Dr. Ahmad Nasef of Brookfield, Wisconsin

January 1, 1969 – January 22, 2021

Like George Baily in the classic movie It’s a Wonderful Life, Dr. Ahmad Nasef of Brookfield may not have realized how his acts of kindness, large and small, completely altered the lives of many around him.

A loving son, husband, father and uncle, a loyal friend who would help with whatever you needed, no questions asked – this is how those who knew him best described him. He epitomized love, they said.

The world is a better place because he lived. He opened a sleep clinic in an underserved area in Milwaukee, supported medical missions to refugees in Jordan and Turkey and personally saw to the needs of refugees who settled in Milwaukee, even opening a restaurant so they could find work, and the list goes on and on.

Nasef’s generosity and kindness are acclaimed. He was usually the first to raise his hand at fundraisers, said his son Mohamed, 21. Friends and family recall borrowing money from him. Nasef never asked what it was for. He would help even if he had to borrow it from someone else, multiple friends reported.

Perhaps even more impactful were his many small acts: a ready smile and welcome for a stranger, his unhurried and undivided attention when someone needed to talk and his whole-hearted devotion to finding solutions to friends’ problems—this is what many will remember.

“He loved people – everybody, no matter what color or what religion,” his cousin Mouhammed Rihawi said. Although he was the self-appointed “assistant imam” at Masjid Al Noor in Brookfield, “Ahmad’s influence was not limited to the Muslim community by any means,” Rihawi said. “Or the Arab community. He was a guy who was friends with the rabbi and the priest. He loved everyone and everyone loved him.”

Battling advanced kidney cancer for almost a decade, Nasef died on Jan. 22 at St. Luke’s Hospital in Milwaukee. He was 52.

The Nasef Family, left to right – Mohamed, Ahmad and Charlotte Nasef, Wafika AlChamaa,  Mahmoud AlChamaa (not shown: Omar Nasef)

Living his faith

Qari Noman Hussain, the imam at Islamic Society of Milwaukee – West, in Brookfield, said Nasef was a leader in the Brookfield Muslim community from its very beginnings. He was involved in the planning and construction of the mosque and served in its leadership from the day it opened in 2015 until he died.

“He would advise me and would mediate between individuals not getting along. He was ready to step up if any request came to support a cause,” Hussain said.

A Sunday school teacher, “he loved the youth and wanted to make sure they felt comfortable and confident. Kids met Ahmad once a week for two hours. And he showed such love to them. They were able to see his beautiful character. He came every Sunday, despite his health. He loved to participate in youth programs – playing laser tag and bowling.

Dr. Nasef was Imam Noman Hussain’s self-appointed assistant.

Nasef at the Hanan Refugee Relief Group’s Thank You Celebration at the Ebenezer United Church of Christ for churches that helped settle refugees in Sheboygan

Praying with Taym

Dr. Nasef made his second pilgrimage to Mecca in 2018.

On the ISM-West 5K walk/run, from left to right, Janna Zaibak, Rayyana Hassan, Ahmad Nasef and Raed Hamed

Lati Ziba credits Nasef with deepening his faith

“He was always there for people, even when he himself was in pain,” Hussain said. “He gave preference to others, serving others and uplifting others even when he was at his lowest. That is a sign of a man of God.

“He had a beautiful prophetic quality to make everyone feel loved and special. He’d say, ‘Let’s take a selfie together.’ He had this contagious hug and kiss. That smile. That vibrant attitude was so contagious and beautiful.”

“He would sit with us, eat with us, engage with us,” said Janna Zaibak, 19. “When I was raising funds for the Muslim Youth of North America, he would say, ‘Whatever your goal is, I’ll give it to you.’ And he’d give us the whole thing.”

Nasef was very involved in service “for the sake of God,” said Dr. Waleed Najeeb, a pulmonologist and president of the Milwaukee Chapter of the Syrian American Medical Society. Nasef was one of the founders and a board member. “He took it to heart, loved it and donated generously himself. His goal was always to help.”

Nasef also championed Hanan Refugee Relief Group, helping start the Milwaukee chapter that launched five years ago. “He was always ready to help. His line was, ‘I’ll make it happen,’ said Sheila Badwan, who heads the chapter.

