While he prefers to be called by his Muslim name, Abdullahi, Victor Perez, 41, is often referred to as “Vic” by the other boxing trainers at Mendez Gym in the heart of New York City. A Puerto Rican American born in “Spanish Harlem,” Abdullahi turned to Islam in 1994.
Abdullahi, who has trained boxers for the past 14 years, recalls his first perception of Islam as a religious cult that preached terrorism–at least that’s what he remembers seeing on television. “My wife Fatimah wanted to convert before me, but I asked her not to because I really didn’t know anything about the religion, and was fearful after all the things I had seen and heard in the news,” he said. “It’s funny now, because I took my Shahada (the Muslim declaration of belief in Allah), before her.”
A turning point was when Abdullahi accepted an invitation from friends to visit a mosque. “I was scared. We drove for a long time into Queens, and arrived at what I thought was someone’s house. I didn’t realize at the time this was a place of worship.” As he stood in the doorway of the prayer house, a gentleman who had greeted him began the traditional call to prayer at the entry.
“It was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard and it brought me to tears. At that moment all my questions and doubts left me,” he said. “I’ve never seen Asians, whites, blacks, Latinos, all these people come together in this way. It was the first time I’d witnessed a true sense of brotherhood.”
Abdullahi, who was raised Catholic, loves his aunt’s traditional “non-Halal” meals but has had to resist his aunt’s pork dishes. “It was hard,” Abdullahi says with a chuckle. Making adjustments to his diet, however, was just one of the challenges he faced as a converted Muslim.
Abdullahi encountered resistance from his community, including family members, to his new faith. His uncle gave him an ultimatum: repent or leave home. But his aunt was supportive. “She said, ‘If it makes him a better person and man, it’s good,'” recalls Abdullahi, who added that his aunt herself converted to Islam later in life. “The day she accepted Islam was one of the best days of my life.”
Abdullahi feels that many Puerto Ricans, or Latinos in general, don’t understand the roots of Islam and its relationship to Latin culture. To help bridge this gap, Abdullahi joined the Bronx based Latino-Muslim organization, Alianza Islamica, which provides social services including HIV/AIDS awareness, GED classes, and free meals to the homeless during the holy month of Ramadan. Through Alianza Islamica, Abdullahi is able to share with his community the similarities between the religion and the Puerto Rican culture he grew up understanding. “In the end, I am a proud American and Puerto Rican who has chosen to be a Muslim, and will always be.”