bronx, spoke of how her Muslim faith did not separate her from her Christian siblings and spoke proudly of her family as a model of mutual understanding between people of different faiths.
And finally, three of the elders in the group–two Muslim, one Christian, who had worked for groups ranging from the Mayor’s Office to the City Commission on Human Rights to the offices of Bronx City Council members and Congressman Serrano, spoke of how you could not work effectively in the African Immigrant communities of the Bronx by dividing people along religious lines. They said Christians and Muslims faced the same issues and lived and worked in harmony.
On a panel that was diverse in age and experience as well as religion, there was not a single moment where anyone spoke critically of people of other faiths. And when people spoke of their own religious background, they invoked that tradition as something which promoted peace and the building of strong families and communities.
At a time when fear of immigrants, and Muslims, is being promoted in the highest places, the Bronx African American History Project provided an extremely valuable counterweight to misinformation and hysteria.
Special thanks must be given to the organizer of this panel, Jane Edward, Ph.D., a brilliant scholar brought up Christian in South Sudan, who has worked closely with the African Islamic Community of the Bronx since her arrival at Fordham ten years ago, and who has won their respect through her writing, speaking and advocacy.
The young people she brought together exemplified, for all who wanted to see it, the promise of an American future where people of all faiths, and nations and values live together in harmony and mutual understanding.
First, NBA player Kevin Love, a forward with the Cleveland Caveliers. He wrote a very personal piece for The Players Tribune about experiencing a panic attack earlier this season, and more importantly, on how it’s tough for men to talk about mental health issues because of the ways masculinity is imposed on boys while growing up:
“Growing up, you figure out really quickly how a boy is supposed to act. You learn what it takes to ‘be a man.’ It’s like a playbook: Be strong. Don’t talk about your feelings. Get through it on your own. So for 29 years of my life, I followed that playbook. And look, I’m probably not telling you anything new here. These values about men and toughness are so ordinary that they’re everywhere … and invisible at the same time, surrounding us like air or water. They’re a lot like depression or anxiety in that way.
“So for 29 years, I thought about mental health as someone else’s problem. Sure, I knew on some level that some people benefited from asking for help or opening up. I just never thought it was for me. To me, it was form of weakness that could derail my success in sports or make me seem weird or different.”
This part, in which Love talks about getting a therapist and digging deep into his past, uncovering a trauma he never properly processed, reminded me of my friend Tomas, who witnessed the heart attack of his grandfather as a young teen. I remember Tomas tearing up telling me about it. I got the sense he never properly grieved or understood why he had to witness that event that led to the death of his absolute favorite relative.
“Telling a stranger about my grandma made me see how much pain it was still causing me. Digging into it, I realized that what hurt most was not being able to say a proper goodbye. I’d never had a chance to really grieve, and I felt terrible that I hadn’t been in better touch with her in her last years. But I had buried those emotions since her passing and said to myself, I have to focus on basketball. I’ll deal with it later. Be a man.
“The reason I’m telling you about my grandma isn’t really even about her. I still miss her a ton and I’m probably still grieving in a way, but I wanted to share that story because of how eye-opening it was to talk about it.”
Love ends with an important point:
“Mental health isn’t just an athlete thing. What you do for a living doesn’t have to define who you are. This is an everyone thing. No matter what our circumstances, we’re all carrying around things that hurt — and they can hurt us if we keep them buried inside. Not talking about our inner lives robs us of really getting to know ourselves and robs us of the chance to reach out to others in need. So if you’re reading this and you’re having a hard time, no matter how big or small it seems to you, I want to remind you that you’re not weird or different for sharing what you’re going through.”
So, I’ve been given a lot of feedback about my tribute (?) piece/obit for Tomas, as well as questions on how I’m doing. How am I doing? Not entirely sure. I get the concern, but I also want to scream: “This isn’t about me!” This shouldn’t have happened. Can we go back in time, please?
It’s still so unbelievable. I’m unable to sleep well wondering if there’s any way I could’ve known he was headed down this route.
Yet, for me, the writing made me feel like I’d done something for him, in letting folks know about what a great person he was. But I hate that this is what it is: I hate that he is no longer. It’s unfair. And I recently talked to one of his best friends in the world and that person also feels robbed. It’s just so tragic.
