Zubayr Effendi is a surveillance investigator with the Houston Health Department who, in his words, wants to help save the world. Instead of taking on large global projects, he said the best way he can do his part is to focus on what he can do locally.
To that end, Effendi looks to make his mark serving the Houston community through his volunteer work helping Afghan refugee children navigate their new surroundings and also sharing his views on life onstage as an open mic poet.
“There are things which are out of our control and there are things you want to change, whether it’s crime, trafficking or genocide. We all want to do something and in that scheme of things, without taking too much weight on our shoulders, you can look at your own locality and figure what can I change in my world instead of changing THE world,” he said.
Volunteering with Afghan children started with a plot by his friends to help get him married, he said. According to Effendi, a friend in his group from the Suhbah Institute — an Islamic center for companionship, fellowship and mentorship — was planning to go on pilgrimage to Mecca and needed a volunteer to help with mentoring a group of Afghan refugee boys.
“It was like, ‘just do it for a few weeks and then you’ll find a girl,’” he said. “I’m 34, and when you stop getting invited to weddings, that’s when you realize, ‘Oh, I’m next,’” he laughed.
“My friends are all trying to get me married. Even my students where I taught at Iman Academy are trying to. While it’s service-oriented for me, my friends have other ideas. I’m a late bloomer and some of us just tend to take our time with that.”
Effendi said he agreed to volunteer. What started out as wanting to simply help resulted in him staying on as a volunteer because “I fell in love with the kids,” he said.
“The first day I volunteered with the kids, we played basketball and had a debate as to who was the better soccer player, Lionel Messi or Ronaldo, and the kids were split,” he said.
That was the type of activity the children were missing at home, a chance to just feel normal, Effendi said. Many of the boys talked about not knowing the language and having to rely on a translator just to get basic needs done, he said.
“The language is either Farsi or Pashtu, and I don’t speak either. For us to communicate in English, to them, was a strengthening thing for them, but they’re also not used to that when they go back home because they speak either in Farsi or Pashtu with their parents,” he said.
Effendi describes himself as a big proponent of service and altruism, calling it the true nature of anyone wanting to be a good Samaritan and not expecting anything back. The Fort Collins, Colorado, native credits his Muslim faith and his upbringing as instrumental to his service-oriented focus.
“Growing up, I was privileged and sheltered from the harms of the world,” he said. “As a tribute to being grateful, I can only pay it forward. Volunteering gives me a certain validation that I can’t find anywhere else. I’m trying to help the people around me that I can.”
Effendi’s journey with volunteerism also coincides with his love of spoken word poetry. His work is not the type of poems typically found and recited in high school English classes. It is personal and thought-provoking, with a rhyme scheme that pays tribute to hip-hop and politically inspired artists seeking to share their thoughts about things in the world.
Here is a small sample from a piece he wrote called, “Iman–(Faith; spiritual reassurance in Arabic)”: “One time I wrote a rant that luckily rhymed//it’s a look inside my mind// Is this so painful that it’s pleasure or so pleasurable that its pain confuse the realities floating inside the little alleys in my brain …”
Effendi said East Coast hip-hop was a major influence on his work.
“I grew up on Nas and Naughty by Nature. One of my favorite television programs was Dave Chappelle’s Block Party with Dead Prez,” he said. “I love conscious rap. That brought out the activist in me, and the safest tool to be active is through words, prose and raw art. That’s how I got into open mic.”
As a youth, Effendi said he would use social media sites like MySpace, Xanga and Friendster to engage in battle rapping. That became his gateway into performing in person.
“I then realized if I could do that, I can take it somewhere else,” he said.
A chance invitation at an event “Rhymes for Refugees” sponsored by the nonprofit organization Helping Hands was his first experience on stage.
“It was like a love story,” he said. “I fell in love with it and feel in love with seeing people move to my words. I don’t want to do this as a career, but if I can touch a small number of people then that’s good enough for me.”
He has also performed at an art show at Phoenicia in downtown Houston at an event called MACH (Muslim Artists Collective of Houston), and at the CURRENT TRENDS Houston art conference at Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion Center.
“I’ve performed at protests and awareness events at the common protesting grounds in front of the Galleria/Post Oak Starbucks. I was invited to perform at the University of Houston for two organizations, the MSA (Muslim students Association) at the A.D. Bruce Religion studies building — love those folks and what they provide for students — and a student organization called Ahlul Bayt,” he said.
Effendi’s process for creating work is unique. “I usually text myself a word or two with a rhyme scheme in mind and go off that. From that it goes either to an email draft, a word document or Evernote, and then that’s the outline or skeleton for a piece,” he said. “Twenty percent is rhyming, 20 percent is writing, and the 80 percent majority is editing.”
Effendi said performing open mic is also cathartic for him.
“There’s so much negative on the news and out there. My mentors told me to not let that harm me, but to turn it into words. It’s a great way to grieve. You don’t know what talent is lying in the cubicles. You feel it in your bones,” he said.
Although the world can be challenging, Effendi said the resolve is service, and the coping and the recompense is through volunteering.
“Everyone has issues. We all have empathy. It’s a hard, challenging world out here especially when you’re selfish and ruminating in the negativity of your own thoughts,” he said. “Step outside yourself, change your world, and that is how you can change the world.”