Paths to community service

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Barbara Ruben
After 9/11, Tufail Ahmad felt that Muslim Americans like himself needed to become more involved in political and charitable endeavors in the larger community. As a result, he helped found the Montgomery County Muslim Council, which provides food to thousands of homeless and low-income residents, among other charitable acts. Ahmad and Ruby Rubens, a Silver Spring fair housing and educational activist, have won 2012 Neal Potter Path of Achievement Awards, which honor Montgomery County residents age 60 and over for their exemplary volunteer work.
Photo by Frank Klein

As a boy in northern India 60 years ago, Tufail Ahmad’s mother would send him out to the village streets each Thursday to find poor people to bring home to feed. Once, when she was sick, she gave him money to buy food at a restaurant so others wouldn’t go hungry.

“It is still fresh in my mind. My mother was a giver. So this is where I come from,” recalled Ahmad, who carried on the tradition after he immigrated to America, helping feed thousands through the Montgomery County Muslim Foundation, which he helped found.

Similarly, Ruby Rubens comes from a family with a long tradition of helping others and has devoted countless volunteer hours to working for fair housing policies, providing budgeting assistance to low-income families, and advocating for residents of historically African American communities in Montgomery County.

Their lifetimes of volunteer service have earned both Ahmad and Rubens the Neal Potter Path of Achievement Award, which honors older Montgomery County volunteers. The award has been given since 1988, and was renamed three years ago in memory of Potter, a former county executive, county councilmember and longtime civic activist.

“There is an especially great wealth of talent among our fast-growing population of seniors ages 60 and better,” said Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett. “The Neal Potter Path of Achievement Award honors those whose lifelong commitment to volunteer service make them outstanding role models for young and old alike.”

Leading the Muslim community

Ahmad, 75, said he hopes he will be a role model for his seven grandchildren, three of whom live with him in his spacious Potomac home, along with his wife Sajida and son and daughter-in-law.

Ahmad, who moved from India to Pakistan as a young man, rose through the latter country’s civil service to become a high-ranking auditing and accounts official.

He came to the United States in 1968 to work as an auditor for Pakistan at the United Nations’ headquarters in New York City. After three years in that position, he decided to remain in the United States, first working for a company, then establishing his own.

In 2000, one of his sons took over running the business, and Ahmad retired to devote his time to volunteering and fundraising for the Democratic party.

But on Sept. 11, 2001 “everything changed.” Ahmad quickly recognized the need for Muslim Americans to play a vital role in redefining their identity.

“Several times I sat here in my house with other Muslims and talked about ‘what are our options now? Should we stay home and not get out and see anybody?’” he recalled.

“A realization took place in our community that we have to get out, we have to get involved, we have to make a solid contribution to the charitable activities going on in the county.”

Thus, the Montgomery County Muslim Council was born, with the goals of involving more Muslims in the political process and volunteering to help those less fortunate.

Their first project involved feeding 1,000 people at the Community for Creative Non-Violence’s shelter in Washington, D.C. Ahmad then spearheaded other efforts to help those in need, including feeding three meals a day during part of Ramadan to homeless women staying at Sophia House, a Rockville shelter.

The council, whose charitable works now operate under its nonprofit foundation, collected 17,000 pounds of food for Manna Food Center in April as part of its annual food drive.

It also donates 3,000 to 5,000 pounds of raw meat to the poor each year during the Hajj, a time when Muslims make a pilgrimage to Mecca. At this time, Muslims sacrifice goats and cows as Ibrahim (Abraham) did in Biblical times.

“The whole purpose is to give [the meat] to people. We are required to give 1/3 to the poor, 1/3 to family and friends, and 1/3 to yourself. We decided, no, we would donate the whole thing to the poor,” Ahmad said.

“One of our religious leaders said in one of his writings, ‘I do not get communion with God through prayers or fasting, but I got communion from God through feeding hungry people.’ We believe in that and practice it today.”

The foundation also owns a small bus that it uses to take older members of the Muslim community on trips.

Ahmad said that he thinks helping the poor in the community, as many churches and synagogues also do, helps others better understand the faith of Islam.

