Leap of Faith: Islam, One Man’s Guiding Light To The World & Back Home

By Mohammad Samra

Ahmad Bader, 39, poses inside his garage at his home in Palos Hills, Illinois.

The door of Bader Bakery swung open as Hassouneh Bader paced inside followed by his six sons. The two-story bakery located on Petra Street was submerged in moonlight as the aroma of Jordanian cookies, cake and bread from the day before seeped from the empty display cases.

Seven-year-old Ahmad Bader, the youngest of the sons, followed his brothers up to the second floor, where the pastries were produced under his father’s watchful eyes, kneading the dough with fingers and palms, carefully shaping delicacies that made this family bakery popular in this small corner of Jordan. He remembers placing his backpack in the corner as he approached one of the large metal food-processing machines.

The rumblings of machines mixing and molding yeast permeated the air as Ahmad waited patiently for his batch to finish resting so he can begin baking. A few minutes later, Ahmad weaved his way around his brothers towards the brimstone oven built into the wall. Nobody was allowed to use it without supervision, so Ahmad waited for a nod of approval before one of the workers proceeded to help him place his yeast onto the racks above the blazing fire.

“For me, I didn’t have time to play around… All my time was working.”

It is a work ethic that would follow him from his humble beginnings in Jordan all the way to the current life he is living in the United States, where he established and is raising a family of his own. A devout Muslim, he grew up in and around mosques, but it wasn’t until after coming to the United States that Ahmad’s Islamic faith became his own pursuit and grew deeper in meaning even as he grew older. That same faith helped him to shift his priorities. And while he was still fueled by his desire to succeed in life, he would come to measure his success by his most important life’s goal: To be a more dedicated to his faith.

It is a faith that he was born into. A faith that he says would lead him on his road to self-discovery. It is a faith that like any religious faith is not without its challenges in a world where one’s religion can make them the target of religious persecution of various kinds.

For Muslims in America, persecution and attacks have become a harsh reality in a Post-9/11 world, where hate crimes amid growing Islamophobia has caused many Muslim women to even abandon wearing their hijab in public for fear of being targeted.

Despite the obstacles, Ahmad remains rooted in his faith, steady in his commitment to pass on to the next generation a faith that guides his life, even today, living in south-suburban Chicago.

The root of his faith dates back to that little boy crafting pastries at 2 a.m., in a bakery in Jordan. Now nearing middle-age with gray spouting from his beard, his is a walk of faith filled with life lessons along the path of life, love, family and manhood, and the road back home.

Walking the Tightrope

Ahmad spent most of his childhood commuting between work, school and mosques. He worked at his father’s bakery from the moment he started first grade, which is the first year of school for students in Jordan. Because there were so many students and not enough facilities, classes were split into two shifts – the morning shift from 6 a.m. to noon, and the afternoon shift, which lasted from 12:30 to 5:30 p.m.

Each month, Ahmad would alternate between shifts, which ultimately affected his work schedule at the bakery. If he had the morning shift, he would return to the bakery after school. But if he had the afternoon shift, he’d work until 11 a.m. and not return to the bakery until around 2 a.m. the next morning.

Ahmad’s work never went unnoticed. He was compensated by his father at the end of every week. He walked among his young peers with the equivalent of $100 in Jordanian Dinar in his pockets, often providing his friends with toys and meals the way someone 30 years older than him would provide for their children. His rigorous middle-of-the-night work schedule didn’t affect his performance in school – even at such a young age.

In Jordan, the school system is based around competition between the students within the region. He attended a United Nations Relief and Works Agency school, or an UNRWA school. The agency helps Palestinian and Jordanian refugees, which made up a large portion of the population where Ahmad lived. Since the schools were government-run, the performance of students was very important, critical even, to future opportunities. How you ranked among the students within the region influenced what you’d be allowed to study.

Ahmad did exceptionally well in his classes, ranking in the top one or two students throughout his first few years of school. He memorized his multiplication tables up to 30 before he officially began going to school, even though he wasn’t required to know them until fourth grade.

