In December 29th, 2008 I was in beautiful Los Angeles, on a Monday morning. I was excited about plans to go shopping with my good friend Sheri to pick up a basketball hoop later that afternoon. Sipping coffee while reading the Los Angeles Times, my cell phone rang. The minute I answered everything changed and it was never the same again!
During that call I found out that Sheri Sangji, who was family to me, had a serious lab accident at UCLA. She was lying in the hospital in excruciating pain with third and fourth degree burns all over her body.
15 days later, she lost her fight and passed away. Her death had a profound impact on me. Sheri was a visionary; she would speak of changing the world. Her desire had always inspired me, however I now realized if my inspiration did not turn into action I would not be honoring her life. It was time to do something.
Faced with this powerful call to step up I quit alcohol and cigarettes cold turkey. For a decade, I had been held back by my addiction and with Sheri’s vision for change in my heart, it was time. A good friend gave me the added motivation when she reminded me that if I wanted to change the world I should first start with myself. The deal was sealed when Naveen, Sheri’s sister, upon hearing me say I was thinking of quitting cigarettes and alcohol, proclaimed, “Congratulations!” “What for?” I asked. “Since you’ve said it, I know it’s as good as done. I know you. No more smoking or drinking,” she said with a radiant smile. I had only known her for two weeks.
Sobriety cleared away the fog and what it revealed was so intense I couldn’t handle it. Instead I fled! Against my gut and very fiber of my being, I ran away to my birth country, Pakistan. What I assumed would be only a few months, fate turned into a nearly six-year sojourn.
While in Pakistan, unlike the city of Karachi I grew up in, I found it to be filled with strife, intolerance, sectarianism, violence, hate and bigotry. However, while extremism was rearing its ugly head, I found the generosity and kindness of ordinary citizens in the face of extreme poverty to be unmatched. Many things moved me, but a few incidents and people in particular left a deep mark.
I stared at the barrel of a gun eight times, held up for phone and wallet. I survived a mass shooting where 8 people were killed and scores injured by hiding in a small, dark, dingy, smelly warehouse. I could still hear the screams of one woman, months after. They had killed her loved one in front of her.
I hid, holed up and scared in an apartment during the worst riots the city had ever experienced.
I found bullet casings on my balcony a few times.
I lost a dear friend, Sabeen, and my wonderful step-mom, Bilqis, to brutal violence.
I lost all my money. My business folded.
I even contemplated pulling a shotgun under my chin.
I suffered with PTSD.
I felt broken after being served the divorce papers from my wife with the words “I have feelings for another.” This was the last straw. I and packed my bags for Los Angeles. I chose life.
Exhausted, tired, emotionally drained, yet hopeful and even happy, I was home. I bought a bicycle, and started riding to the beach everyday. I hibernated. I fell in love with my city again. The pain was there, but everything was beautiful. Life was beautiful. I was alive. It was time to be unbroken again. I set up my morning alarm to “Here Comes the Sun.” Meditated. Played Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone and Louis Armstrong. Listened to Marianne Williamsons’ weekly lectures based on “A Course In Miracles” and realized it’s exactly what the woman I worship, my late mother, had taught me. My focus will not be my pain but of what can be done to bring the positive change. The concept of a business that gives back was born.
Two months later, in a café in Santa Monica on a crisp December morning, I sat down, finally ready to honor Sheri’s visionary spirit. I had faced my demons and changed myself in more ways than I had ever imagined, more than I can write here. Now I was truly ready to change the world. As the waitress brought over the change for my coffee I looked down at the dollar coins. E Pluribus Unum. Out of Many One. We are all one. We are connected. One Source. Voilà, Oomo was born. A business that celebrates diversity as it gives back, changing one life at a time.