“Our feeling is that what we have done so far has changed many, many people, who now realize that Muslims are the same as they are. Basically, we are all the same.”

As for the Path of Achievement Award, Ahmad is self-effacing: “It is not so important for me personally, but it is very important for my community that the work that they have done for the last 10 years, and the work that they are doing now, should be acknowledged,” he said.

“By giving the award to me, you are acknowledging the contributions of the Muslims in Montgomery County. And this is a great thing.”

Path of Achievement award winner Ruby Rubens has worked on fair housing and educational issues for decades.
Photo courtesy of Ruby Rubens

A fair housing advocate

The second award winner, Ruby Rubens, has also made substantial contributions in her own areas of expertise, especially in housing and education. She has served on dozens of committees and boards in a volunteer capacity, and at age 78 continues to assist low-income families and fight racial discrimination.

“My son keeps saying to me, ‘You’re doing too much. Why don’t you sit down? Aren’t you tired?’ and that kind of thing. But that’s what kind of keeps me going. I tell people I’m afraid to stop because I may not be able to get up any more!” Rubens said.

A native New Yorker, Rubens initially planned to be a social worker while pursuing her degree at Howard University. But after an internship with social services in New York City, she decided the job was just too emotionally draining.

But that doesn’t mean Rubens didn’t go into public service. She was recruited to be one of the first African American administrators at the Social Security Administration’s headquarters in Baltimore.

She met her husband on the job, and they later moved to the Washington area. Here she got a job with the Civil Service Administration, now known as the Office of Personnel Management.

They began house hunting here in 1967. “That was the year before the Fair Housing Act passed, so there was a lot of discrimination. We ran into a lot of opposition in terms of buying in this area,” she recalled of buying a house in the Colesville area of Silver Spring.

That experienced impelled her to take up fair housing as a cause. “My lobbying and advocacy work began in working with historically black communities. Many of those communities were isolated and didn’t have public sewage or water,” she said.

Soon she was appointed as the first fair housing manager for Montgomery County. She also served as the housing committee chair for the county’s chapter of the NAACP, and became a “tester” for the fair housing law. That involved posing as a homebuyer in various areas to see if she was discriminated against.

To understand the issues from the inside, Rubens got a real estate license. She also worked to make sure her own neighborhood remained diverse, ferreting out a discriminating real estate company and leading a boycott against it.

“I just gravitated to any way to serve,” she said.

Rubens’ work got noticed by Neal Potter, who appointed her his special assistant on education, housing, and minority and multicultural affairs. “I really got to admire him and learn his world view of justice and fairness,” she said.

And that makes winning the award more personal for her. “I was just delighted, particularly because it’s an award in the name of Neal Potter. That was really just the icing on the cake because I knew him. This to me is the honor of my life to receive the award.”

Helping children learn

But housing is just one side of Rubens’ work. Her son Joe, now the principal of a Montgomery County middle school, propelled her into the world of education.

“I didn’t realize the stereotypes and stigmas attributed to black boys [until he entered school],” she said. “I was horrified. I decided I had to be there in the schools.”

Rubens began working with numerous organizations, including Blacks United for Excellence in Education and several mentoring organizations for black teens. She helped establish Saturday programs to help low-achieving students.

She also was hired as the ombudsman for the Montgomery County Board of Education and as a program coordinator for the school system’s Study Circles project, which brings together parents, teachers and students from different backgrounds to confront challenges posed by cultural and racial differences.

In addition, Rubens is an ordained elder with her church, the Presbyterian Church of the Redeemer in Washington, D.C., where she’s been a member for 40 years.

Rubens has also spent time caring for her grandson, now 8. Before he went to preschool, she took care of him two days a week while her son and his wife worked. She enjoys spending as much time as possible with him as he grows up.

Rubens’ son has offered to move his family into her house should she ever need assistance so she can age in place. But for now that prospect seems far away for Rubens.

“I’m not satisfied unless I’m doing something. I just can’t imagine not being involved,” she said.

The Neal Potter Path of Achievement Awards will be presented to Ahmad and Rubens by County Executive Leggett at an event on April 30 at Imagination Stage in Bethesda, Md.