Sitting on the floor of her affordable housing in San Antonio, Texas, Zahidah Begum Binti Ali Miah raises her hands in prayer. To Allah, she requests in a whisper, “take care of my son.” She slowly exhales and with a sigh, she says, “help me find peace.” 

August 12, 2017, marked the end of a 40-day mourning period for Mohamad Sharib’s family. Ordinarily, Islam calls for three days of mourning, but, for the family, a 40-day observance is a cultural variation in their Muslim faith.

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In Allah's hands


    “I’ll come back, I’ll come back,” Mohamad Sharib Bin Mohamad Ali Miah, 22, assured his mother, Zahidah Begum Binti Ali Miah, before taking off for a swim in Medina Lake near San Antonio, Texas. Those were the last words he spoke.

 

    On July 4, 2017, the refugee Rohingya family living in San Antonio, Texas decided to spend time relaxing and celebrating Eid -  The holy day that concludes the Islamic month of Ramadan. What was meant to be a happy day, turned bitter. Mohamad Sharib, accidentally drowned in the lake that afternoon. 


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    In the 1980's a huge group of Rohingya families were displaced from Myanmar. Among them were Zahidah, her husband, Mohamad Ali Bin Sultan Ahmed and their daughter. The couple decided to moved to Malaysia thereafter with the remains of a normal life. Zahidah’s family flourished, days turned to months, and months to 23 years. Their small family grew from a household of three to seven as they adjusted to life in Malaysia.


    On August 22, 2015, the family was given the opportunity to move to the United States. They embarked on a new journey once again, this time with their two youngest sons. 


    Within a year of moving to San Antonio, Texas, her third daughter moved to San Antonio with her husband and two toddler sons. “I had found new happiness, this became a home,” Zahidah said. 


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    Life was good, until Tuesday, July 4, 2017. 


    It was a routine day in Zahidah’s household. She was awake by 6 a.m. to make breakfast and tea for her oldest son, Mohamad Shabrib, before he left for his factory job. Her husband, Mohamad Ali, had his day off and Zahidah’s younger son, Mohamad Emran’s was on summer vacation. 


    By noon, Sharib was back home. He told Zahidah that the factory gave him the rest of the day off “for a national holiday.” 


    Unwilling to spend his day off at home, Sharib convinced his family to have a belated Eid picnic at Medina Lake; a location 55 miles north of San Antonio. 


    Mid-way through the journey, Zahidah  did not want to go to the lake anymore. “I was feeling sick,” she said. “I didn’t realize it was that far.” She conceded for her children.


    The day was hot and the water was cool. Mohamad Sharib wanted to go for a swim. He placed his belongings – shoes, clothes, camera, sunglass and car keys – with his mother. Moments later Mohamad Sharib jumped off the pier into the water. 


     There was disjointed chaos when the family realized Sharib was in trouble. Mohamad Ali, noticed his son’s fingers on the surface of the water. And immediately dove into the water to save him, but he could not locate his son.


    Neighboring holiday makers sensed the emergency of the situation and called 911, since the Rohingya family did not speak any English, other than Sharib. 


    After a two-hour search, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department recovered his body. “Sharib will never come back. It is what Allah wishes,” Zahidah said.


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    This story was documented during my time at San Antonio Express-News along with reporter Janelle Polcyn.

On July 7, 2017, the day of the funeral, Zahidah requested to see her son one more time after the customary ritual of gusal, (bathing and cleaning of the deceased) to say her last goodbye. “My son. My good son,” Zahidah kept chanting, as her younger son, Mohamad Emran, along with family friends escorted her out of the morgue.

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Routine incantation of the Surah Ya Sin (a set of prayers from the Q'uran) after the death of a loved one is said to contain blessings and benefit for the deceased in the Islamic culture. 

Ever since Mohamad Sharib's passing his mother finds refuge in religious scriptures and prayers.

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Male members of Sharib’s family carry his body to the Islamic cemetery in La Vernia, Texas. Aas per Muslim traditions, women do not partake in the burial ceremony of the funeral. Therefore, while the men buried Mohamad Sharib’s body, Zahidah along with a group of women watched from a distance; reading verses from the Quran and videotaping the funeral.

