National Chairman, Muslim Public Affairs Council
by Cat Tebar
As a college student volunteering at the Muslim Public Affairs Council of Los Angeles (MPAC) in the late 1990s, Omar Ricci embraced its mission: “to establish the American Muslim constituency as a vital
and positive element within the American pluralism.”
Omar Ricci, National Chairman, Muslim Public Affairs Council, at the student rally to end homelessness in L.A..
Along with a dedicated team, he involved himself in outreach work, political activism, social justice, protection of civil rights, and other efforts, working out of the Islamic Center of Southern California. Beyond college, he continued to work at the Center four or five days a week at different hours of the day and night, depending on the prayer schedule that is central to the lives of all Muslims.
The tragic events of September 11, 2001, however, suddenly had his faith in the unenviable position of being implicated in events of massive destruction. Ricci’s largely community-based responsibilities in MPAC took on national dimensions overnight. He rose to the occasion and performed so efficiently that in January 2002, he was tapped for the position of MPAC’s national chairman — a position that he holds today in an organization that had to remake itself literally overnight to meet the needs of a Muslim community that depended on it to interpret their concerns.
“I was urged by some to circle the wagons in the face of attack, but I’ve remained a strong advocate for just the opposite response from American Muslims,” he said.
He urges Muslims to engage in society and exercise fully their rights as Americans.
“Muslims can actualize their faith by working with fellow citizens in tackling issues such as homelessness, alcoholism, civil rights, crime, terrorism, and the long list of other social and economic issues that face L.A. and the country today,” he said.
Meeting the Challenge
Before September 11, if someone had told Ricci that over 2,000 of his fellow Americans would be killed in an act of terrorism for which his faith would be associated, he would have scoffed; if they had suggested he would be holding press conferences, meeting with state and national officials, and much more in response, he says he would have laughed.
He always felt there were others who would have been expected to fulfill the role of community leadership and serve as organizers. In fact, it is because those others were scheduled to meet with President Bush that they were not in Los Angeles on September 11. The role fell to Ricci and a few others.
He says he always admired those who demonstrated grace under pressure — people who refused to run away, who kept their composure and called upon their faith to get them through the difficult and tenuous times. He invoked these observations to guide him in the midst of the crisis, and acted on them.
A Lasting Impression
Sometimes days at the Islamic Center following 9/11 were packed with people, other times almost desolate, save for a few homeless mentally ill who would come through the doors of the center on Vermont Avenue looking for assistance.
It was on one of those very quiet nights that he encountered the man who left a lasting impression.
Omar Ricci was alone. The homeless man walked into his office and sat down across from his desk, his clothes filthy and threadbare, his odor penetrating, his looks intimidating. He just stared at Ricci and didn’t say a word.
Ricci inquired his business.
The man’s mental condition caused him to slowly form his words. “I’m hungry,” he said.
Ricci bought a meal for him at a Jack in the Box across the street. The two men began to talk.
"Initially he knew I was scared. He knew he looked scary. He was hoping I’d get beyond that, and I did,” said Ricci.
They discussed faith, and Ricci was moved that a man who had such an uphill battle in life loved God with such sincerity.
"He was not a scholar, but he knew so much. He was not materially rich, but he was blessed with much more than many people,” he said. “It changed how I looked at the homeless. In a literal heartbeat I went from seeing this person as someone to be weary of, to someone who God expects me to help.
"My experience that night was transforming. Some may call him a homeless person, but for me I will always call him an angel that blessed me
This event led to months of Ricci’s hands-on organization to help students at the Center organize a march to raise awareness of and end homelessness (click here for related story).
Ricci turns to a brief verse from the Quran, a verse he says is really a universal call, irrespective of religion. It says, in essence, “repel evil with good.” Or as he explains it: using at least the same intensity and energy that evil
manifests itself, repel it by doing something good.
By returning again and again to this fundamental idea, Omar Ricci brings a sense of direction not just to his Muslim community but to Los Angeles at large.