Jamilah Lasalle was on the fast track on a bad path, until a coworker changed her life. In her story she shares, candidly, her troubled background and how learning about Islam and ultimately converting gave her a new life.
At 14 years old, I had already taken my first puff of a cigarette, had been suspended from school, had my first swig of alcohol and fought half dozen fistfights. By 16, I dropped out of high school, went on to smoking marijuana every day and moved on from beer to liquor. This life became my addiction. I could not see anything else but the above. I was oblivious to my mother’s pain; she taught me well but could not control me once I walked out of her door.
By 18 years old, life had become much harder for me. I worked hard but never saw the benefits of my money because it had already been spent on my vices. Working at the convenient stores and Dunkin Donuts wasn’t making ends meet, so I reluctantly went back to night school and obtained my GED.
Getting my GED didn’t make much of a difference, and my mother was fed up with me. She never gave up, but she grew tired of the life I was leading. Tough love was the only language she spoke at the time, and I couldn’t understand it. She threatened me with being sent to an all-girls group home or being kicked out. So, I decided if I attended college while working, all would be well and she would worry less.
At 19, I moved out of my mother’s house and went out on my own. Life was a party. No one to tell me where to go or who to be, but the next three years became a blur. That is until a specific moment.
A good friend of my mother’s worked alongside me for two years. On one random day she walked into the classroom where I was at with a beautiful white hijab and a long dungaree jilbab. I almost tripped over one of the chairs in the classroom when I saw her. She had walked over to me and told me she had taken shahadah some time ago but kept it to herself and had been studying Islam. She had married an Algerian who was teaching her this beautiful way of life.
Any other time, I would have mocked her and laughed, but I didn’t. It was almost as if I couldn’t. To this day, I cannot tell you the emotion that overtook my entire body when I saw her. She had a glow beyond belief, and I almost felt jealous not looking and feeling the way she did.
We talked every day on our lunch breaks afterwards. I went to her home on certain evenings to hear her and her husband converse with me on Islam and listen to the recitation of Quran. It was as if I had found a new drug.
On April 6, 1997, I declared my faith to Allah and took my shahada in front of Sister Mahdiyyah and Brother Tahar. I was so ecstatic, happy and full of life until reaching home and wondering what my mother would say? Would she disown me? Would she shun me? Islam was clearly not part of the Latin culture.
I decided to keep it from her for about a month, while continuing to study Islam. Eight months later, I was wearing the full religious garment and had officially quit smoking. It killed me that I thought I would be unable to share this joy with my mother. So one day, I decided no matter what, I was going to tell her.
I removed the hijab from my head before entering my mother’s house, and although now dressing modestly, made sure that day I wore something stylish while still trying to cover myself. I walked in, and my mom was cooking. My brother met me at the threshold of the kitchen and said: “You look different and fatter!” That was considered love between me and him. I kissed my mother hello and sat at the kitchen table. She said: “You look cute!” I thanked her and immediately blurted out that I am now a Muslim. I was so nervous, I didn’t know any other way to say it.
She looked at me real hard as if she was going to beat me with the long silver serving spoon in her hand. However, that was not the case, and to my amazement, she said, “If Allah can do better for you than Jesus can, then I am all for it.”
I had nothing to say. I hugged her and said; “I also wear the hijab.” Mom turned to me and said: “You’re covering all that beautiful hair? Now that’s something I’ll have to get used to.” We talked for hours and hours – Islam being the only topic of discussion. We ate, we laughed and we talked some more.
I am now 45 years old with three beautiful children all born into Islam, a caring and kind husband who happens to be my best friend for more than 14 years. Alongside my husband, I am also the co-founder of Bait-ul Jamaat (House of Community), a 501c3 organization that was established by Muslims who understand that community needs are vast and that helping the underserved families by going into their neighborhoods is an all-inclusive effort.
To date, we have fed more than 6,500 families in underserved areas and shelters on Staten Island, with homemade hot halal meals. We have formulated our very own futsal league, free to the children; provided Security Guard Training to 41 people; 26 employed as a result; distributed more than 600 backpacks and school supplies to the communities; provided CPR training and certification to more than 21 families, and created our very own teen dawah program.
I am grateful to Allah for all of these blessings that unfolded right before my eyes.