While at the bakery, Ahmad occasionally watched his brothers as their eyes remained glued to math or science books that they’d bring with them. He studied the cover of one of the math books before picking it up and flipping the pages until he found a challenging equation or formula he wanted to learn. He knew it was a challenge for most, but he enjoyed learning material that students, years older than him, were learning.

Ahmad remained one of the top students in the region throughout middle school and into high school. He was one of the top students at Aratfe High School, scoring a 91 percent on his Tawjihi exams – a series of tests that decides which careers students are allowed to pursue. Some students viewed him as a nerd because of his constant devotion to school and work, but his strong personality allowed him to build a positive reputation among some students despite his excellence in an intensely competitive educational setting.

Ahmad’s high Tawjihi scores permitted him to study engineering at the University of Jordan. Throughout high school, schools in Jordan are split into boys and girls, so his first semester at college was the first time he had classes with women, which was a change he welcomed. The university wasn’t as close as the previous schools he attended, so he took the bus to commute there.

Professors were very disciplined and invested in the success of the students, which aligned with what Ahmad was trying to achieve during his time in college. He made friends with students and professors that he still holds dearly today, often visiting when he vacations in Jordan. He went on to acquire his master’s degree alongside his brother at Governor’s State University but claims he liked the University of Jordan much better because of how challenging it was.

Faith Through Friendship

Nineteen-year-old Ahmad trailed behind Muad, a close friend of his, as the two navigated the spacious house to get to Muad’s room, which was almost external to the building. Ahmad grabbed the PlayStation controllers as his friend moved the mattress towards the TV. The word “FIFA” broadcasted from the monitor and cast a glow over the otherwise dark room. Ahmad was an Italy supporter, while Muad followed Brazil. The two faced off in countless World Cup matches, with Muad winning a majority of them. They played until the rising sun reflected off of Muad’s slender, dark face.

“I have a lot of memories with this guy,” Ahmad recalled. “The only thing I didn’t like about him really, is he is not very committed to religion.”

Ahmad grew up in a moderately religious household, and frequently visited mosques with friends in his spare time or by himself when he was younger. His family had a system where his parents raised the older children, and the older children raised the younger ones. Ahmad’s devotion to Islam grew stronger as he grew older. He met a group of well-mannered and religious people through Mahmoud, one of his older brothers, and has never strayed from the path of righteousness.

He remained a devout Muslim throughout his time at the University of Jordan, although his primary goal was to obtain as much success as possible through his software engineering career. While working on a final project during his time in college, Ahmad and his colleagues created a program similar to “Kahoot,” which impressed their professor enough to offer them a job immediately at the Informational Technology company he ran on the side. It wasn’t until after he came to the United States in 2006 that Ahmad took his relationship with Islam to the next level.

He was searching for a place for him and his wife to live when he met Khalid, a tall, able-bodied man who lived in the apartment that Ahmad eventually decided on. On the first day Ahmad and his wife moved in, Khalid prepared traditional Palestinian cuisine for them, and from there the two often conversed about religion as the weeks progressed. Ahmad realized through Khalid that while success in this life is important, success in the next life is essential, and the relationship with Allah, the Arabic term for God, should be prioritized over anything else.

Although he found new dedication to Islam through a friend, he experienced a lot of hostility when walking around with his wife, who wears a traditional hijab.

Hellos, Goodbyes and Everything in Between

The sound of Arabic music blared through the speakers at Chateau Del Mar in south suburban Hickory Hills on an energetic night in July of 2007. Family and friends swung and twirled alongside Ahmad and Dena as they soaked in the moment. Today was about them.

While at a family event, Ahmad was introduced to Dena. They exchanged pleasantries. “How are you?” “What are you studying?” Questions filled the air between them. As the months passed, they built their relationship through e-mails, discussing life and future goals. In Islam, there is a period of Khutbah where you obtain the marriage certificate, followed by a certain amount of time before the wedding celebration.

