The phone rang early in the morning and as usual I reached for it with a fearful heart. For the last 15 years I have been waking up to such calls, often from BBC, to comment on some tragedy or the other in the Muslim World. This was the first week of August 2014 and for a change it was my friend Jamil Tourk, one of the prominent leaders in the Muslim community who was calling. Even before I could finish answering his greeting, he was pouring his heart out at the suffering of the people in Gaza as a result of the then raging conflict with Israel.
“I can’t bear it anymore. We must do something daktur, we cannot be passive witnesses to so much pain”, he said in anguish. Until that day, Jamil and I were just friends and co-activists in the Muslim community of Delaware. But that phone call was transformative. A few days later Jamil Tourk and I, in partnership with Dr. Naveed Baqir, hosted the Newark Interfaith forum on Gaza calling for peace in the Middle East.
That day not only a beautiful friendship and partnership was born but also the Delaware Council on Global and Muslim Affairs was born. Tourk, Baqir and I were amazed at the success of that event and we decided to continue with the momentum and establish a platform that would pursue social justice at home and abroad. For the past two years Tourk was a central player at the council and we cobbled together some wonderful and historic achievements including the regional conference on social justice in December 2015 at which all key political leaders of Delaware spoke, and most recently in April 2016, we facilitated the recognition of Islamic holidays in New Castle County.
But on Monday, May 9, 2016, Jamil Tourk retired our worldly partnership in order to pursue a divine one in a more noble council. In the process he broke our hearts. I am sure that he is pursuing this new partnership with the same enthusiasm, commitment, camaraderie, and joie de vivre, which he brought to ours.
This article is not an obituary of a great man; it is a celebration of a great friendship.
Jamil Tourk was a pioneer in the fullest sense of the word. He was a Palestinian-Israeli-American, deeply committed to peace between Israel and Palestine, who came to America thirty-five years ago and built a successful life. But more than that he became one of the most important builders of the Delaware Muslim community. He was President of the Islamic Society of Delaware and presided over its biggest expansion. He has also been instrumental in the realization of three other mosques in the region. He was very down to earth, simple but forceful personality who built bridges between different ethnic groups in the Muslim community and with different religious groups in Delaware.
Tourk died when he suffered a heart attack while at the post office helping a Palestinian family handle a distressful situation. His last act was an act of kindness that reminded me that from an Islamic perspective both life and death have the same purpose – to test how much good we can do in this world.
Let me share with you the last one month of Jamil Tourk’s life to illustrate what a force he was in the community. He spent his last minute on Earth helping a Palestinian family with their postage needs. He spent the final week of his life in and out of the hospital taking care of a relative who was in critical condition. A week before that, the week of April 25, he helped a Palestinian child from Gaza come to the US and undergo critical surgery at Nemours hospital. After every Friday prayer in April and in the first week of May, Tourk has been registering people to vote in the coming elections.
On April 19, he made key remarks at an event he was partly responsible for, Islamic holidays recognition by New Castle County, at its official proclamation. On April 17, he organized a fundraiser that raised over forty thousand dollars to build a pediatric cancer care center in Gaza. On April 13, he hosted a breakfast for thirty community leaders to raise funds for the Tarbiyah Islamic School in Newark. On April 6, he launched a multilingual campaign (English, Arabic, Turkish and Urdu) to motivate people to register to vote. On April 5th he celebrated his sixtieth birthday and on April 2, he sat a few feet away from President Erdogan of Turkey listening to him recite the Quran after the inauguration of the grand mosque in Maryland.
Yes he was a remarkable man, incredibly active in the community. He has left behind a beautiful and loving family, wife, son and daughter and hundreds of Delawareans who will miss him terribly. As I recited the Quran and helped cover his grave, I saw that not only the entire community had turned up, but people had come from as far north as Boston and as far south as North Carolina to attend his funeral. His life impacted the lives of many.
Let us all toast to Jamil Tourk, for indeed, he was a jolly good fellow.