In addition to service, Nasef loved to promote Islam, his wife Charlotte said. “His passion was teaching all dawah.”

For Sherijat Lati Ziba of Oak Creek, Nasef provided the catalyst that made his faith come alive. “I used to do things because I feared God. One day, he said to me, ‘No, you have to do it because you love God.’ That changed everything for me.

“He was very patient with me. I went from not praying to praying five times a day and I attribute this to Ahmad. He gave me time to love my religion, to love God, to love myself. Every time I go down to pray, I think of Ahmad.”

Mohamed Nasef and his father Dr. Ahmad Nasef

Dr. Ahmad Nasef with his family doing swimming activity

Dr. Nasef’s cousin, Dr. Rihawi, was also his pulmonologist and knew him longer than almost anyone. “I spent the last 10 days of his life with him because nobody else could get in” due to hospital restrictions, Rihawi said. “Ahmad found a lot of peace in his faith.

“In all the years he had cancer, you never heard Ahmad complain or say anything except ‘al hamdulilla. I’m good, habibi. Don’t worry about me.’”

Loving his family

“Throughout his life, Ahmad has always been 100% devoted to his mom and to his family,” said Rihawi, remembering their childhood in Syria.

Nasef’s father, a pilot in the Syrian army, died in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. Nasef’s mother Wafika AlChamaa devoted herself to caring for Nasef and his sister Roulah, supporting the family with help from Nasef’s uncles. Nasef was known to be a doting and appreciative son.

Nasef grew up in a close-knit extended family. “We had two grandmas living next door,” Rihawi recalled. “It was literally door-to-door, like walking from your bedroom to the dining room. He lived with one grandma and we lived with the other grandma. At 14, we moved to another house and Ahmad was there non-stop.” Nasef and the Rihawis lived near each other almost always since.

Dr. Ahmad Nasef with friends and relatives

“I thought of him always as a brother,” said Nasef’s cousin Lana Rihawi, recalling a kindness that touched her heart. “My father always gave me a gift on the Eid,” she said. After he died, “I missed my father’s gift, although I was a grown woman.” She mentioned it to Ahmad. “And ever since then, Ahmad has given me $100 on the Eid.”

She appreciates how he always took her children and others, treating them like his own, she said.

Nasef taught his own children time with family comes first, his son Mohamed said. “He would take me with him when he went to someone’s house. He would be right next to me. I described it as an inseparable bond.”

Mohamed recalled his father attending all his sports activities. “Even Park and Rec basketball, he had to go to every single game.”

Nasef would often hang out with his sons, Mohamed, Omar and Mahmoud, joining in whatever they were doing. Mohamed described him as “kidlike, someone who loved to have fun.” He liked “sitting with people, talking, talking, talking, and playing soccer, basketball or golf—he loved to do things with people.

“He really liked kung-fu movies and Omar would watch them with him. When Mahmoud came over, we’d all watch soccer.

“What I have learned from him most is caring,” Mohamed said. “I met a doctor at the hospital. He told me had been a gas station clerk when he came to the U.S. Now he is a doctor and he told me he owes everything to my dad.

“I remember the first day he opened Damascus Gate. He said all he cared about was to give Syrian refugees a place to work. He didn’t care if he didn’t make money.

“There are people he helped get a house. He always told me that money is not an issue. We don’t need to be rich to enjoy life. And he paid donations monthly for refugees.

“Whenever anyone came from overseas and didn’t have a place, Ahmad would invite them to stay with him,” said Dr. Mouhammed Rihawi. He did that when they shared a place in Madison and later had relatives live in his Brookfield home for as long as they wanted.

He wanted to make us happy, said his son Mohamed. “Mom likes to travel, so he took her to Rome, Paris, Jerusalem, Petra and sometimes he took all of us. As a family, we went to Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico Dubai and Turkey. I am an Arsenal fan, so he took me to London twice to see them play.

“He has family in lots of places in Europe, the Middle East and Turkey. He wanted us to meet everyone, so he would take us somewhere and introduce us to lots of relatives.”

“Ahmad has been the cornerstone of our family forever,” said his sister-in-law Susan Cronn. “He’s everyone’s moral compass, a kind of true north. He taught me to be kind, even indulgent with people’s flaws.