So I googled “Best writings on suicide” and found a great piece in The New Yorker by writer Philip Connors, author of a book about his younger brother, who took his life more than 20 years ago.
He says he’s often asked if writing the book was cathartic for him. As a published author, he said he gets annoyed at the question because “… it annexes the territory of literature under the flag of therapy. As anyone who has written a book knows, there are a thousand other, easier ways to make oneself feel better: alcohol, masturbation, adopting a dog. For ‘survivors of suicide,’ as we’re known—a phrase that I’ve always found most peculiar, as if we’d tried it ourselves but the noose slipped, the cartridge jammed—closure is little more than a neat idea.
“This is not to deny that there are private reasons, in addition to public ones, to write such a book. The private reasons involve an impulse to describe a portion of one’s experience in language that has a ring of truth, to see one’s actions given meaning and form. They involve an impulse to transfigure the horrific, the chaotic, and the merely dismal aspects of one’s experience into a compelling story with a pleasing symmetry and shapely beauty—in other words, a work of art.”
“… let’s face it: that’s why people shrink from the topic of suicide. It bespeaks a misery beyond words. We don’t have the capacity to imagine our way into it. We don’t want to hear how the suicide of a loved one elicits suicidal thoughts in those left behind, either from despair or from a desire to achieve a perverse intimacy with the dead. But most of all we’re baffled by an act that scrambles our categories of justice. It offends our sensibilities in a way that almost nothing does anymore. A crime has been committed, but the victim and the perpetrator are one and the same. That is the essential conundrum of suicide, and a good part of what makes it so hard to discuss.”
I’ve been so lucky in life to have been spared death of loved ones when I was young. This is why losing my father in 2016 felt almost surreal. He had been ill for so long, that when his battle with Parkinson’s came to an end, it was almost a relief for me to him. He deserves to rest, though I miss him dearly.
But I was not prepared earlier this week to learn a friend Tomas, an ex-boyfriend, was to take his life suddenly.
And so began my week of floating around in shock, then grief, followed by quick spurts of anger, back to thinking it wasn’t real, and long bouts of painful wondering if there was anything myself or anyone could have done. I don’t know. I’ll probably never know.
Two days later, I find I’m doing things slowly, mundane every day things—like taking a shower, when I’ll suddenly freeze to think, “I am bathing myself because my body is alive. He isn’t going to be able to do this anymore. He is no longer alive.” And then tears. It’s almost like I’m trying to convince myself.
That young people have to deal with this in high school and college is shocking to me. It’s hard to function without your thoughts turning into grief, disbelief, and again the overwhelming thoughts of wondering and guilt.
I was fortunate to have found out about this terrible news while I was on my way to the apartment of some very dear friends for some cod soup. They knew him and loved him, too. I cannot thank them enough for being with me that night.
In the days since, I’ve talked to my closest friends and family about this and they’re all concerned about me. That’s understandable, and I’ve been checking in with them and vice versa as my feelings continue in that cycle: shock, disbelief, grief, anger, guilt, wonder, utter sadness, and more sadness.
Why? Why did he do this? Again, I will never know the answer to this. But could I have?
After more than a year of not speaking or keeping in touch, as is the norm between some, if not most, former romantic partners, he reached out to me out of the blue. He said he was thinking of me and wanted to catch up. And so we did, on a quick half-hour car ride from Jersey City and Edgewater.
I knew he was in a relationship, and he explained it had recently ended. His living and work circumstances had changed, and he was “down in the dumps” about it, but continued to smile, saying he had his health, hadn’t been missing any meals and he’d rebound. I agreed. I always saw him as an incredibly intelligent and resourceful person who could do anything. I even texted him something to that effect after he dropped me off.
The next morning I texted him to have a great day. He wrote, “Good day to you.” And then I never heard from him again. I sent a couple more texts about things like an issue with my car throughout the week, and figured they went unanswered because he was busy. Or back with his ex-girlfriend. He didn’t get into details much but he gave me the impression the relationship was somewhat tumultuous. So, again, him not responding wasn’t odd as we hadn’t keep in touch on a frequent basis.
Then exactly one week after to the day that I saw him last, I learned of his fate.
