Valley Streamer William Figueroa, was 15 and growing up in Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan, when he said he would frequently sneak out of his house against his parent’s will, disappearing for days at a time to drink and go to parties with older crowds.
As he reached his late teens, he said he felt it was only natural that he continued to party heavily, and started selling drugs because most teens his age throughout the neighborhood were doing the same.
By the time he was 24, Figueroa, now 52, recalled feeling empty, lost and alone in his bedroom one evening in 1993, and resolved in his mind to change his lifestyle. So he turned to the Quran his father had given him that until that point he had left untouched for years on his desk. He began to read it.
“I’ll never forget that night that I read from the Quran for the first time and I wept for hours,” Figueroa, said, adding that he later converted to Islam, and quit drinking and selling drugs. “I was tired of the way I was living and I wasn’t finding joy in the partying, the lying, the drunkenness and the hustling to make money.”
After his initial experience reading the holy book, Figueroa said that for five years after, he studied up on the particulars of the religion, taking classes and studying the Quran’s teachings on his own. He said he fell in love with the principals of Islam because he said it softened his heart by motivating him to love others more, work harder and to be more considerate, kind and merciful.
“I probably would have ended up doing life in prison or dead without my faith,” Figueroa said. “Converting wasn’t easy at first because I lost many friends, who are still living the street life and are involved in gang-related activities now.”
Nearly twenty-seven years later, Figueroa, lives with his wife and three children in his home in the North Valley Stream. He has attended a number of mosques over the years, he said, but for the past two he has been a congregant at Valley Stream’s Masjid Hamza. Additionally, since 2002, he has worked as a volunteer chaplain in Islam for the Department of Corrections.
“The Muslim faith helped me to realize that my purpose is to work hard to try to better myself and others and to try to do good for Allah,” he said. “I know I’m not perfect, but being Muslim has helped me do a 360 change.”
For Figueroa, he said his involvement in Islamic religious activities has helped him through tough times in life and has led him to form long-lasting friendships.
“I just talk to God and leave everything in his hands and my prayers keep me motivated during tough times,” Figueroa said. “I feel that community as a whole and people praying for me has helped me realize how precious life is and it has helped me realize the importance of staying united.”
Of the many Muslim friends and mentors Figueroa has accumulated over the years, North Carolina resident, Imam Salahuddin Muhmmad, said he was one of the religious leaders who helped introduce Figueroa to the Muslim faith decades ago.
“It was an important time in Will’s life when he decided to become a Muslim because the teachings of Islam teach men to provide for their families, to be productive and to work hard,” Muhmmad said. “Islam restores people because it proves we are dignified. When a person takes the Muslim faith and declares it, they are told that all their sins are forgiven by God and there is always hope found in the Muslim faith for those who might not be living a life they are proud of.”
While the imam helped guide Figueroa in his earlier days while converting to the Muslim faith, another, Imam Abid Hasan, helped guide Figuroa more recently in the past six years.
“Will’s faith is so strong and that is how we bonded at first and the fact that he went from being on the wrong side of the law to being a devoted Muslim father and husband is incredible,” said Hasan, who taught Islam to inmates at the Rikers Island Correctional facilities since 1997. “I have worked with a lot of people who have found the Muslim faith after coming out of a criminal background and I show people that there’s hope and they can change their life, just like Will did.”
In the same way that Figuroa credits Imam Hasan for inspiring him, Iman Hasan feels the same about Figueroa’s impact on his volunteer work because he said that he finds that Figuroa’s conversion story encourages him every day that he can change the lives of the inmates that he works closely with.
“Whenever I am feeling down, Will’s story encourages me, and when he’s down, I always try to uplift him and that’s how our friendship has been,” he said. “The Muslim faith gives people the chance to make amends, repent, move on and do better. I teach my inmates that once they can think clearly without self-harming or self-medicating, then they can find their truth in God by finding a better way and holding true to that way.”
“Everyone comes to the Muslim faith for different reasons and we all search for truth in one way or another. Will came to find his truth in the Muslim faith to guide him away from his past,” said Gabriela Carpio, a Brooklyn resident and longtime friend to Figuroa. “Will was able to discover himself and that’s what Islam is for; to examine ourselves, work on ourselves and realize that it’s not us, but a higher power giving us the strength to keep moving forward in life.”