“He would always say things like, ‘They don’t know better,’ or ‘they’re good, just having a hard time,’ when people were not showing their best side. Knowing he felt this way even about people he didn’t know well made close friends and family completely comfortable in his presence, a rare gift.”

Everybody’s best friend

If you walked into the Nasef family room, more often than not, every seat on the large, L-shaped couch, every chair was inhabited. In the middle was Ahmad. “Come in, come in, habibi. I love you,” he’d say, probably blowing a kiss.

“Everyone feels like they are his best friend,” Rihawi said. “I’ve never met anyone else who can make this happen.” His doctors, a surgeon he met once, speakers who visited ISM-West all remember him and ask about him.

Dr. Mohamed (Aboude) Atasi knows how this can happen. He was standing on a corner in Damascus, waiting for a bus. Nasef drove by with a mutual friend in the car and asked Atasi if he wanted a ride. That was the beginning of a close 35-year friendship.

“We graduated from medical school together. We decided to come to the United States. I was in Chicago, so Ahmad, who came the following year calls me and says, ‘I don’t want to leave you but Mouhammed (Rihawi) is in Madison, so I have to be in Madison. A few months later, I moved to Madison. Later I followed him to Milwaukee. He moved to Waukesha County and I moved to Waukesha County. He has been the brother I never had,” Atasi said.

Dr. Raed Hamed had a similar experience. After a dinner invitation almost two decades ago, the friendship clicked and they became close friends, Hamed said. In 2014, Hamed decided to move from Franklin to Brookfield. “One of the main reasons I chose the location was to be near Ahmad.”

Hamed and Nasef went to Haj together in 2018. It was the second time for Nasef but he decided on the spot to go when Hamed asked.

It seems everyone has a story about Ahmad Nasef.

Dr. Ahmad Nasef with friends and relatives

“When he first went to Syria with his wife Charlotte, they went to the town in Syria where his family came from,” Hamed said. “He had dozens of cousins and family friends. Ahmad took tons of gifts and money for everyone, but people kept coming. Eventually, he ran out. He even gave away his own shoes and told his wife they would have to give the shirt she was wearing to somebody.

“This is the kind of person he was; making people happy was his mission in his life. He never cared about what he had, what he owned, what he would eat that day, how much money he had in his pocket.

“I have seen him many times, seeing someone in need, he will just put his hand in his pocket and give them whatever he finds, not really caring about what he has left for himself tomorrow.”

Friend and neighbor Aziz Aleiou recalled how he got on Ahmad’s prayer list. “Our son Adam, now 26, was very close to Amo Ahmad and his family since high school. One day Ahmad told me that I am very lucky. Why?

“’When I say my prayers, I always pray for Adam. As long as I’ve mentioned him, I throw you and the rest of the family in,’ Ahmad told me. Ahmad was a man of principle, loveable, kind and generous.”

Another famous story happened at Nour Malas’ wedding, Ahmad’s son Mohamed, said. “He went to Nour’s wedding three days after he had brain surgery and danced the debke. Aunt Susie said my dad never acted like a cancer patient in his life. He never showed he was in any pain. He never complained. He was just happy to be there and to spend nine extra years with us.”

“Ahmad was always the person everybody sought out for help,” said Shamcy Alghazzy, who has been a close friend since 1994. “We always called him ‘Mr. Yes.’ He did not say no to anybody. He found a way to make it happen or helped people make it happen themselves.”

“He was an uncle for all the young people in the community,” said Hassan Zagloul, 24, of Madison. “I felt very comfortable talking to him and reaching out to him for support. I know it was not just something I felt, but everyone in my generation in the community felt.”

“He put a smile on anyone who had a bad day and gave people hope,” said Albana Gurra. “When I needed an oncologist for my Dad, he helped me find one and attended the appointment to make sure all of my Dad’s questions got answered. He was always there to help you when you asked.

“Such a great loss for the community and for all of us. He touched so many lives and he will always be remembered.”

Dr. Ahmad Nasef and his cousin Dr. Mouhammed Rihawi

Dr. Ahmad Nasef with his mother Wafika AlChamaa