Hours earlier, Ahmad went to pick Dena up from her parents’ house after a morning of posing while a photographer snapped countless wedding pictures of them. His white button-down shirt complimented the black suit and tie he wore to complete the outfit, and his tan skin was not yet drenched with droplets of sweat from nonstop dancing.

Without hesitation, he calls his wedding day the best day of his life. It was the day his family watched him begin a family of his own. And although he met Dena in Jordan, their wedding – and life – would be in the United States.

A few months later, Ahmad came home after a long day of work to find his wife not acting like her usual self. After a few moments, she said, “I have something to tell you… I’m pregnant.” Ahmad smiled in disbelief, thinking that Dena was joking with him. But once they confirmed the pregnancy, it was the realization of a dream come true for Ahmad, who always wanted children and marriage.

Nervousness consumed Ahmad as he awaited the birth of his first child. By then, he and Dena were living in Wisconsin, so her mom made the trip north from Chicago to support her and meet her grandson. Happiness rushed over Ahmad as he cradled his newborn son Mohammad in his arms. In less than a year, he had gotten married and welcomed a son to the world, fulfilling one of his most important life goals. Yet, it didn’t come without its difficulties.

Mohammad was born with premature kidney cells, forcing Ahmad and Dena to bring him to the hospital every three months for a procedure. It hurt Ahmad to see his son wheeled away from him and his wife when it came time for the doctors to take him, and it remained just as difficult with each following operation. As tormenting as it was, he attributes his connection with Allah for giving him the strength to deal with their son’s malady. After Mohammad turned 6, his cells had fully matured and he didn’t need the procedures anymore. His faith had prevailed.

Then, two years later, Ahmad’s dad was diagnosed with lung cancer. Ahmad boarded a flight to Jordan, and was shocked when he arrived to learn by how quickly his father’s health had taken a turn. He had once envisioned his father living well into his 80s. But it was unclear as Ahmad studied his father lying on the hospital bed as tubes and wires whether he’d see him celebrate his 66th birthday.

He still saw in his father the slender, dark-skinned well-built man who was firm, yet kind-hearted. Ahmad didn’t have nearly as much knowledge of his father as his older brothers because of their age difference. But he knew his father, a Jordanian Army veteran was a very good swimmer, and that he held high standards when it came to doing work right and being on time – qualities Ahmad has carried with him no matter how far he went from home. Ahmad’s phone rang at about 2 a.m. one night, around the same time he’d wake up to accompany his dad and brothers to the bakery. One of his brothers, who was a doctor at the hospital their father was staying, broke the news. …Hassouneh Bader had passed away. Ahmad sat on the edge of the bed in disbelief. He fell asleep with his father here and awoke to the news that his father was gone.

The first few days were rough for Ahmad. He struggled with the reality of having to bury the man responsible for his way of life. Although saddened by his father’s death, Ahmad turned again to his Islamic faith, which assured him that death is a part of life and that by remaining on a righteous path, he will one day reunite with his father in heaven.

Always Home

Ahmad sat on the couch of his Palos Hills home, watching his 6-year-old Layan and 4-year-old Yousef play in front of him. It’s been close to a decade since his father passed away, but his memory lives on within the parenting-style that Ahmad has adopted as his four children continue to grow.

He watches as 11-year-old Mohammad remains intensely focused on winning his Fortnite match, and studied his youngest child Jenna slowly discovering the world around her – relishing that all of his children were alive and healthy. He often spoils them by traveling with them from San Jose to Orlando and everywhere in between, buying them whatever their hearts desire, often without hesitation. He dedicates his time and resources to giving them the childhood he never had. But he is also devoted to raising them with the same values of effort, perfection and consistency that he was raised on. He teaches his children how to fast, pray and speak Arabic from a young age, hoping that regardless of where they end up, they’ll always find their way back to their roots.

Ahmad, who is approaching 40, watched the family surrounding him, the work he did, the lifestyle he lived and the people he called friends change as his life progressed, but his faith and beliefs always remained the same.

