A man with many skills, he helped build bridges between Minnesota's Muslim and non-Muslim citizens.
Hesham Hussein was a father, teacher, engineer, imam, founder of two Arab-speaking Islamic schools, spokesman for the state's Muslim community and a man who could bring Muslims and Christians together for a potluck.
The 44-year-old Inver Grove Heights resident died Saturday in a car accident in Saudi Arabia, where he was visiting family. He had been driving alone between Medina and Jedda when the accident occurred, said his cousin, Khalid Elmasry.
Hussein, president of the Muslim American Society of Minnesota, was a major figure in shaping understanding of Muslims in Minnesota, say those who knew him.
He often spoke on behalf of his faith in an attempt to help non-Muslim Minnesotans understand the actions and beliefs of those in his community. He did so during recent controversies, including those over the refusal by some Muslim cab drivers to drive customers carrying alcohol and the removal of six imams from a U.S. Airways flight after passengers complained about their loud praying and other behavior.
On Sunday night, a crowd of Muslims and non-Muslims gathered at the society's center in Inver Grove Heights to mourn Hussein.
Among them was the Rev. Chris Morton, director of organizational development at the Minnesota Council of Churches. "That mind of his would think about, 'How do you take those personal relationships and make them meaningful enough to help the religions improve their relationships with one another?'" Morton said.
Hussein had a knack for building bridges and understanding, using the warmth of his personality and the intelligence that came from being an engineer, Morton said. "When he talked about how he understood things from a Muslim perspective, we could talk about how we understood those same things from a Christian perspective," he said.
Hussein founded a program called Taking Hearts that brought people from Twin Cities metro-area churches and mosques together to carry out service projects. Along the way, they learned that they shared similar perspectives on many topics, such as poverty.
"People get together on these issues, and it becomes a wonderful opportunity to talk about our faith," Morton said.
Hussein was passionate about showing young people that interfaith understanding is essential, said Lori Saroya, chairwoman of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) Minnesota.
For instance, he spoke to students at St. Paul Central High School at an event co-sponsored by a Jewish student group, she said.
"I saw his commitment to the youth and the future leaders in our community," Saroya said. "We're going to miss his energy and his experience."
Hussein was born and raised in Cairo, where he earned an electrical engineering degree, Elmasry said. He received a master's degree from the Florida Institute of Technology in 1992.
He moved to Minnesota to be close to family members, but also because the diverse community and thriving Muslim population appealed to him, Elmasry said.
He spent several years working at IBM, but recently had left the company to focus on the Muslim American Society and to found its Islamic schools, Elmasry said.
On Sunday night, Elmasry spoke softly about his cousin, whom he considered a big brother. "When I heard the news that he had died, my initial reaction was, I wanted to speak to him to ask him how I'm supposed to deal with this," he said.
Elmasry said his cousin was a large, almost imposing figure, but had an infectious laugh that would melt away any apprehension about his "towering presence."
Hussein is survived by his wife, Abeer, and their five children: Abdullah, Abdul-Rahman, Abdul-Hadi, Hoda and Bushra. He will be buried in Mecca. Services in Minneapolis will be held at 7 p.m. today at the Masjid Al-Huda Center in Minneapolis.
Courtney Blanchard • 612-673-4921