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Namat Rahman, prisoner of the drug war

February 8, 2007 - Dallas Morning News (TX)

Inmate Finds Charity In Prison

Seagoville: He Has Raised Almost $3,000 For Children's Surgeries

By Richard Abshire / The Dallas Morning News

Namat Rahman made a big mistake, and he's had a long time to think about it.

He's in the 15th year of a 20-year no-parole sentence at the federal prison in Seagoville for interstate narcotics trafficking.

"If I had known how drugs destroy people and families, I wouldn't have done it," he said in a phone interview from the prison. His message to anyone who will listen: "Please, don't do what I did."

But remorse is not enough, so he does what he can to help others by raising money -- most of it from fellow inmates -- for The Smile Train, a charity that sends surgeons to Third World countries to operate on children who have cleft lips and cleft palates. One of the charity's newspaper ads reminded him of children in Pakistan with the deformity.

He hasn't seen his own six children or his wife since he left them in Pakistan to come to America in 1985. He worked as a convenience store clerk and a hotdog vendor in Philadelphia to make money to bring his family here, but let a friend talk him into making a few heroin deliveries. He was arrested in New York City and pleaded guilty in federal court there in 1992.

In prison, the 47-year-old has raised about $3,000, enough to pay for a dozen operations at the average cost of $250 each.

"We are all fathers," Mr. Rahman said of the inmates. "When it comes to a child, they give."

A few thousand dollars might not seem like much on the outside, but it's a lot of money to come from inmates who rely on contributions from family and friends to maintain their modest cash accounts, money they use to buy toiletries and snacks from the prison commissary.

"If we could each save one dollar a month, that's $12 a year," Mr. Rahman said of the inmates. "And in each [federal] prison there are 1,200 to 1,500 inmates."

So far, a fundraising campaign that would reach out to other prisons remains a dream.

Still, "it's an amazing story," said Michelle Sinesky, spokeswoman for The Smile Train, which meets the standards of the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance. "We've never had anyone like him."

She said she was skeptical at first. But Mr. Rahman is not eligible for early release and has nothing to gain.

"He's never asked me for anything," she said. "He just cares about those kids."

Mr. Rahman credits others for their support -- the prison staff, inmates and Samson Masih, the only person who has ever visited him at Seagoville.

Mr. Rahman and Mr. Masih are both from Pakistan but have little else in common. Mr. Rahman -- a Muslim like more than 90 percent of Pakistanis -- is from the Swat Valley in the rugged Northwest Frontier Province, where Osama bin Laden is rumored to be hiding. Mr. Masih is a Christian from the southern seaport of Karachi, a metropolis of more than 14 million and the financial capital of Pakistan.

But their faiths have built a bridge between them.

Mr. Masih hosts a radio show from 9 to 10 a.m. Saturdays on "Fun Asia" KHSE-AM (700). The name of the program, which is sponsored by Hackberry Creek Presbyterian Church of Irving, is Paghaam --"The Message."

Mr. Rahman heard the program on the radio in his cell and began corresponding with Mr. Masih, sometimes by phone, often in letters.

Mr. Masih said his program -- in Urdu, Hindi and English -- is designed to share the love of God with people of all faiths from South Asia.

Too much religious discussion in the immigrant community is divisive, said Mr. Masih, a marketing executive with a master's degree in business administration from the University of North Texas and a student at Dallas Theological Seminary. Mr. Masih is a member of Calvary Bible Church, an Indian-Pakistani congregation in Plano, and is active in Jesus the Savior Ministry, a nondenominational group that offers a culturally sensitive message of faith and hope to Indians and Pakistanis in North Texas.

Mr. Masih felt called to offer an inclusive message with his radio program. It's not about conversion, it's about the brotherhood of man.

"We are all sinners, and God loves us," he said.

At the prison, Mr. Rahman and another inmate share a low-security room furnished with bunk beds, a table, two chairs and a radio. He prays five times a day and is taking a class in auto mechanics. When he has served his time at Seagoville, he will be deported to Pakistan, where he hopes to run a business and continue his charitable giving.

There's a television in a common area in his building that he doesn't watch very often. But he never misses Paghaam.

"He said it gave him a reason to live," Mr. Masih said. "He said, 'I'm alive but I'm a dead man.' Now he has a desire to live and see his family again."

Mr. Rahman, one of the few Muslims in the Seagoville prison, said he has been treated well by other inmates and the staff, even in the days and weeks after 9/11.

"We are brothers in this compound," he said. "I wish people out on the streets would follow the example of Seagoville."

Like Mr. Masih, he would like to see people everywhere put their differences aside and build bridges of their shared values.

"One person can make a difference," Mr. Rahman said.

© 2007 The Dallas Morning News Co.

Posted 5/30/07

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