Interested in Urdu literature? Just ask shuttle-bus driver Isaac Daas about it

Interested in Urdu literature? Just ask shuttle-bus driver Isaac Daas about it

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From behind the driver’s seat, the first thing you notice about Isaac Daas is his wavy black hair, which conceals the fact that he’s 69 years old.  As he turns to greet you, his accent catches your attention along with his smile and his black mustache. Daas’ accent will make you wonder where he is from and his eyes will tell you he has had a long journey.

A college-educated former translator at the American consulate in Pakistan, Daas has worked for La Salle University’s public safety department for the past 11 years. He does a variety of jobs to insure student safety, including driving a shuttle bus that ferries students from one place to another on the school’s 133-acre campus.

A friendly face

Daas’ life story, which spans three continents over nearly seven decades, has made him a favorite among La Salle students who have gotten to know him. They love the tales he tells about his teaching in Pakistan, his work in the oil industry in Libya and his journey to America in search of a life-saving treatment for his teenage son.

“He’s one of my good friends,” said a La Salle freshman who hopped on the shuttle one recent day and began joking with Daas. “He told me about how he used to tutor and teach and I was really interested.”

Iaac Daas was born into a Catholic family in Rawalpindi, Pakistan in 1948, just a year after the partition of India created predominantly Muslim Pakistan and predominantly Hindu India. Despite its Muslim majority, Rawalpindi is the center of Pakistan’s Roman Catholic faith, which was introduced by Irish soldiers who served in the British army that was stationed there during colonial rule.

Christians have always been a tiny minority in Pakistan. Today, they make up just 1.6 percent of Pakistan’s 189 million people.

“…big, big muscles….!”

Daas grew up in the city of Gujranwala south of Rawalpindi in northeastern Punjab province. He has fond memories of playing sports as a child. “I liked to play soccer, basketball and I was a good player at badminton. I used to do weight lifting, too. I had big, big muscles when I was young!” he laughs.

As Daas laughs, you want to laugh, too, as you see his eyes curl and his face light up.

In Gujranwala, Daas attended Government College where he majored in Urdu literature. Soon, he got a job as an instructor at a language school for Christian missionaries. His students included doctors, nurses, engineers, teachers and others, all new arrivals from the U.S., Canada and Western Europe. His oldest student, he recalled, was 73.

Five years into his work at the missionary school, Daas spotted a newspaper listing for a job at the American consulate in Lahore. “Three other teachers in my same missionary school applied as well,” he recalled. “But I got the job because of my experience and languages.” Daas is fluent in Urdu, Hindi and English. He also speaks some Arabic.

As Daas told his story, an Indian song played on his cell phone positioned in the cup-holder of the shuttle bus. Daas translated: Whatever is going to happen, let it happen. “I like Indian music more than Pakistani,” Daas conceded, his fingers tapping on the steering wheel.

Daas’ steady hands guide students around La Salle’s 133-acre campus. (Photo by Amanda Keaton).

In 1977 Pakistan was plunged into turmoil when conservatives charged that parliamentary elections that year had been rigged to favor the party of Prime Minister Ali Bhutto, who was deposed in a bloodless military coup and later hanged.

One of the first acts of the new strongman president, Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, was to impose martial law and begin turning Pakistan into a fundamentalist Islamic state. Blasphemy laws under the new regime made it dangerous to practice Christianity.

From Pakistan to Libya

Facing a grim future with little opportunity to continue his work as a translator for Westerners, Daas reluctantly left Pakistan in 1978 to work in Libya, which was recruiting abroad for skilled workers.

Like Pakistan, Libya was also ruled by a dictator, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. But Libya’s economy was booming and Daas soon landed a well-paying job in the oil industry. Eventually, he brought Shereen, his Pakistani wife by an arranged marriage, to Libya as well.

The couple lived in Tripoli and had three children – Raman Isaac, the oldest son; Aroon Isaac, the middle son; and Saman Issac, the youngest daughter. “I have given my first name as their last name,” Daas said, explaining that is tradition in both Pakistani and Indian culture.

In 1997, Raman suddenly fell ill. His temperature spiked to 104 degrees. He lost 50 pounds in three months. Doctors at three different Libyan hospitals couldn’t figure out what was happening to the 13-year-old. They advised the family to get their son to expert medical care in England or the United States.

From Libya to the U.S.

Enter one of Daas’ brothers, who had already emigrated from Pakistan to Philadelphia. He suggested that young Raman might benefit from treatment at Philadelphia’s St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children.

Because of American sanctions on Libya, it took the Daas family more than three months and trips to London and Malta, but they finally got American visas and passports to the United States. “I was excited because I wanted my son to be healthy,” Daas said. “I used to pray, ‘God, if you want to give me my son, give me my complete son.’”

Initially, the doctors at St. Chris couldn’t diagnose Raman’s illness, either. But they came up with medications that seemed to help.

Once in Philadelphia, the Daas family settled down. Daas initially got a job as a security guard at Bryn Mawr College and then at La Salle. His wife, a former math teacher in Libya, got a job at a city recreation center. They became U.S. citizens and their children enrolled in Philadelphia schools.

“I wanted to come here for a long time,” Daas explained. “It was my dream. I wanted to bring my kids here for better education. In Libya, there was no future for them after 12th grade. It’s not a country to live in.”

At his home in Northeast Philadelphia, Daas raised his children with four strict rules: no earrings, no tattoos, no cigarettes, no liquor. But he also liked to play the joker. “I used to hide my daughter’s phone,” he recalled. “If her phone was sitting on the table, I’d put a napkin over it. Then she’d call out, ‘Dad! Dad! Where’s my phone?’”

Fever strikes again

Life in America was good — until the day when Raman’s fever came back.

Raman was a junior at Cardinal Dougherty High School when he was rushed back to St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children. This time, the doctors were able to make a diagnosis – lupus, a disease in which the body’s immune system attacks a person’s own tissues.

In Raman’s case, immune-system cells had begun attacking the boy’s kidneys, a medical emergency.

Raman spent a month in the hospital, then returned every few months for follow-up treatment. The treatment worked and Raman eventually recovered. “God was always with us,” Daas said.

As he approaches 70, Daas plans to work for a few more years and then retire. His children have all gotten undergraduate degrees at La Salle. Raman, who also got a master’s degree, remains in good health and now works at Vanguard, the investment company. Daas’ wife is retired. And Daas himself is looking forward to gardening.

The beauty of a tree

“I like gardening and I like trees,” Daas said as he pulled the shuttle bus up to a stop on North Broad Street and pointed out the passenger-side window to a nearby tree. “This tree I always like,” he explained. “This tree is not tall, but it is wide with crooked branches and bright green leaves that remind you of spring.”

Although he might have lived out his life in his homeland, Daas has no regrets about leaving Pakistan and trading his job as a teacher and translator for his job as a shuttle-bus driver in Philadelphia. In his mind, he is still teaching as he talks with students on the shuttle bus. “My goal is to help students as much as I can,” he said. “The students are here for their education and they need help.”