‘Did you contribute today?’

Youssef family follows Islam far from mosque

Nathan Youssef, left, is joined by two other interns and their mentor in splitting seeds to plant for the nursery at a new Elephant Nature Park in Cambodia. They practice slash-and-burn agriculture, and here we were trying to plant trees in an area they had just cleared, Nathan said of work he did while there on a six-week Loop Abroad program in 2010. Enlarge photo

Courtesy of Nathan Youssef

Nathan Youssef, left, is joined by two other interns and their mentor in splitting seeds to plant for the nursery at a new Elephant Nature Park in Cambodia. They practice slash-and-burn agriculture, and here we were trying to plant trees in an area they had just cleared, Nathan said of work he did while there on a six-week Loop Abroad program in 2010.

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 thats far away from the nearest mosques in Grand Junction, Albuquerque and Abiquiu, N.M., Dr. Jim Youssef of Spine Colorado said following his faith hasnt always been easy.

But Islam is pretty individualistic, he said. It doesnt require fellowship. Its 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. Ive never been judged on anything but my skill set. Im 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. Theyve now been married for 20 years.

But religion didnt even come up until we were living together, he said. She said Arent 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 wouldnt say religion rules our lives in Durango, Youssef said, But its 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 Im going to do that day. When I come home, I always ask my kids, Did you contribute today? If the answers 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 worlds 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.

Theres 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 dont 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 its 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 wasnt going to the freezer for ice cream every day.

He came back with a new appreciation for local, sustainable food, greatly expanding the familys garden.

When he was growing up, Jim Youssefs 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 dont eat pork, and we dont 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 didnt drink at all.

A family of moderation

When Youssefs 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 familys 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, ne Kariman, wanted their children to be Americans.

Moderation was my dads 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 Youssefs death at the age of 67.

It was my first Islamic funeral, Youssef said. I bathed my fathers 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 dont 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 persons father that if they do this suicide bombing or whatever, theyll go straight to heaven, and their family will get a lot a money, thats pretty persuasive, Youssef said, But I have great hope for democracy because the true meaning of Islam is peace.

abutler@durangoherald.com

Dr. Jim Youssef is a spine surgeon and co-founder of Spine Colorado. He also is one of only a few Muslims following the path of Islam in Durango, which has both challenges and benefits, he said. Enlarge photo

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

Dr. Jim Youssef is a spine surgeon and co-founder of Spine Colorado. He also is one of only a few Muslims following the path of Islam in Durango, which has both challenges and benefits, he said.

Dr. Jim Youssef, left, makes notes between visits with patients at Spine Colorado. At right is clinical coordinator Stacey Forsythe. Youssef considers helping people eliminate pain and regain mobility to be one of the ways he follows the Pillars of Islam, the faith he has followed his whole life. Enlarge photo

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

Dr. Jim Youssef, left, makes notes between visits with patients at Spine Colorado. At right is clinical coordinator Stacey Forsythe. Youssef considers helping people eliminate pain and regain mobility to be one of the ways he follows the Pillars of Islam, the faith he has followed his whole life.

The cover of Nathan Youssefs book, 101 Ways to Contribute. Enlarge photo

Courtesy of Nathan Youssef

The cover of Nathan Youssefs book, 101 Ways to Contribute.

Nathan Youssef works with children at the Save Poor Children in Asia Organization school in Cambodia in 2011. These students are fairly well-versed, he said about their English studies. I was helping to develop more advanced curriculum for these students and their peers. Enlarge photo

Courtesy of Nathan Youssef

Nathan Youssef works with children at the Save Poor Children in Asia Organization school in Cambodia in 2011. These students are fairly well-versed, he said about their English studies. I was helping to develop more advanced curriculum for these students and their peers.

Working at the Elephant Nature Park in northern Thailand, where abused elephants find sanctuary, inspired Nathan Youssef. He spent six weeks at the park in 2010 and learned about the environmental and political challenges associated with the project. Enlarge photo

Courtesy of Nathan Youssef

Working at the Elephant Nature Park in northern Thailand, where abused elephants find sanctuary, inspired Nathan Youssef. He spent six weeks at the park in 2010 and learned about the environmental and political challenges associated with the project.

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