By Hassan M. Abukar
Sheryl “Sharifa” Steinberg Abukar, an educator, daughter, sister, an aunt, and mother of four adult children passed away in Dubai on January 28, 2019 from cancer.
Sharifa was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, to an upper middle-class family. Her father was a sales manager for Canada Dry and her mother was a public school principal.
Sharifa left home to attend Michigan State University in East Lansing, when she was 17. But after two years, she got homesick and returned to Detroit. She subsequently enrolled at Wayne State University where she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Psychology.
In Detroit, home to the largest Arab population in the U.S., Sharifa developed an interest in the Arabic language and a fascination for Muslim culture. The passion would lead her to embrace and convert to Islam, a decision that ruffled feathers within her devout Protestant family. It was a period of shock, confusion, distrust, and alienation, but her family ties and the loving bond they shared overcame their differences. Indeed, family was a guiding force for Sharifa, as she was close to her parents and siblings. Her mother passed away in 1998.
Sharifa’s dream was to master Arabic and to live in the Middle East. She finally realized her dream came to fruition three years ago when she was offered a job as principal of the New Horizon School in Dubai. Excited about the opportunity, Sharifa worked diligently to ensure her students flourished academically and culturally. But then her illness struck.
For the last 18 months of her life, Sharifa waged a courageous battle against cancer. While undergoing treatment, she still kept up her full-time duties as principal. Her staff wasn’t even aware of her illness because she did not want to disrupt the school’s work and office morale. Initially, her cancer responded to treatment, but recently, her illness relapsed and took its toll on her.
I met Sharifa during a conference in Michigan in 1981. At the time, she was living in West Lafayette, Indiana, where Purdue University is located. She was modest but confident, brilliant but not conceited, intellectually curious and never afraid to ask questions. In a few months, we were married.
We were in our twenties and she was already writing her master’s thesis. She was a patient and thoughtful young woman adjusting to a young man from Somalia.
I was 21 when we got married, and the following year, aged at 22, I became a father. Sharifa was the rock and backbone of our nascent family, then living in Ohio. I focused on my university studies and on financially supporting the family, while she opted to stay home to take care of our first newborn daughter, and eventually, three more children. Educating our children and providing them a safe and healthy environment became her mission.
After several years as a homemaker, Sharifa went back to graduate school. She had a passion for Linguistics, particularly for the field of language acquisition. She obtained a certificate in ESL (English as a Second Language) and briefly enrolled in the doctoral program in Linguistics at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). For a while, we were parallel graduate students at UCSD; one in Linguistics and the other in Political Science. It was during that period when I became enamored with the subject of language acquisition. I would read some of the textbooks Sharifa used and engage with her about the latest research in the field.
During her studies, however, Sharifa became restless; she gravitated more to empirical analysis than to theory, her department’s focus. Consequently, she switched to education. First, she obtained a teaching certificate, then became a full time teacher with the San Diego Unified School District. Afterwards, Sharifa became a principal at the Islamic School of San Diego (ISSD), a job that would lead her back to school, this time earning a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership at the University of San Diego.
Aside from her educational and professional accomplishments, Sharifa will best be remembered as a smart, caring, loving woman with boundless energy and a commitment to excel in all her endeavors. She never tried to be anything but herself. She was pious without being dogmatic, quiet yet outspoken. In her spare time, she volunteered to participate in community activities such as lecturing in schools and universities, and at public gatherings. She was instrumental in helping the establishment of Iftin School, the first Somali charter school in San Diego.
Once, a few days before our wedding, she invited me and a mutual friend, an Iraqi graduate student majoring in Nutrition at Purdue University, to dinner. The meal was okay: the chicken was tasty, but the rice was burned. My friend whispered to me jokingly, “Man, you are in for a big surprise.” We complimented Sharifa for a delicious meal and kept mum about the rice. But that dinner turned out to be the impetus for Sharifa to perfect her culinary skills. As the years went by, she became an excellent cook, her specialty being American, Middle Eastern, and Somali dishes. I have had many authentic meals with my friends from Jordan, Palestine, and Syria in my time, but I have never had better maqluuba, a popular dish in that region, than the one Sharifa used to make. That didn’t surprise me: Sharifa was always striving to perfect her talents and abilities.
During the first year of our marriage, I said to her that Somalis were unique. When she asked why, I replied jokingly, “Because they are the best people.” My youthful hubris didn’t escape her. A decade later in the early 1990s, as thousands of Somali refugees poured into San Diego fleeing the civil war, she took a light-hearted jab at me: “So, how come the best people in the world manage to be so self-destructive?” I had no answer.
In 2003, after 22 years of marriage, our union ended. For a while, she was the caretaker of our two youngest sons, 13 and 11. Then, she kindly allowed me to care for the boys until they became adults. Sharifa was a good mother whose first thought was always the well-being of our children.
Sharifa will be missed dearly by all whose lives she touched. Her patience and perseverance in the face of adversity, her unbridled optimism, cheerful outlook and empathy, and unwavering faith in God have been remarkable. May God have mercy on her and guide us in appreciating how she enriched our lives with her shining example.
Sharifa is survived by her father, four children, three siblings, a niece and three nephews.
Hassan M. Abukar