He is currently employed at E2Open, one of the leading supply chain industries in the world, headquartered in Texas with worldwide offices, and centering on using artificial intelligence based around algorithms to enhance overall supply chain operating networks. It’s a stark contrast to the manual work he once did at Bader Bakery decades ago–which had no technological software whatsoever–but requires the same effort, consistency, precision and professionalism.

Ahmad has enjoyed success in his career, but a few years ago developed aspirations to run his own business, although he is still unsure what he wants to specialize in. He is more in love with the idea of being his own boss and using his own ideas rather than the concepts used by multimillion-dollar companies. While being an employee helps take care of the bills, it restricts what he can do on a regular basis, he explains. With no plans to retire, Ahmad is slowly laying the foundation to achieving his goals, while still balancing the demands of the job that he currently holds and still holding fast to his faith.

Knowledge is Power

Layan sprinted into the living room before disappearing into her father’s arms. The two laughed for a moment before the little girl happily skipped towards the garage to join her mother, who was on her way to run errands. “Are you on your way out?” Ahmad shouted so that Dena could hear him. “Yes,” the voice from the kitchen shouted back. “Just remember, stay safe, stay confident” Ahmad replied.

While walking with his wife, Ahmad and Dena have been met with hostility because of the hijab that she wore. Howls of “Go back to your country!” bellow from the occasional pedestrian, prompting Ahmad to defend their right to live in the United States.

Only 1.1 percent of Americans are Muslims, according to the Pew Research Center – a major contrast to the 99 percent of Muslims who occupy Jordan, where Ahmad grew up.

Although the racist remarks hurt, Ahmad assures that the feelings of hatred aren’t mutual. He doesn’t hate racists, he says, but feels sorry for them because of their lack of knowledge and unhealthy upbringing. He’s proud that he lives in a country that allows for him to freely observe his religion, and actively defends the rights he is given as a U.S. citizen.

Ahmad always tries to increase his knowledge on various topics, especially politics and religion. His conversations with friends like Khalid are often about life, and he always takes something away from the back-and-forth discussions. Books like “The Clash of Civilizations” or “When Corporations Rule the World” help him understand how politics influences countries from elections all the way to a political leader’s agenda and the steps taken to turn promises into actions. He always tries to critically dissect every situation he comes across and is always cautious about falling into the trap of siding with public opinion without proper evidence.

Ahmad was still a student at the University of Jordan when the events of 9/11 unraveled. He was at a friend’s house when he found out about the attacks and returned home to find his father watching the news about what transpired. Although he had no connection to the United States yet, he was shocked and saddened to learn about the loss of thousands of innocent lives.

As 9/11 cemented itself as the worst attack in American history, Ahmad found it hard to believe that the United States government was completely unaware of what happened. He isn’t following a conspiracy theory or strictly going against the prevailing public narrative, but says he is formulating a conclusion based on what he has learned from various analysts as well as the knowledge he has obtained from his engineering career.
For instance, when discussing the Twin Towers collapse.

Ahmad explained how the way they deteriorated resembled how buildings fall when they are strategically demolished. He drew a comparison by applying the flame of his lighter to the bumper of his car, claiming that the lighter resembled the planes and the car resembled the buildings. He demonstrated that in no way would the lighter’s flame be able to completely destroy the car, and applied that to his belief that the fire coming from the airplane fuel didn’t generate enough heat to melt the steel beams of the towers. He also referenced Building 7, which was another building that collapsed on 9/11, stating that the building came down by itself without taking any damage from a plane.

“There are many, many questions that need to be answered for someone who respects his brain,” Ahmad said, “I’m not talking about conspiracy theories, I’m talking about science here.”

Ahmad invites anyone to provide him with information supported by evidence, on 9/11 or on anything else he believes in based off of his analysis. And he is always willing to adjust what he thinks, according to the information he is given.

