Salah Muhiddin was 7 when his father was arrested.
Now he’s a man — and, much like his father, a spiritual leader and teacher, though he laughs when I make the comparison.
“I think he’s a better man than me,” Muhiddin, now 21, tells me when I meet with him at Masjid As-Salam, the Albany mosque where his father, Yassin Aref, was serving as imam when he was arrested in 2004.
That story, of how Aref, a Kurdish refugee, and an Albany pizza shop owner named Mohammad Hossain were convicted on terrorism-related charges, is well-known, in part because many Capital Region residents, including myself, believe the two men were wrongly prosecuted.
Last month’s deadly limousine crash in Schoharie had a strange connection to Aref: The owner of the Saratoga County-based limo company was none other than Shahed “Malik” Hussain, the paid government informant whose testimony helped put Aref and Hossain away.
It’s an odd turn of events, and it got me wondering how Aref, who I last wrote about in 2012, when he was confined to a low-security federal prison in Pennsylvania, is doing.
At that time, he was reflective and philosophical, telling me, via email, that he lacked the words to explain how much he missed his children, but also that his heart was “full of peace.”
He struck a similar tone in a message he sent to me this week, from an immigration detention facility in York, Pennsylvania.
His prison sentence complete, he awaits deportation to Kurdistan, the mountainous region that borders Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran and Armenia. His wife and two daughters are already there, while Muhiddin and his other son remain here in the Capital Region.
“Of course I am looking forward to having good times with my family and hoping to be able to give back to them a little after all these years of suffering,” Aref wrote.
Like his father, Muhiddin is thoughtful and well-spoken, and discusses his long separation from his father — and the events that led to his incarceration — without a trace of bitterness.
“We’re looking forward to him leaving prison,” Muhiddin said. “We’re glad it’s all done and we get to move on and put it behind us.”
His father is “doing really well,” he said. “His psyche is excellent. He allows his faith to get him through this. Physically, he is in good shape. … He hasn’t let this get to him. He’s patient, strong and resilient and he believes in God’s power and a higher plan.”
Despite the years apart and infrequent visits, father and son are close, and Muhiddin told me that while he wishes he could have spent more time with his father, “I knew he was there, that he was always thinking about me. On the phone, he gave me advice.”
Among other things, Aref talked about the need to be patient.
“He always told me to be patient, to believe in God’s decree and his plan,” Muhiddin said. “He told me to focus on my education.”
An Albany High School graduate, Muhiddin studied history and philosophy at the University at Albany and has been serving as an assistant imam at the Islamic Center of the Capital District in Colonie.
Muhiddin told me that his father is aware of the limousine crash, and expressed sadness for the victims, but did not want to hear about Shahed Hussain’s connection to the accident.
I’ve already written about what a sleazy character Hussain, who happens to be in Pakistan at the moment, is. He was facing a lengthy prison sentence for fraud and deportation when the FBI offered him a deal: He could become an informant and remain in the U.S., which is what he did.
Now his 28-year-old son, Numain Hussain, has been charged with criminally negligent homicide in connection with the limo accident that killed 20 people. The younger Hussain was responsible for day-to-day operations of the limo company at the time of the crash that left 20 people dead.
The cause of the accident has yet to be determined, but I suspect the shoddy condition of the limousine was a major factor: We know that the vehicle recently failed a state inspection and was not supposed to be on the road, and that the violations included malfunctioning indicators for the limo’s hydraulic brake system.
Muhiddin, like Aref’s longtime attorney, Kathy Manley, believes the FBI enabled Hussain, with disastrous results.
“He is a fraud,” Muhiddin said. “He has never cared about people’s safety.”
Muhiddin said he’s not sure what he’ll do next. He’s hoping to visit his family in Kurdistan, but plans to stay in America and further his studies.
“I grew up in this community,” Muhiddin said.
His father echoed this.
“I give my children only my love, not my ideas!” Aref wrote. “They belong to their age and grew up in this country, while I belong to my generation and come from a Third World country.”
Like Muhiddin, he wasn’t sure what his next step would be.
“As for my future plans, I have a lot of dreams and some ideas. Hopefully I will find the right environment to pursue them. All I want is to dedicate the remaining part of my life to serving my people, and my country.”
Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]