It didn’t take long for Imam Jawad Rasul to become familiar with one name.
“People would call here (The Islamic Society of Augusta) and ask to talk to Umer Shaikh, not me,” said Rasul, who relocated to the area about 10 months ago.
Shaikh, 82, is in demand because of his volunteer work in South Carolina prisons. For more than two decades, he’s traveled regularly to prisons in Trenton, Columbia, Allendale, McCormick and Manning, S.C. He’s cut back in recent years due to health concerns, but he still manages at least two prison visits a week.
Born in Bombay, India, he lived in Pakistan for about 30 years before moving to the United States. He retired from the Lily Tulip Co. in Augusta 1997, and soon after began volunteering because he learned there was a need, he said.
Shaikh takes food to the prisoners and meets with them in small groups. Not only does he feed their physical bodies, but he feels he brings them other nourishment as well.
When Shaikh goes into a prison, he doesn’t see the men incarcerated there as evil people or even as criminals. He sees them as people who’ve made wrong choices, but mainly, he said, he sees them as human beings.
“I’ve studied the religions, and when Jesus had the prostitute who came and cleaned his feet, the people wondered if he knew who she was. We have to be respectful of all human beings,” he said.
As part of his work in the prisons, he teaches them about character and the importance of having good character. He encourages them to read books on character building. He works under the supervision of the chaplains at the various prisons he volunteers in.
“Someone has to mentor them,” he said.
While Shaikh believes that what he does is a good thing, he also said he believes more can be done outside prison walls.
He said statistics show that the rate of incarceration is high among those who’ve dropped out of high school. Churches and other faith groups should come together to provide tutoring for those who need it, he suggested, so they can get their grades up and stay in school and hopefully out of jail.
“We have to stop the dropout rate,” he said.
In addition, there are many offenders who will go back to prison once they’ve been released. He believes people should step up to help them learn trades or job skills, so they have a chance to make a better life once they’ve been released. He said one prison he visits has a program to teach inmates job trades and computer skills, and so far, they are having good success with it.
He said he and others are working with a parolee now to help this person’s transition into the world again by helping with transportation and providing jobs.
And while not everyone he helps changes their ways, he said he will continue to go to the prisons as long as he’s able. He’s even looking at going into prisons in Georgia and training others to go as well.
Ultimately, people just need to know someone cares, he said.
“I’m a follower of the Creator’s path,” he said. “I have the responsibility to show everyone love to them. I cannot make them change.”