I’ve been looking through old photos of when we were together and it’s, at times, overwhelming, but it also reminds me of the many good times we had. And so I wanted to document some of the great things about my friend, Tomas.
Tomas Lopez Jr. 12-14-68 – 02-26-18
A tall and calm presence, Tomas loved cars, and was adept at fixing and customizing them. We constantly talked about them when we were on the road. He loved motorcycles, too, especially his Harley Davidson V-Rod motorcycle, which he cleaned lovingly on a frequent basis using things like Q-tips and toothbrushes.
Tomas was also a fan of boats, speedboats in particular, as he had recently spent some time in Florida with a friend who owned one, and took it to Miami Boat week. Tomas knew how to drive and maintain boats. He also had a small engine pilots license.
I met Tomas in 2015 in Puerto Rico, where I was spending a couple of nights before boarding a ship for a cruise with one of my girlfriends. We all spent a fun day at the Luquillo Beach, and he then insisted on taking me to see El Junque, the rainforest in Puerto Rico. I’ll never forget that fun drive to such a beautiful place I’d never been to before.
Tomas loved hip-hop music, electronic dance music and salsa, but not dancing to it. As of late, he told me he had been listening to Puerto Rican trap hip-hop artist, Bad Bunny, who I don’t listen to much, but whose song “Amorfada” makes me cry when I read the lyrics because I imagine they resonated with him.
I will always treasure the fact that I got to take him to see some independent Latin music artists, such as Making Movies performance at SOBs, that literally made him tear up. When I asked him why he was emotional, he said it was so cool to see young talented band doing what they loved, as learning an instrument to play music was something he didn’t have the opportunity to do as a kid.
Something Tomas did do as a child and up until his young adult years was practice karate. Although exercise was not something he did when we knew each other, he told me he spent years going to tournaments on weekends, competing on behalf of the karate school he trained at.
Tomas loved going to marinas and seeing not only boats, but the river or sea. He also knew a great deal about recreational vehicles, as I found out on a trip with him to the Pacific Northwest. We stopped at a RV dealer and I saw his face light up every time we checked one of those luxury vacationing vehicles out.
Tomas loved to watch CNN, HBO’s Bill Maher, and Viceland’s Action Bronson and Weediquette. He followed the 2016 presidential election season with great interest and we discussed it nearly every day.
Tomas was not a fan of trying strange or exotic foods. He was a fan of steaks, chicken, and potatoes, and old-fashioned Puerto Rican dishes. He liked Cuban and Middle Eastern food, too. And at Dunkin Donuts, he always ordered a decaf tea with a chocolate glazed donut, BUT NO SPRINKLES. (It was funny when they’d mess that part up. He’d be so frustrated!)
He loved to travel, and had spent some time working for Delta airlines before I met him. Going to Puerto Rico to visit his grandmother might have been one of his favorite things to do.
Tomas was a polite and friendly person who could strike up a conversation with anyone he encountered. Taking him to work or music related events was always easy for me because I knew he’d get along with anyone I introduced him to. He always won them over with his charm.
Tomas was not a fan of sports. But he did have a great time following the 2016 Copa America with my brother and I and even joined us at a game the Colombian National team played at MetLife stadium.
And that’s because he enjoyed doing things he had never experienced, whether it was going to a museum, or an independent music festival.
I’ll never forget the way Tomas looked at problems. He was a fan of Eckhart Tolle, and recommended I read “A New Earth” when I was going through a particularly rough time with my father’s death and some other things and it seemed that every day annoyances or problems—no matter how small—annoyed me.
I’m not going to lie, I didn’t take to Tolle’s words then, and it was only after broke up and I experienced depression and sought help for it that I started reading authors similar to Tolle and understood what it was about. But a book is a book, and its themes can be fleeting if one is depressed. I wish I could tell him that today.
One new hobby that Tomas picked up in 2016 was photography. He bought a Canon Rebel and took to it immediately, eventually buying a drone to shoot photos and videos when he was on his friend’s boat. He meant to show me some of the footage but we never got around to it.
I’ll always remember his strong laugh, super smile, sense of humor and the ease in which he talked to strangers, as if they were old friends. It hurts so much that someone who caused others to smile so easily must have been experiencing enough hopelessness or sadness that it caused him to take his own life.
May you rest in peace, Tomas. You will be very missed.