x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Islam offers student new life in the UAE

Student who converted to Islam speaks to an audience at the American university of Sharjah about his journey.

Luis Garcia converted to Islam while studying English in Texas.
Luis Garcia converted to Islam while studying English in Texas.

SHARJAH // A young convert to Islam has told how a chance meeting led him to a new life in the UAE.

Cut off financially by his Christian mother and father, Luis Garcia was about to be thrown out on to the streets of Texas, where he was studying at the University of Houston.

Telling his story for the first time to an audience at the American University of Sharjah, he remembered all too clearly how close to despair he came.

Choosing to convert in the US in 2006 required a great deal of bravery, he said, because anti-Muslim sentiment was still running high after the terrorist attacks of 2001.

Mr Garcia was drawn to the faith after meeting a group of students from Saudi Arabia who did not fit the media's stereotype."Among them there was one guy called Ahmad who started talking to me about Islam," he said. "I didn't want to learn at first."

Ahmad gave him brochures which he accepted only "out of politeness", but soon read them and Islam started to making sense.

His curiosity led him to take Islamic classes but he gave up after five months fearing the reaction of his parents.

However, when a renowned Muslim preacher, Yusuf Estes, himself a convert, delivered a lecture at the university, Ahmad arranged for Mr Garcia to meet him backstage.

"When Estes saw me he hugged me, then I started crying. I don't know why," he said.

He told the preacher he was too scared of his parents to convert, so the preacher suggested he return after "growing up".

That was all the prompting Mr Garcia needed. He took Mr Estes's hand, walked out on stage in front of 400 people and announced that he was a Muslim.

But the joy of the experience was tempered by the dread he felt at having to tell his parents. That Christmas, he went home to Mexico City. Airport security held him on suspicion of having links to Al Qaeda after they found a Quran in his suitcase.

He was freed but his father demanded that he be re-baptised at the local church. When he refused, his father became violent and kicked him out of the family home.

Mr Garcia flew back to Texas, where he continued the English as a foreign language programme his parents had already paid for. His father stopped sending money, so he moved into a friend's flat.

"My Saudi friends received a salary from the embassy there every month. Each one of them would put US$100 (Dh367) aside for me."

But he knew he did not have the finances to continue for long. "I felt really hopeless," Mr Garcia said.

Just as he was beginning to despair, a friend called him and told him to meet an Emirati man at the local mosque.

The Emirati told him he would speak to some people in the UAE and fix his problem. One week later, the Emirati returned and told him everything had been arranged for him to move to the American University of Sharjah, where he would be fully sponsored by a sheikh.

When Mr Garcia arrived in the UAE he was escorted to his dorm by a supervisor. When he opened the door the room was exactly as he had seen in an earlier dream.

"I knew it was the right place for me … it was my home," he said.

The next day the family who sponsored him invited him to their majlis and told him how proud they were of him.

"They never left me alone, they treated me like one of their own," he said.

Worried at first about being the only Hispanic student among 5,000, Mr Garcia thrived and became president of the student council. Now 25, he will soon be starting his first job.

"I found real fraternity in Islam. Brothers and friends, I have met so many good people here," he said."

hdajani@thenational.ae