Remembering His Roots

The Bader family was awake and nicely dressed bright and early on the morning of Eid al-Fitr—the Islamic holiday celebrating the completion of the month-long fasting period known as Ramadan. Ahmad helped his wife file their children into the car before departing for Salah, the morning prayer that officially signals the beginning of Eid.
Islamic holidays are important to Ahmad. He wants to make the days as beautiful as possible for his children with the hope that they’ll appreciate the meaning of the holidays the same way that he does.

The environment that his children are being raised in while living in the United States is vastly different from the one that Ahmad grew up in. He always had to walk to and from school as a child. His children receive school-provided transportation. Ahmad grew up attending a school focused on discipline that provided students with two to three hours of homework daily, but has never seen his son open a school book at home because of the time allotted for him to study in school. In Jordan, Ahmad would have to fill out a request form and take it to the government if he wanted to obtain research to write a paper, which usually took weeks. But his children are given the resources to gather limitless information within minutes.

Although his childhood was much more difficult in some ways, Ahmad is grateful that his children are growing up with privileges that he never received. He enjoys the moments where his family acts as one cohesive unit, enjoying a bond with his children that his environment didn’t allow him to have with his parents, as youthful energy fills the atmosphere of their spacious home on Broadmoor Drive.

Ahmad, Dena and Mohammad all adjusted their prayer mats so that the Qibla, or compass, on the mat pointed east towards the city of Mecca, where the Kaaba—the most sacred site in Islam—is located. Layan, Yousef and Jenna look on at the three eldest family members united for prayer. They were still too young to properly pray, but Ahmad and Dena planned on teaching them as soon as they grow old enough.
Although his children are growing up more Americanized, Ahmad teaches them the ways of Islam early on to ensure that they understand that regardless of what life throws at them, Islam comes first.

Ahmad began reciting “Al Fatihah,” the opener to the prayer, as his wife and son silently followed along.
Bismillaah ar-Rahman ar-Raheem, Al hamdu lillaahi rabbil ‘alameen
“In the name of God, the infinitely Compassionate and Merciful. Praise be to God, Lord of all the worlds”
Ahmad continued leading the trio as he approached the end of “Al Fatihah.”
Ihdinas siraatal mustaqeem, siraatal ladheena an ‘amta’ alaihim. Ghairil maghduubi’ alaihim waladaaleen
“Guide us on the straight path, the path of those who received your grace; not the path of those who have brought down wrath, nor those who wander astray”
Ameen,” the three recited in harmony.

Fresh Footprints, Old Paths

Ahmad, accompanied by Dena and their four children, walked down Shahid street in Amman, Jordan as they approached the house where Ahmad grew up. He studied the spacious front and side yards, reminiscing about the days where the skinny, long-haired teenage version of himself played soccer among his friends in the rare event that he wasn’t occupied with school or work.

He continued surveying the four-bedroom, two-bathroom space, as memories mounted atop one another. It was on Petra street, less than a mile from his childhood home, where he spent a majority of his youth at the bakery, but the foundations of who he is and the values he still carries and instills in his children lie within the walls of the building standing in front of him.

He walked along the same paths as he did decades ago. But the man he had become was unrecognizable from the boy he once was. Ahmad no longer prioritized success, but instead prioritized his faith and allowed it to help him find the success he once yearned for. As dawn lit up the two-story, family-run bakery, his fingers once coursed through moldable yeast. Nowadays the sun has not yet set as he leaves his cooperate-run job for his home in his American suburb.

He departed Jordan with the hunger and drive to excel in the software-engineering industry and returned full of accomplishments but with a new dream of becoming his own boss someday. He grew up knowing nothing except Jordanian culture, yet returned with an advanced knowledge of American culture, and yet still rooted in the faith and fundamentals that make him who he is.

And although along his journey, Ahmad lost his father, he had gained his wife and four children. His quest to be the best parent possible for his children, he says, helps fill the emotional void of losing a parent, albeit not completely.

And still, he finds solace in knowing that his path—past, present and future—is paved by faith.

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