Thursday, 7 May 2015
To many of my readers the name Sarwar Khan Awan sounds unfamiliar, with the exception of few who either lived or studied in the city of Sheffield, United Kingdom. Mr Sarwar Khan Awan was a community leader, philanthropist, activist, a bridge builder and a fearless voice for the Muslim community of Sheffield. Those who disagreed with him do so because of his bluntness and the ability to tell the truth no matter who is involved, whether his family members, neighbors, authorities or the community he was serving.
Mr Khan Awan popularly called Abu Abrar, was a British Pakistani Muslim who came to the United Kingdom in the late 1950s and lived his entire life there until Allah (SWT), in His infinite mercy took him at 10:15 am yesterday (5th May 2015), most likely in his mid-eighties.
I met Abu Abrar 11 years ago when I went to Sheffield to begin my postgraduate studies. As it was then, and I doubt if anything has changed, getting a family accommodation was extremely difficult, and the University of Sheffield gave me a temporary accommodation for one week, and asked me to find a place within that period, as the university hostels and family accommodations were full.
While searching for the accommodation I met two fellow Nigerians, Dr Aminu Bello Kasarawa, and Mr Yusuf Abiodun, both of them postgraduate students at the University, and they advised me to look around shopping centres as landlords normally display their phone numbers and advertise family accommodation for students, so if I am lucky I might get one. Their advise was useful. On a Friday morning in the third week of September 2004 while walking on Western Bank I came to one shop called Summerfield, and right there on display were various advertisements for family accommodation. One of the names displayed was that of one Mr Awan, and I called him immediately.
“So you are a new student, ok, come and see me after Friday prayers” he said, and I was so delighted that after several calls to various landlords, and visits to different parts of Sheffield, including the City Council, I finally found someone who might offer something.
After the prayers I went to his house which was about 5 mins walk from the mosque, I rang the bell, and shortly an elderly man came out. He looks serious, but friendly. “Young man what sort of accommodation are you looking for?” he said. “I am here with my family, so I am looking for one or two bedroom accommodation as I have to leave the temporary accommodation tomorrow by 11 am, because the room has been allocated to another student who is expected to arrive at 12:30 pm according to the letter written to me by the Accommodation and Campus services of the university”.
“Your situation is serious, I have a two bedroom accommodation, but it is being refurbished, so it will not be ready tomorrow, there are two students also from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia who would be the first to come for viewing”, he added. My hope was dashed. “Alright, go to the Islamic Centre where we prayed Jumu’a, tell the Imam that he should find something for you immediately, said Mr Awan. “Who should I tell him sent me?” I asked, “tell him, Abu Abrar”.
I went to the Centre and waited for Asr Prayer, immediately after that I Walked towards the Imam, Dr Ahmad Sabik, one the most people oriented community leaders I have ever met. I narrated my story to him, and said Abu Abrar asked me to contact you. “Masmul Akh-what is the name of the brother?, he asked “Jameel, I answered”, “Irji’ ba’ada salatul Maghrib wa khudhil mafaatiyh-come back after Magrib prayer and collect the keys” was all he said in Arabic, and I gave way for other people who came to see him as well.
I left the centre, wondering whether what I was witnessing was true, the level of community cohesion and the desire to assist those in need especially students was something that remains green in my memory till date, courtesy of the action of late Sarwar Khan Awan. I returned to the Centre after Magrib prayer, the keys were ready. The Islamic Centre has purchased a house with various apartments which they rent to students at a discounted rate. In return, the revenue generated serves as part of the income for running the centre. Dr Sabik told me I can use the apartment for two weeks, free, but I should try and find another one as it has been allocated to another student who would come in a fortnight’s time. Before my tenancy expired, Abu Abrar told me that his house was ready, the two students were not ready to take it, and so if I still want it, we can sign a contract.
That was how we became friends with him, and came to know more about the struggles that he led in support of the weak in the society. He told me that in the 1960s he led the struggle against companies discriminating against foreigners by denying them employment, he was also one of the organisers of Malcom X’s visit to the UK. Every Ramadhan Mr Khan Awan will contribute in talking to the neighbors about the needs of the Muslim community, and together with the management of the centre, took necessary measures to respect the needs of the neighbors. Finding packing space was a major hurdle for Muslims coming for the Tarawiyh prayer, he was among those who negotiated with the Church in the neighborhood to provide its parking space for the Muslim community to use in Ramadhan.
Beyond that, a major lesson about his life was that he owns many houses in Sheffield. As he once told me, whatever is generated from the rent, he donates it to a hospital in Pakistan to support the poor and the needy who couldn’t afford to pay their bills. He would be angry if for any reason I did not come to his house during Eid to share a meal with his entire family. Whenever there is a charity fund raising to support orphans, or construct boreholes in developing countries, he would contribute. In recognition of his service, Sheffield Hallam University awarded him an honourary doctorate degree few years back.
Despite being a very serious minded person, he can also be jovial on occasions, sometimes a risky one, as I witnessed one day when he jokingly asked Prince Naseem, the former British boxing champion, who normally prays at the centre, whether he was ready for a fight.
My sincere condolences to his family, the people of Sheffield and the Muslim community at large. May Allah forgive his shortcomings and grant him Jannatul Firdaus. Amin.