Last September, Jack Appleton, 62, was living in a shelter, looking for work. The search wasn’t going well, thanks to one aspect of his career that sticks out on a resume: 13 years in prison for bank robbery.
“Most people don’t even want to talk to you,” Appleton said. “I just was looking for a chance.”
Jack Appleton’s chance finally came.
“I had just got out of Pekin, and was looking for a job and a place to stay,” he continued, pausing Monday morning from work rehabbing a brick bungalow on Fairfield just off West 63rd Street in the Chicago Lawn neighborhood. “I heard from word of mouth about IMAN.”
IMAN is the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, a nonprofit organization designed to strengthen bonds between black and Muslim Chicagoans. IMAN’s programs include a medical clinic, outreach to store owners, and Green ReEntry, which helps the recently incarcerated get work experience and housing. We expect felons who have served their time not to return to jail, yet few employers are willing to risk hiring them. Green ReEntry not only helps them, but their community too.
“Its purpose is to take vacant, vandalized and foreclosed homes and use them as a source of job training for the formerly incarcerated,” said Rami Nashashibi, 44, executive director of IMAN. “It utterly transforms the quality of life on those blocks.”
Nashashibi founded IMAN in 1997. Today it has a dozen staffers and receives support from entities that range from the Chicago Community Trust to a charity in Qatar, AlFaisal Without Borders.
Appleton and three other men work under the eye of Matthew Ramadan, the Green ReEntry manager, an experienced carpenter.
“We’re doing a total gut rehab of this house,” he said. “It was a former gang hangout, drug house, caused a lot of problems for folks on the block. When we started, the roof had totally collapsed. We just got to it in time.”
He said the novices rise to the challenge.
“All of our guys are new to this,” said Ramadan. “What we do is, they learn to swim by getting thrown in the water. We throw them right in on the job. They react very, very positively.”
“I love it,” said Walter Jones III, who spent 12 years in prison for dealing drugs. “I can actually see what I’ve done. I can actually see I’ve learned something. It kept me positive, kept me grounded.”
This is the fifth house Green ReEntry has rehabbed. Hasan Smith, who served 27 years for murder, worked on its first.
“I’m a licensed contractor now,” said Smith, 57. “It’s wonderful, man. A long journey, a long struggle. But it feels good.”
Many Americans seem to form their impression of Islam solely from terrorist acts abroad. But if they spoke to the men at Green ReEntry, they’d see an opposite image: of the faith as a force leading away from violence.
“I was incarcerated when I was 16; locked up for murder,” said Rashid Grant, 38, who spent 20 year in prison, over the whine of power tools. “I used the experience to grow, to become a man. Used the experience to study Islam. I studied and I studied and I chose to become Muslim. The changes I went through were unbelievable. I’m more human now. I gained my humanity back. More humble. More passionate about life. ”
A life that involves carpentry.
“I love it,” Grant said. “This is a chance to give back to the community and work with my hands.”
Sometimes instruction seem to apply to both building and life. Rafeeq Abu-Hamza, 27, was working on an interior wall when Ramadan came over.
“Just follow it up,” said Ramadan. “The whole idea is, make it easy for yourself going up. Follow the plumb line. Once you do it right, everything comes out right.”