At first, it had slipped Mohammad Zafar's mind that the 10th anniversary of 9/11 was looming.

"I thought, '10 years, huh?'" Zafar recalled. "Then I realized this was a really sad day for so many folks, how we live our lives -- they can be stopped at any time, but we don't know when."

But in an indirect, unforeseen, way, the attacks a decade ago reshaped the life of Zafar.

An ex-Marine who rushed to his workplace at the Mall of America that day to safely shut it down, he was eventually propelled into an activist role, attempting to link his fellow Muslims to the broader Minnesota community in the wake of mistrust and suspicion that billowed outward after the attacks.

For his efforts, Zafar has been given the Unity and Renewal Award by the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. The $2,000 award cited him as someone who exemplifies "the spirit of moving America forward from the national tragedy of 9/11."

"I had no idea I was going to get that," he said. "I'm just one person, but it's the entire community that helps one another most."

Zafar, who lives in St. Paul, has continued to work at the mall, soothing tensions and trying to dissolve misunderstandings about the Twin Cities' growing Muslim community. At the same time, he has earned a master's degree in psychology at Metropolitan State University and is planning to pursue a doctorate.

He was one of the founders of Metro State's Muslim Student Organization, spending several years organizing conferences and producing multimedia materials intended, in his words, to emphasize that "we need to always stick together."

One example, he said, is working with members of the Twin Cities' burgeoning Somali community, the nation's largest.

"The first thing you realize is that a lot of these folks are nomadic at home and don't always get along when they get here," he said. "You have to let them know that they can get rid of that tribal thing that is not really part of Islam. You may get rid of something, but you also gain something."

A native of Pakistan, Zafar said he has discovered that "America's not perfect, but we have democracy here. Other folks opened the doors for us, so we should try to do the same."

Still somewhat surprised about receiving the award, he said his eventual goal "is about coming together -- it's about moving forward."

Bob von Sternberg • 612-673-7184