Standing up for what's right: Engineering's Elfass honored for humanitarian work

For more than two decades, Sherif Elfass has worked tirelessly to bring Muslims and northern Nevada closer together

Professor Sherif Elfass, pictured in the middle of friends and family, with award in his hand, was honored with the Michael O'Callaghan Humanitarian Award on Jan. 11 by the non-profit coalition of northern Nevada human service providers, the Human Services Network during the organization's 29th annual awards ceremony. Elfass has been one of the Muslim community's leading voices, and has played an intergral role in the relocation of refugee families in northern Nevada.


1/19/2018 | By: John Trent |

The work, whether it is as a research associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, or as one of northern Nevada's most influential Muslim figures, often requires Sherif Elfass to rise well before dawn.

His plan for each day is simple. If he has to fit everything in, he rises earlier and earlier each morning. It's not uncommon for the 49-year-old who is married, with two daughters and a son, to rise as early as 3 a.m. to start his work day.

"I switched my schedule to wake up early in the morning so I can do my work," says Elfass, who has lived in northern Nevada since coming to Reno as a graduate student from his native Egypt in 1993. "If for instance there is an event during a regular work day, I'll get up two hours earlier so I can finish my work.

"If it cuts a few hours off of my sleep, that's OK. It's worth it when you are working with people making a difference, when you are trying to make things better, and when you are standing up for what's right."

Elfass is one of the true difference-makers in northern Nevada, though such talk would probably embarrass him. He has never done things to draw attention to himself, or to receive compliments or kudos for his untiring efforts to educate his community about the Muslim religion.

He has always been a voice of reason regarding Islam, whether it has been through the interfaith newspaper column he has shared with a wide variety of other faiths in the Sunday edition of the Reno Gazette-Journal for the past seven years, or through his constant presence  at important faith-based events in Reno, or in the significant role he and the Northern Nevada Muslim Community, of which he is the president, has played over the past two years since the region began receiving groups of refugees in the wake of humanitarian crises in the world.

Says Carina Black executive director of the Northern Nevada International Center and a longtime friend of Elfass: "The one thing I absolutely appreciate the most about Sherif - other than the fact that whenever you need anything, anything at all from him, he always says, 'Yes' - is that he's always so thoughtful about moving issues forward in our community. "People have an incredible amount of respect for him - on campus, in the Muslim community, within our refugee community. They respect him so much because he's a person who truly cares about people and in improving our community through thoughtful discussion and through the benefits of education."

Black adds, thinking of all the time Elfass somehow manages to positively make use of in a typical day: "I've met a lot of people who contribute to the community and neglect their family in the process.  Sherif has managed to be a visionary AND a good father ... usually people are honored for their accomplishments in one area. Sherif is the all-around package."

On Jan. 11, Elfass was honored during the 29th annual Human Services Network Awards in Reno. He was presented with the Michael O'Callaghan Humanitarian Award, which is named in honor of the late Nevada governor. O'Callaghan, a decorated Korean War veteran, Nevada governor from 1971-79 and before that, appointed by Gov. Grant Sawyer to head the state's new  department of health and welfare in 1963, was known for fighting for the rights of individuals who might otherwise have been marginalized. The Human Services Network is a non-profit coalition of human service providers in northern Nevada.

Elfass, who received a standing ovation during the ceremony, says he was surprised, and moved, by the award and the reaction those in attendance had.

"You don't know how much you're doing while you are doing it," he said. "This was the best part of the whole event to me ... making the realization of how other people perceive your work. It was very emotional for me.

"You don't work for the recognition, but when someone realizes the work you're doing has been good, it feels very joyful. It makes you feel like doing (the work) again."

GIVING BACK FROM AN EARLY AGE

Volunteerism and giving back have always been a part of Elfass' life.

Growing up in Alexandria, Egypt, his father, Ahmad, an accountant, made sure his three sons understood that there was more expected of them than earning college degrees and succeeding as professionals.

"My dad was the perfect example of helping people," Elfass remembers. "We'd go visit people in the hospital ... these were people we didn't know, but my dad always wanted us to go and visit them, so they weren't alone. He was on the board of the Mosque in our neighborhood.

"Whenever there were needy people, he'd talk to them about what they'd need, and how to get resources. I saw in him how he was consumed and concerned with other people, and how it made him feel good about his life. He never pursued wealth. As long as we had enough to live by, we were good. That was the message that was given to me."

Elfass' mother, Mona, continued Ahmed's work after Ahmed passed away a few years ago.

