ST. LOUIS – Like most people, Nauman Wadalawala is accustomed to junk email. So one can understand his initial reaction to a recent message in his inbox.
“I opened my email, and all of the sudden, I just see, ‘The President and Dr. Biden request the pleasure of your company at a celebration,’” he said.
It turns out that the email was the real deal. The White House invited Wadalawala and about 400 other Muslims across the United States to an Eid al-Fitr celebration to mark the end of the holy month of Ramadan.
So of the nearly 3.5 million Muslims in the United States, why was this man from Ballwin, who is also a husband and father, selected?
Wadalawala, 37, works as an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Missouri. He prosecutes federal crimes and is a member of the office’s Violent Crimes Unit. Prior to that, he worked on narcotics cases.
However, the invitation to the White House had nothing to do with a court case or even politics. It had more to do with faith.
For the past few years, Wadalawala has been training law enforcement officers on how to interact with Muslim communities. It started with a request from his boss.
“I was asked by the U.S. Attorney at that time to speak at the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department,” Wadalawala said. “They had actually made the request. From then on, it just kind of by word of mouth spread to other departments. St. Charles County, St. Louis County, and then it went on the national scale, where I was traveling around the country speaking to different law enforcement agencies.”
He said standard American customs and interactions, like handshaking or direct eye contact, aren’t the same for other cultures.
“To relate that to law enforcement training, if someone is giving them information or talking about a particular situation,” Wadalawala said. “If they’re looking down or looking away, not to necessarily interpret that as if they’re hiding something. Or they’re nervous about something. It’s just the way things are.”
Wadalawala has been serving on the Board of Directors for the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis for the past 11 years. He said while there has been more understanding of Islam in recent years, there’s still more to be done.
“By sheer statistics, Muslims only make up like 1, or 1.5%, of the population,” he said. “So depending on what part of the country I was going to, they’ve not many had interactions with Muslims to begin with. As immigrants started to come into the area, whether it be from Afghanistan, Bosnia, so on and so forth, that’s when I started to realize, ok that it’s really important to let them know about cultural things ahead of time.”
It’s personal for Wadalawala, who is Muslim and the son of Pakistani immigrants who arrived in the United States more than 40 years ago. He shares their story at naturalization ceremonies, speaking to new citizens.
“In this country, when you hear anything is possible – the land of opportunity – it really is that,” he told a group during a ceremony at the POWERPlex in 2020.
Fast forward to May 1, 2023. It is the story of Mr. Wadalawala going to Washington.
He said he was taken back by the music, food, and ambiance of the East Room at the White House. An imam, a Muslim leader at a mosque, delivered a prayer before the guests.
And President Biden was there to welcome them to the celebration.
“Eid Mubarak,” President Biden said.
“Eid Mubarak,” the crowd responded.
It was an incredible experience for Wadalawala, who was grateful to not only be included on the guest list but to also witness history.
“It shows a lot of the incredible work that’s being done nationwide through various Muslim immigrants, or first generation, second generation,” he said. “What’s neat is to really see the amazing work people are doing to contribute to this country and to be recognized for that. I thought that was really neat.”
Days after the celebration, the excitement over visiting the White House is still sinking in. Wadalawala saved several photos and videos on his phone from the Eid al-Fitr celebration.
And he isn’t the only one on Cloud 9.
“Even afterward, my dad was telling everyone, ‘My son was at the White House,'” Wadalawala said. “To the point that he was probably telling the cashier at the grocery store about it.”