When I first began working with IMAN, I would always hear about the legendary Rafi Peterson. I would talk to people around the office, and in the community about their different experiences living on Chicago’s south side, but I was always told, “You should hear Rafi’s story.”
Rafi’s a big man, with a deep, resounding laugh, honest eyes, and an endearing smile, but he also possesses a certain kind of intensity that implies that he’s no joke. One day, after a colleague insisted that I approach Rafi for a one-on-one, reassuring me that he didn’t bite, I finally got the opportunity I had been waiting for. Sitting in the living room of Project Restore‘s Transition House, Rafi led me into the parallel worlds of prison, the projects, and what it means to be a black man in America.
This is his story.
Growing up in the Urban Serengeti
Growing up in Chicago’s projects of Argyle Gardens – Rafi learned the game of the “Urban Serengeti” from a young age. Joining his first crew at the age of fourteen – which called itself the “AG mob” – he hustled in the drug trade to make ends meet. After being shot when he was sixteen, and having a recurring nightmare about his enemies uniting against him, Rafi decided to escape the hood by joining the military right after high school. Following his discharge from the army, Rafi went back to a life of dealing, leading a crew in his neighborhood.
After a relationship with a dealer went sour and his family’s life was threatened, Rafi was incarcerated in a state prison for twelve and a half years for murder. Upon entering, Rafi realized that the “system was just as corrupt in (prison) as it was outside (in the projects).” In the 80s and 90s, street gangs in the city were reinvented – “making the drug and banging scene at the top of its game, and Chicago the murder capital of the world.” During this time, street organizations ran the institutions. “When you came into the institutions it was gang leaders representing ‘folks’ and one representing ‘people’ sitting with the correctional officer assigning you to housing.” Because Rafi was not part of an organization, he was assigned as a ‘neutron’ and put in the kitchen.
While working in the kitchen one day, three vice lords (or street organizations) sent representatives to put Rafi “on count”; a way to indoctrinate other inmates into their gangs by forcing them to pay protection. Rafi refused, resisted, and showed them, “kill me or take something if you can.” Holding his own, the vice lords eventually backed off of him; but the fight got the attention of others in the jailhouse, including a certain “Big Mohammad.”
Big Muhammad was a “Big, huge brother, with a beautiful, beautiful smile, who wore eight long braids, and had a sentence of 2700 years.” Intrigued by Rafi’s fearless character, Big Muhammad “sent some brothers to holler” at him. Knowing that the vice lords would come after Rafi again, Big Muhammad had Rafi moved to his cell, taking him under his wing, and teaching him about Islam – lessons which changed his life forever.
Embracing Islam has deeply impacted Rafi’s life, and has guided him in every aspect of his work. Today, Rafi claims, “If I was not Muslim, I would not be breathing air today.”
Giving Back- Project Restore
In 1998, a year after his release, Rafi met Rami Nashashibi, the Executive Director of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN). Together, they coordinated a “taleem service” in Cook County Jail’s Division 11, giving religious classes to brothers in prison. Through these encounters, they soon realized that such rehabilitation efforts went well beyond that of the prisons; that it was critical for ex-offenders to have a positive support system welcoming them back home to society once they were released, in order to keep them from going back to “the life.”
From these conversations, Rafi and others at IMAN developed Project Restore. Two years later, in 2007, the Transitional House was introduced, which houses “formerly incarcerated Muslim men who are focusing on community service, counseling and job training.” These brothers play a significant role in the community through their work with CeaseFire, doing vital violence prevention work with youth and street organizations in the hood.
A few years ago, Rafi was chosen as one of only six people across the nation to participate in the Muslim Integration Program under the State Department’s Institute for Training and Development (ITD). Interested in Rafi’s work with young gang members, the Institute invited him to hold workshops on youth empowerment in the Netherlands; a country in which the fastest growing groups going to prison are young, Moroccan and Turkish males who Rafi describes, “happen to look like me.”
His Biggest Accomplishment
Working his way up from the projects and prison to getting two bachelor’s degrees, and becoming a critical leader in community empowerment initiatives on the Southside of Chicago and even abroad, Rafi is an incredible reservoir of willpower and experiences. When asked what his biggest accomplishment was, he proudly said, “My daughter.” Rafi’s daughter grew up visiting him in maximum security prisons, learning to braid hair by braiding Big Muhammad’s locks, and was often taunted by her girlfriends about “her daddy being in prison.” Today, she is a successful high school teacher, married, with a beautiful son.
Rafi’s proudest moment was being asked by his daughter to lead a violence prevention workshop at her school. At the end of the workshop, Rafi revealed to the students that he was their teacher’s father, much to their surprise. “For her to be able to have me come to her place of work, and not hold her head down in shame – that was a great accomplishment. That was one of the most joyous and prideful days of my life.”
Today, Rafi serves as an IMAN board member and continues his work in reducing violence in Chicago Lawn. In early April 2008, Rafi was recognized as a Community Hero by LISC’S New Communities Program and next month, he will be honored with the “Excellence in Community Leadership” award by Holy Cross Hospital, where he does violence prevention work with CeaseFire.
He will also be beginning his master’s program this fall.
Transcending labels and building a legacy, Rafi is an unstoppable force – a dynamic, inspirational leader whose life serves as a moving reminder about the power of the human spirit, and one’s faith.
In Rafi’s Words:
Lessons on the Urban Serengeti & the State
“The strong will always control the weak, but the wise will control the strong. So I learned over the years to become wise as well as strong. Out there is a food chain, it’s the Urban Serengeti. And the higher up on the ladder you are (on the street life), the better you can eat.”
“In the African American community you cannot tell if the prison is an extension of the community or the community is an extension of the prison.”
“They (the state) always allows a certain amount of dope to enter these institutions; that’s how they maintain control – to keep the inmates out each other. How do you keep rats from gnawin’ outta’ a basket? You keep the basket shakin’ and the rats turn on each other.”
“Allah is the best of planners. If I hadn’t went through what I went through yesterday, I wouldn’t be who I am today.”
“I was once a convict. I’m not proud of it, but that’s a reality for me. But I have went and gone beyond that, and I have gone beyond that by the graces of Allah, my Lord, and I know I have been blessed.”