"She got involved with a couple of organizations where they've helped orphans," Elfass says. Then he recounts the work of his brother, Amr, who now lives in Boston and is executive director of the Islamic Society of Boston. Just recently, he says, as the northeast faced temperatures that plunged below zero at night, Amr opened the center to the area's homeless. "My brother just did what we used to do when we were growing up in Egypt," Elfass says. "We are supposed to help those who are in need."

A PILLAR FOR REFUGEE FAMILIES

That was why it was an easy decision for Elfass and the Northern Nevada Muslim Center to step forward to help as Black and a few others in northern Nevada began the painstaking process of helping refugee families settle in Reno.

By 2015, the years-long civil war in Syria had resulted in an exodus of close to four million people, sparking a worldwide humanitarian crisis. Black and the Northern Nevada International Center prepared an application for Reno to become a refugee resettlement site not just for Syrians, but for refugee families from Columbia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan and South Sudan.

Meetings were held with community activists, and visits were made to Las Vegas to study how resettlement was occurring in southern Nevada. The terror attacks in Paris, which killed 130 people, brought with them fear-based tension in the U.S. about whether or not refugee resettlement could lead to a similar terror attack on U.S. soil.  As the debate roiled, Reno was granted acceptance to become a refugee resettlement site on Feb. 10, 2016.

"When Carina approached us and asked whether we would support the refugee resettlement effort, I said, 'Absolutely,'" Elfass says. "We wanted to help these people, from all over the globe, who had been suffering a lot. We didn't have a lot of experience with this, but we reached out to some of the Mosques in Sacramento to find out how they had handled working with refugee families.

"Carina and the Northern Nevada International Center handled it all very, very well, as far as creating a new model, where they asked for sponsorship, for a group or a faith group to actually sponsor a family, welcoming them from the time they arrived at the airport and making sure they had access to the resources they would need to become self-dependent."

More than a year since the first families arrived in Reno has now passed. Elfass says the results have been remarkable.

"They have jobs, they are part of the community, they have a life full of activities. They've come a long way," he says. "We've learned a lot over the course of one year - how to better assist and organize our efforts and not to duplicate them. We now have a mentor team council, and we meet regularly ... in fact, I think we have one of our meetings coming up in a few days ... we have these regular meetings to discuss the challenges that the refugees are facing.

"The Reno community has been overwhelming in its support of these families. It's overwhelming and astonishing. I expected, and I knew, the Muslim community would be involved, but the Reno-Sparks community is a wonderful community, and the people of our community have developed good relationships with the refugee families. They've helped make these families feel they are a part of northern Nevada."

Black says Elfass' ability to mobilize the local Muslim community (it is estimated there are about 2,000 to 2,500 Muslims in northern Nevada, with about 250 to 400 actively participating in worship) in support of the resettlement effort has helped immeasurably.

"We have so many volunteers and supporters we actually are having Vista volunteer coordinators to manage them," Black says. "There is definitely a lot of goodwill in our community. That is one of the things that Sherif has helped us with. He understands the language of immigrants very well. We (Black herself is a native of Argentina, is a dual citizen of Switzerland and the U.S. and came to the U.S. 30 years ago) understand the struggle that we first face when we come to the United States.

"Sherif is able to speak about his own experience, how he sought a better life in this country. That's what makes his experience more in line with what many of the (refugee) families are experiencing. There have been so many learning lessons, on an almost daily basis, through this process. Having someone who is also an immigrant, and who has succeeded the way Sherif has, has been very helpful."

'PEOPLE ARE ONLY SCARED OF WHAT THEY DO NOT KNOW'

Elfass admits that the events of Sept. 11, 2001, were motivation for him, along with other Muslims in the community, to step out of their comfort zone. In the wake of Sept. 11, it became a time when many Americans viewed the Muslim religion with suspicion or even hate.

Elfass took a long, hard, look at himself and where he was in his life in the days following 9-11. He was, in a sense, a "homegrown" product of the University, having received his master's degree (1997) and Ph.D. (2001) from the University. He was then just embarking on a career as a fulltime research professor. He was ensconced in one of the more globally reflective programs at the University, the College of Engineering's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. It was a department filled with faculty had come from all across the United States as well as all across the world - Australia, Iran, Iowa, Greece. The work in earthquake and large-scale structure engineering was meaningful. And the shared purpose of achieving a vision - what Dean Manos Maragakis, who was then a faculty member, has called "a large-scale dream" - to position the college, its students and its faculty at the forefront of these fields, was unifying in its vision.

There was plenty for Elfass, as a young professor, to do - to find his niche as teacher and as a researcher in such a driven and competitive environment. And yet, 9-11 and its aftermath proved a wakeup call for Elfass. He knew, almost instinctively, that he must do more.

