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‘Trying to do good work, practice faith’: Ahmad family gives back near and far

(L-R) Faraz, Fatima, Safi, Aariz and Zia Ahmad at their annual Biking4Books event on Sept. 22, 2018.
Lara Hamdan | St. Louis Public Radio
(L-R) Faraz, Fatima, Safi, Aariz and Zia Ahmad at their annual Biking4Books event on Sept. 22, 2018.

Living a life of service, faith and leading by example are strong pillars in the Ahmad household, a St. Louis County family that participates in community services locally and abroad. On Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Don Marsh talked to Zia Ahmad, cardiologist and president of Muslim Community Services St. Louis (MCSL), about his family’s volunteer work.

Joining the conversation were Fatima and Aariz, Ahmad’s wife and youngest son, respectively. Aariz is a freshman at Mary Institute and Saint Louis Country Day School. Also involved in community work are Ahmad’s other sons, Faraz and Safi, currently attending out-of-state universities.

“Our family is representative of many other American-Muslim families who are trying to do good work and trying to live their faith,” Zia said. He described that his and Fatima’s upbringing in Pakistan had a lot to do with the tradition of giving back and helping people who are less fortunate. Zia and Fatima wanted to instill that same practice in their children.

(L-R) Zia, Fatima and Aariz Ahmad joined host Don Marsh to talk about how their faith influences their passion for living a life of service.
Credit Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio
(L-R) Zia, Fatima and Aariz Ahmad joined host Don Marsh to talk about how their faith influences their passion for living a life of service.

Last December, as part of MCSL, the family went alone to Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh to work in Rohingya refugee camps. There, they helped in primary care clinics, pharmacies and set up a computer skills workshop for young Rohingya men and women working as interns in NGOs. They plan to return as a family this December to continue their work.

The plight of Rohingya refugees, about 700,000 in Bangladesh according to UNICEF, struck the Ahmad family.

“It was actually by happenstance that I read about the conditions and crisis in Myanmar,” Zia said, describing the New York Times report he read April 2017. “That [article] really moved me … even when I speak about it now – it has a profound effect on me.” Afterwards, he expressed to Fatima his eagerness to go to Bangladesh.

“There are times when you see some things you can’t explain, but this didn’t need any persuasion,” Fatima, a community organizer, said. “It was just clear in our minds that we all want to go as well.”

She described the conditions of the refugee camps: poverty, high density rates – “twice the amount of downtown Manhattan” – improvisation of bamboo sticks as makeshift stretchers and orphaned children trying to make money to take care of their younger siblings.

“The drinking water there was very scarce … the lack of sanitation was very eye-opening and most of the kids didn’t even have shoes,” Aariz added, also mentioning the hassle of getting food in the camps, which involves ration cards and long lines. “Here I can just go to my fridge.”


In St. Louis, the family co-founded Biking4Books, a nonprofit that raises funds for purchasing books for St. Louis schools, with family friend Barry Bryant.

Aariz mentioned that he is an avid cyclist alongside his brothers. So they combined their passion for volunteering and biking to organize an annual bike ride that helps out elementary and middle schools in the city.

This year, the nonprofit received a donation from the R. Whittington Foundation, that allowed the young participants to keep the bikes they were loaned.

“When it was announced at the event, that was very powerful because getting your [first] bike is something you never forget and it was just great to be a part of that experience,” Aariz added.

The family also helps Somali and Syrian refugees resettle in St. Louis, organizes a Memorial Day BBQ for patients at Jefferson Barracks Division of VA St. Louis Health Care System and coordinates Iftar dinners during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

“The Muslim faith is about giving back and helping others,” Fatima said. “Zia had mentioned the Prophet [Muhammad’s] life as an example of that: he helped others, he himself was an orphan so he understood the situation of orphan kids.

“We have gotten involved ourselves because there’s a saying that, ‘If you want to help, don’t just get them a fish, teach them how to catch a fish,’ and that’s what we try to do as well.”

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Alex HeuerEvie HemphillLara Hamdan and Xandra Ellin give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Lara is the Engagement Editor at St. Louis Public Radio.