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Zahidah had a special bond with Sharib. His untimely death left her traumatized and shocked. “I will never see him again. My sweet son. My child,” she cried while walking away from the morgue with her younger son, Mohamad Emran and neighbor Fathima Bin Ilyas. Shortly afterwards, Zahidah fainted. 

Mohamad Sharib’s death certificate states that he died of natural causes, drowning, but, his mother strongly believes that his death was caused by supernatural activities. “There was a forest nearby,” she said. “Forests have ghosts and spirits who pulled on my son’s leg while he was in the water. My son knew how to swim.”

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Mohamad Ali Bin Sultan Ahmed, Mohamad Sharib’s father, believes that only God reigns over life and death. “We are all creations of God,” Mohamad Ali said. “He decides how long we have on earth. Everyone has their own time. Today is Sharib, tomorrow it could be me, and the day after could be my wife.”


Mohamad Ali prefers to grieve alone and keeps to himself. During the 40-days of mourning, he spent most of his time outside the house. On the last day, he broke down in tears while fli[pping through some photos of his son.

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Zahidah often finds herself reminiscing life before Sharib’s death. She shows a set of pictures, the only ones she has,  to people when she talks about her son. “I did not know we had them,” she said. “I found them hidden in my clothes. This is all I have of him now.” 

She shows the set of images to Sharib’s older sister in Malaysia. They did not take very many pictures of themselves in Myanmar or Malaysia, money was limited, and priorities were different. It was only after they started living in the United States that they were able to save money and buy both their sons' a smartphone each.

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A few weeks after Sharib’s demise, Zahidah's friends' convinced her to join English as a Second Language (ESL) class provided by Catholic Charity in San Antonio. She thought having a place to go and doing something different for a few hours would relieve her sorrow. Unfortunately, due to recurring insomnia since the incident and simultaneous deterioration of health, Zahidah finds it difficult to pay attention in class. 

Mohamad Sharib was scheduled to take his mother for a doctor’s appointment on July 7, 2017. After the tragedy, no one has had the time to take Zahidah to the hospital for the appointment. She often feels sick but has no diagnosed medical issue. 

She now spends most nights lying awake on the couch, flipping through the pile of photos and reading dua (prayer blessings) for Sharib. She slowly rolls through the mornings; sleepless, tired and unable to do household chores.

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Laying her head on her husband’s lap, Zahidah takes a moment to look over at her grandson to make sure he is asleep. As days pass by and Mohamad Sharib becomes a memory and Zahidah feels his absence tremendously. “Sharib would always take care of me,” she said with tears in her eyes. “He would cook food, make tea, give me medicines on time and massage my shoulders when I would feel pain. Now I have no one.” 

Zahidah endures the pain of the loss by herself, she feels that her husband does not understand her grief. “He tells me to get over it and live for my other son and my grandchildren,” she said. “But how can I do that?" 

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Faith has been a strong component in Zahidah’s life. It has been her support through the displacement from their home to the reconstruction of her and her family's life in Malaysia and San Antonio. 

White prayer abaya (women’s prayer robe) and a tasbih (Mulism prayer beads) in hand, Zahidah prays for her son every day, five times a day and sometimes more. “I know death is inevitable and it doesn’t matter where or which country it happened in,” she said. “What matters is that he is with God.”

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Zahidah is constantly haunted by Sharib's presence. “He would sit on the steps and talk on the phone with his friends,” she said. She says that she does not want to think that her son is gone. "I tell myself that he is gone for shopping and he will come back," she said as she leaned over the doorframe of her house.  

Overcoming the loss of her child has not been easy and the lack of support from her husband pushed Zahidah to the edge. She has been trying to get a job to earn money, to buy a ticket back to Malaysia to stay with her daughters. “I cannot live here anymore,” Zahidah said. “I do not want to. I just want to go back home, this is not home to me anymore.”

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“I remember Mohamad Sharib the most when I come home from work when I use the bus," Mohamad Ali said. “Usually Sharib would take care of me. He would pick me up so I didn’t have to walk home in the dark. I miss him a lot more than I can express.”

Mohamad Ali works a low paying job at Omni Hotel, located in downtown San Antonio and barely makes ends meet. Sharib’s monetary contribution to his family made life easier in Texas. With Sharib gone, the family now faces financial distress, especially with their younger son, Emran, still being in school and unable to fully help out.

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