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I Made 13 Cents an Hour as a Prison Janitor. Here’s Why I Donated My Wages to Gaza Relief

As he shared the news, my mentor of over 15 years, Justin Mashouf, was smiling ear-to-ear. “I’ve received tons of messages from people all over the world,” he continued during our late February video visit. “I had no idea it would blow up like this when I first posted it on X.”

The story Justin was referring to was about how I — an incarcerated man in California working as a janitor for 13 cents an hour — had donated $17.74 of my earnings to relief efforts in Gaza.

Justin and I had first connected in 2009 when he was working on his documentary about reentry, “” I had asked him to help me ensure that my donation would go straight to civilians in Gaza.

Over three months after I’d sent him the check, he shared the story of my donation through a that included a picture of my pay stub and the check itself. As of April 4, it was liked or reposted over 32,000 times, from as far as Algeria.

I decided to make the donation a few weeks after Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza began last October. The sun had set, and I was watching “PBS NewsHour” on the 15-inch TV in my cell. Within a few minutes of tuning in, I learned that the electricity, water and fuel would soon be cut off in Gaza. I jolted upright so quickly that the steel bunk bed I was lounging on shook underneath me.

The images and videos I’d seen were already horrifying. And day by day, the overall destruction and death toll — particularly among children — was climbing. As I saw it, Gazans losing access to water, electricity and fuel would escalate the war into a full-blown humanitarian crisis. How many more people would lose their lives and their right to dignity?

I immediately thought of my precious 11-year-old granddaughter, Naimah. Staring at a picture of her round, bubbly face when she was just over a year old, I wondered how I would react if it was her life on the line.

As a Muslim, I was also reminded of the youngest casualty of the Battle of Karbala, a significant conflict in Islamic history. Ali al-Asghar, one of the great-grandsons of Prophet Muhammad — peace be upon him — was killed at just 6 months old.

Moments before his death, his father, Imam Hussain, stood in front of the opposing army, pleading for water to give his son. His words echoed in my mind: “What evil — what crime has this child done?” Ali al-Asghar subsequently lost his life in a battle he wasn’t old enough to participate in, let alone understand.

Donating my wages wasn’t a matter of sympathy; you can sympathize with someone and do nothing about it. Rather, it was empathy. When you empathize with someone, you place yourself in their shoes. You do your best to relate to their suffering in hopes you will be spurred into action.

Desperate to transform my empathy into action, I called Justin the next day. Though my friend was surprised to hear about my plans, he was more than supportive. “I got you,” he said.

Given that I made 13 cents an hour, I knew it would take many shifts to come up with even a $10 donation. But the dollar amount was inconsequential to me. What mattered was the intention behind the gesture.

As a lead porter, or janitor, in my unit of California Health Care Facility in Stockton, my team and I were responsible for distributing meals during breakfast, lunch and dinner. We sanitized surfaces and emptied trash bins. We also led the weekly laundry pick-up and delivery so every person in our unit had fresh clothes — and clean bedsheets and blankets — to sleep in.

Sure, my job gave me something to do to pass the time, but I’d also come to understand each task as a reminder that I was contributing to the well-being of those around me. There was a sense of fulfillment in knowing that, despite the limitations of my circumstances, I could still make a difference.

Weeks after deciding to donate, when I had worked a little over 136 hours, I mailed a check to Justin, who told me that my money went to Islamic Relief USA’s Palestine Humanitarian Aid.

It’s a common misconception that once someone enters jail or prison, they lose their interest in the outside world. The public assumes that our beliefs, values, politics and capacity to connect with other human beings come to a standstill — or worse, disappear altogether.

For me, at age 56, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

I remember being selfish and egotistical in my late teens. I went by the street name Baby Boy, and it was my life’s mission to have everything go my way. If I couldn’t get it, I would take it. I didn’t consider the pain I was inflicting on those around me.

In 1985, I shot and killed my uncle — my mother’s younger brother — while playing with a gun. I was convicted of second-degree murder, and at the age of 17, I began my sentence of 15 years to life.

During the nearly four decades of my life that I spent in prison, I watched myself grow and change. Nothing contributed to my transformation more than the Islamic concept of Islaha.

Islaha means to reform, amend and repair, or to make restitution. The word appears many times in the Quran. It’s also a running theme in the life of Malcolm X, a transformative figure whose journey deeply resonates with me.

“The Autobiography of Malcolm X” was the first nonfiction book I ever read. I was wide-eyed, 20 years old and four years into my sentence at Folsom State Prison, one of California’s most notorious penitentiaries. A friend of mine handed me the book, and I was struck by the sheer force of Malcolm’s transformation — from a hustler and a pimp to a towering figure of resilience and activism.

Half a year later, when I finally accepted Islam, I came across the concept of Islaha, and it all clicked for me: There was hope. As long as I put in the work, I could redeem myself under the eyes of God, my loved ones and the people around me.

Through Islam, I went through a spiritual and ethical awakening, and with that came solace and purpose amid the chaos of incarceration.

And I became obsessed with history. I pored over the works of Marcus Garvey, Chancellor Williams and J.A. Rogers. I read about the American, French and Iranian revolutions and the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. When I read about the — and how many of the the bombing were jailed — I immediately connected that to the in China.

At times, l have been overwhelmed by the realization that all our experiences are interconnected. And having entered the criminal justice system at such a young age, it took me many years — and many books — to grasp how my identity as a Black Muslim man impacts how I move through the world and how the world responds to me.

In late February, Justin let me know that along with posting about my donation, he had set up a GoFundMe to help me rebuild my life. Generous contributions flooded in, and by the end of the month, the campaign had raised over $102,000. Media outlets including and even did stories about it.

I felt deeply humbled and moved. This support came at a crucial time as I prepared for my April 2 release, which I had been fighting for since the mid-1990s. Between 1995 and 2024, I was denied parole 10 times.

My parole was finally approved, thanks to California Senate Bill 260, legislation that offers fresh parole opportunities for youth offenders serving lengthy sentences for crimes committed before they turned 18.

When I pictured my life post-incarceration, I saw family and community. The first thing I wanted to do was give my mother a big hug and kiss. I wanted to ask her for forgiveness. I wanted to take out the trash for her. I wanted to cut her grass again. I wanted to take my granddaughter to school and go to a PTA meeting. I wanted to ride a metro bus and take in different smells and sights.

I wanted to move through my life cherishing the simple things.

And since I was coming home toward the end of Ramadan, I was excited to celebrate my first Eid with the larger Muslim community. This community has shown me so much compassion and mercy over the last few weeks, and there’s nothing I want more than to return the favor.

When I first became serious about transforming my worldview and myself, I wrote down a series of mantras. They were taped to the dull gray concrete walls of my cell:

Today, I will take the high road.

Today, I will not allow myself to be derailed.

Today, if confronted or insulted, I will first remember my goals. Secondly, I will walk away. Lastly, I will not personalize anything and give in to my ego.

Today, I will be of service and strive to make today better than yesterday.

Today, I will remember at every step that I am the master of my ship. I will be anchored by my faith, values, goals, patience, humility and forgiveness. With all my strength, I will be humble today.

Over the years, these lines became my ritual. I recited them before I left my cell each day. And as I continue to prepare for life beyond prison walls, those words will continue to be my guide.

Hamzah Jihad Furqaani is a father of one daughter and a grandfather to four. Furqaani was imprisoned for 40 years and was released from prison on April 2, 2024. He intends to create an educational program for incarcerated people that tackles the misrepresentation of Islam in U.S. prisons. Furqaani also hopes to pursue higher education in sociology.