As a young boy in the ’60s living in a rural Bangladesh village, Sheikh "Safi" Safiullah often dreamed of traveling the world and coming to America for an education. But first, he dreamed of improving his village’s school situation. Safiullah’s elementary school was a three-mile walk from his home. When he was in 10th grade, he and some friends took the initiative to build an elementary school for their own village. “We secured the land, bamboo for the walls was donated, and the roof was covered with dried rice leaves,” he says. “Within one year, the five-room school house was ready to serve the children in the village.” Since then, Safiullah has sought to make education accessible to all.
A resident of Salt Lake City for 35 years, Safiullah has made Utah his new home. Deeply influenced by his South Asian heritage and Islamic faith, he tirelessly creates opportunities to bring diverse groups of people together to experience and better understand other cultures. “If I can touch people’s minds and hearts, they will accept me,” he says.
In May 2017, Safiullah PhD’03 was named Librarian of the Year by the Utah Library Association. He received the honor in recognition of his accomplishments as manager of the Marmalade Branch of the Salt Lake City Public Library, his efforts to increase community engagement, and for his lifelong support of libraries and education around the world. The award is a fitting accomplishment for this man who has dedicated his life to bridging communities through education.
Safiullah has worked at the City Library since 2002 and at the Marmalade Branch since it opened in February 2016. He has established programs and partnerships that celebrate the different cultures found within the community served by the library. In an effort to enlighten Utahns on topics of current importance, his efforts have sparked dialogues on a wide array of topics including religious pluralism, redistricting in Utah, race and gender issues, police violence, and Islamophobia.
Several months ago, in partnership with KRCL 90.9 FM and Utah Humanities, he hosted an event about “fake news,” bringing together journalists and experts. He has organized celebrations to honor cultural holidays including Diwali (the annual Hindu festival of lights), Eid Al-Fitr (the Muslim holiday marking the end of Ramadan), Chinese New Year, Mexico’s Day of the Dead, and Vietnamese Independence Day. He was especially delighted to succeed in arranging a presentation by the University of Utah’s Nobel Laureate Mario Capecchi. And for the 10th anniversary of 9/11, Safiullah engaged around 30 partners, including Utah Valley University and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to celebrate religious and cultural diversity and tolerance. More than 1,500 people attended the event.
At the University of Utah, where he earned his doctorate in history, Safiullah also continues to be involved. He teaches a Middle East history class each semester, and 10 years ago, influenced some friends to establish scholarships for U students. Since then, his friends have funded four scholarships for refugees and students from other underserved communities.
Being named Librarian of the Year confirms the obvious—Safi Safiullah already is recognized as an essential member of the Salt Lake City community.
And his home village is not forgotten. He has acquired some land next to the school that he and his friends built those many years ago, and next year he will travel there to build a second building, which will house a library, a study room, and a first aid clinic.