"Until Sept. 11, 2001, there was tendency to believe that people understood who Muslims were and what our religion was about," Elfass says. "It was a big mistake. People didn't know Muslims and in the wake of Sept. 11, all they heard was we were really bad people.

"It became important for us to show them what we stood for and that there was nothing wrong with our religion. Our intention in going out into the community, and having more of a presence, has never been to convert people to our religion. It's been just to tell people, to educate them, about who we are.

"People are only scared of what they do not know."

Elfass recalls a conversation when he had gone shopping to Costco with his wife, Nahla Kadry. Nahla, to whom Elfass has been married since 1993, was wearing the traditional headwear of a Muslim woman. A woman stopped the couple outside the store. She asked if they were Muslim. Elfass and Nahla said, yes, they were Muslim. "How do you feel about your religion and how it is telling you to kill me?" the woman asked.

Elfass was surprised, but only for a moment. He quietly told the woman that he was a religious person. He told the woman to rest assured that Islam does not tell its followers to kill members of other religions. He said there was nowhere in the Quran that said such a thing. The conversation lengthened, stretching to about a half hour, as Elfass, perhaps relying on his training as an award-winning professor (he was named the department's top teacher in 2015) and perhaps relying on his ability to remain calm, composed and fact-based, eventually was able to finish the discussion feeling that the woman no longer felt all Muslims were out to kill her. He left her a copy of the Quran as a gift, as well as his phone number. He encouraged her to call him, at any hour of the day or night, if she wished to discuss the issue some more.

"It's all about education," he says. "We try to educate as many people as we can. We correct misunderstandings. We try to help people come to a better understanding of our religion.

"It can be an uphill battle at times, but slowly, surely, one step at a time, that's been our focus since Sept. 11, 2001. That's what drove all the activities we've been involved with since then, and that's why it's been so wonderful how we've become so involved with the interfaith activities that are such an important part of our community. I feel so blessed to be involved, and to have been so welcomed, in every church, in every synagogue, in our community."

'EVEN IF EVIL WINS THE FIRST BATTLE, GOOD WILL ALWAYS PREVAIL'

Even with all the work he has done, Elfass realizes there is still so much left to do.

He's been one of the leading voices of the Northern Nevada Muslim Community since the late 1990s, and realizes that the Community needs to continue to evolve due to events and circumstances in the world. Recently, he says, the Community hired its first fulltime Imam, whose job, among other things, will be to "help the new generation understand the true message of Islam. It's essential that we combat the radicals who can overtake them through the Internet. Our Imam is young enough so that he can relate in a meaningful way to our youth, to convey the true message and instill in them how they can good members of our community. Education, again, is a key in achieving this."

He's also encouraging the local Muslim community to continue to involve itself with non-profit organizations and to continue to volunteer time and effort in improving northern Nevada.

"We need to see where also and how we can provide service to the community," he says.

Elfass says that the work has never been more important than it is right now. He says it is disheartening to see how the current presidential administration in Washington, D.C., seems to be enacting ways to limit the rights of immigrants, including perhaps even withdrawing many of the protections for young people contained within DACA legislation.

"I'm optimistic by nature, but what is happening right now makes me feel sad," he says. "Someone is taking away something that is really good and is destroying it piece by piece. You can see in history how great nations went down because of similar actions. Sometimes I feel I don't know what to do. I want to keep pushing this boulder uphill, but there is a lot of force, pushing it back down.

"Why do some of these people think I left my country? To do a better job. To have a better life. I came here to get my degrees, and now I've stayed on. I'm a productive member of the community. I pay my taxes. My kids go to local schools. The Muslim community in general is working hard at their jobs and is playing a positive role in our communities.

"It seems like there are a lot of negative things going on right now. But I'm still hopeful that even if evil wins the first battle, good will always prevail."

That's why Black says it was so important that Elfass was honored at the recent Human Services Network Awards. "I had to keep explaining to Sherif that this was a big deal," she says. "To see the community come together and honor him was huge. There haven't been a lot of diverse individuals or people of color who are honored; to do it a time like this, when immigrants and Muslims are under attack, it meant a lot. People came up to me afterward and said this was one of the most important awards they had ever presented, because of the timing, and the amazing work that Sherif has done on behalf of all the people in our community.

"He has done so much good, for all of us."

It always helps, of course, if the do-gooders of our world are up and doing their necessary work well before the rest of us are even out of bed in the morning.

"To me," he says of his work, this important work that continues to make a difference, work that reminds us of the promise that is America, "this is the energy that keeps me going. I don't know how else to describe it. I don't advertise what I do, and this is not my style to publicize. Really, I'm just doing what I do each day simply to do my part."

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