Community activist, SUNY Albany Researcher Remembered For Kindness, Generosity.
Kathy Sheehan, Mayor of the City of Albany, New York proclaim Monday, August 24th, 2020 to be “Fazana Saleem-Ismail Day”
via SI Live / Matt Hunter, City of Albany / News Locker
Fazana Saleem-Ismail passed away, at the age of 47, on June 25th, 2020 after a brief but courageous battle with stomach cancer.
Many remember her for her dedication to educating people about the Muslim faith, and speaking out against Islamophobia.
She had many discussions about Islam with all different kinds of audiences including Girl Scout troops, high school students, church groups and public library patrons. She also played a large role in organizing “Ask a Muslim” events where people were encouraged to ask questions of Muslims in an effort to dispel stereotypes.
Aliya Saeed, who met her through interfaith events in the Capital Region, said she touched many lives. After hearing the news of Saleem-Ismail’s death, Saeed was flooded with phone calls.
Saleem-Ismail is also the Founder of Jazzy Sun Birthdays, a volunteer project that provides personalized birthday parties for children living in homeless shelters throughout the Capital Region of New York. Saleem-Ismail always went out of her way to make the parties special– even if that meant running around town looking for a specific superhero cake a child wanted, Saeed said. ”She was never OK with it being a standardized birthday, it was always in line with the child’s wishes no matter how difficult it was for her to find supplies.”
Many people remember Saleem-Ismail by all the different ways she was involved in the community. In addition to her other projects, she was also a founding member of the Albany chapter of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, a group of Muslim and Jewish women who work together to speak out against negative stereotyping and prejudice. Co-chair Audrey Seidman marveled at all the ways Saleem-Ismail was active in the Capital Region.
“She was a true community builder that committed her life to making a difference in this world,” Seidman said.
Seidman said she was admired by many people in the community, and known for her warmth and positivity. “The first thing anyone will say about her is that smile lights up the room,” Seidman said.
The University of Albany campus represents just one pocket of the Capital Region community that’s mourning the loss of Fazana Saleem-Ismail. The director of the professional development program at the school’s Rockefeller College, June Mastan was on the hiring committee when Saleem-Ismail first applied for her job on campus.
“I remember the day the finalists all made presentations in their interviews and Fazana’s just blew us all away and we knew she was the one and we had to hire,” said Mastan, who was a colleague of Saleem-Ismail’s for the past eight years. “Many people have described her as a ray of light and she really was, she had a smile that was the most beautiful smile I think I have ever seen on anyone.”
“She was someone who believed in peace, believed in joy, believed in happiness, believed in the good of people,” St. Catherine’s Center for Children Executive Director Frank Pindiak said. Also struck by her kindness, Pindiak developed a decade-long relationship with Saleem-Ismail at St. Catherine’s Marillac Shelter, where she organized birthday parties for homeless children.
“The look on their face, the gratitude, it was just very exciting for her and for everyone else,” Pindiak said. “For a lot of these kids, that is going to be a memory that they hold with them for the rest of their lives,” Mastan said.
Respected as a researcher, philanthropist and community activist who spoke out against Islamophobia, Saleem-Ismail’s friends and colleagues are reflecting on a life well-lived after she lost her six-month battle with stomach cancer last Wednesday.
“It was absolutely devastating,” said Mack, who said she also bonded with Saleem-Ismail over their passion for standing up for women’s and LGBTQ rights. “The strength she portrayed in that time was something where you said, yes, she is going to fight,” Pindiak said.
A loving mother of two, those closest to her say Saleem-Ismail will be remembered for having a soft spot for all of the children in her community.
“She was a kind, caring and generous human being,” Mastan said. “She set an example that we can all follow for how to treat your fellow human beings.”
Fazana was a Research Scientist at the Professional Development Program of the Research Foundation of the State University of New York (NY).
Born and raised in Staten Island, NY, Fazana was the valedictorian of her eighth grade class at St. Joseph Hill Academy (Arrochar). She was also the Staten Island Catholic School District Spelling Bee Champion, and represented the borough at the New York City Spelling Bee which was held at Madison Square Garden. She received a full-scholarship to attend St. Joseph Hill Academy High School (Arrochar) where she spent time after school volunteering at the Jewish Community Center.
She held a BA in Economics from Bryn Mawr College (PA) and received her Master of Public Policy degree from Georgetown University (DC) where she focused on Family and Children’s Issues and Food and Nutrition Policy. While at Bryn Mawr, Fazana served as President of the International Students’ Association and the Muslim Students’ Association. She was the President of the Georgetown Public Policy Student Association and received an Outstanding Student Service Award.
Fazana has conducted social science research at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (DC), Mathematica Policy Research (NJ) and the Institute for Health Policy (Sri Lanka).
She served as a Senior Program Officer and Director of the Earned Income Tax Credit Program at the Robin Hood Foundation (NY) and received a Community Capacity Builders Award from the Neighborhood Technical Assistance Clinic in recognition of her work.
She and her family moved to Sri Lanka to assist with tsunami-rebuilding efforts as volunteers with the Lanka Relief and Development Foundation (Sri Lanka) in 2005 and remained there until 2007.
Since founding Jazzy Sun Birthdays in 2011, Fazana has celebrated the birthdays of more than 300 children with the help of over 400 volunteers.
She was proud that not only does the project make homeless children feel like kings and queens for a day but it brings together people of different racial, ethnic, religious and socio-economic backgrounds and helps young children who volunteer develop a working understanding and awareness of the issue of poverty.
Individuals from South Africa, Canada and Sri Lanka have written to Fazana to obtain her advice on replicating her project in their countries.
Fazana was also actively involved in anti-Islamophobia efforts. She has conducted presentations and discussions about Islam for a variety of audiences including Girl Scout troops, middle school students, high school students, church groups and public library patrons.
She had also been instrumental in organizing and participating in “”Ask a Muslim”” events during which individuals are encouraged to ask questions of Muslims in an effort to dispel stereotypes and build bridges.
She was a committee chair of the Capital District Coalition Against Islamophobia and was a founding member of the Albany chapter of the Sisterhood of Salaam/Shalom.
Fazana was a highly-respected member of the community of the Capital District of New York who has been featured in local newspapers, magazines and TV news stories and has received numerous awards for her volunteer work.
One organization created a special “Dreamer Award” for Fazana in 2014 stating that, “She has single-handedly and in a very unique way made a significant impact on her community.”
In 2015, Fazana was selected as a medalist for the prestigious Jefferson Awards for Public Service.
Fazana Saleem-Ismail is survived by her husband, Jiffry; daughter, Sanari; son, Jaazib; parents, Dr. and Mrs. Fawzy Saleem; and brother, Afsaan Saleem.