Modern Life: Khalid Latif and Priya Chandra on the Joys of Giving Back

This busy couple’s days revolve around helping others and enjoying time with their kids.

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Madina, 4; Imam Khalid Latif, 34, university chaplain at New York University and executive director of The Islamic Center at NYU; Priya Chandra, 37, licensed master social worker; and Kareem, 18 months. 

The story of precisely how the couple met depends on which one of them you ask. They say it’s a point of contention because Khalid Latif has his version and Priya Chandra doesn’t remember at all. However, she does recall the first time she saw Khalid. He was giving a public lecture that Priya had attended. She spent most of the evening in the back of the room doing impressions of Khalid for her friends because she was extremely amused at how he could speak without taking a breath, and how his voice changed to that of a spoken-word artist when he started lecturing. Eventually there was an actual meeting, and further down the line Khalid says he somehow tricked Priya into marrying him. (The couple recently celebrated their fifth wedding anniversary.) Add two young children to the story, and you have a really happy mix.

Creating a solid family is easier when you come from one. Khalid, the son of Pakistani immigrants, says the values instilled in him by his parents are just part of the culture they were brought up in. “Respect for elders, generosity, honesty and being charitable are all things I can attribute to my family,” he says. “Being the child of a culture that dealt with the harsh reality of colonization, occupation and partition—we are Kashmiri in background—has also resonated in many different ways. My father never hesitated to help someone when he was able, and my mother was an anchor in supporting him and all her children in remarkable ways. Wealth itself wasn’t a goal as much as realizing and reaching potential was—that’s why I think my father was always willing to give money away.”

Once their children were born, Khalid and Priya made their own discoveries about parenthood. “To give you perspective,” says Khalid, “when we first brought Madina home from the hospital, we didn’t have any diaper wipes and didn’t realize we needed any.” Priya thought that babies ate three times a day and then slept through the night, like adults. “Just for that, I was blessed with a baby who loved to cluster feed and took a year to sleep through the night,” she laughs. But now that they’ve got the hang of it, they’re smitten. “Madina makes everyone happy, regardless of how down they might be. She has a smile and a sparkle that are contagious. And Kareem has these huge beautiful eyes, which he certainly knows how to use to his advantage,” adds Priya proudly.

With the love for their children comes a desire to keep them safe in a climate that seems to be growing increasingly intolerant. “I fear every day for so many people—my wife has been physically attacked outside of our home, to give you an example,” shares Khalid. “What we are seeing now is really a continuation of realities that minorities like undocumented immigrants, indigenous peoples, black men and women have faced in the country for a long time but have gone unaddressed.” He says we can’t heal if we’re not willing to admit that there’s a problem in the first place.

Khalid was raised as a Muslim, but unlike his Pakistani parents, he grew up here, where things are different. “To comprehend what that means necessitates understanding how Islam functions more abstractly,” he explains. “The best way I’ve heard it described likens Islam to a stream of water and the culture that it’s a part of to the bedrock that it is flowing over. The water then bears the color of the rock. Islam bears the look of the culture it finds itself practiced in; in China it looks Chinese, in Kenya it looks Kenyan. In the United States people from all backgrounds come together, including Muslims from everywhere.” Khalid says it wasn’t until college that he started to be exposed to diversity in Islam more broadly, and this helped him understand the religion at a deeper level.

In order to inspire greater acceptance and respect for other faiths, Khalid believes we must revisit institutionalized mechanisms and policies that can often infringe on the fundamental rights of minorities in the country.

As people who are focused on giving back—Priya left the finance industry to pursue a career in social work and Khalid is also a chaplain for the New York Police Department—their lives tend to revolve around helping others. And, of course, enjoying time with their kids. Says Khalid, “My favorite part of the day is when I come home and hear little feet running toward me with excitement.”

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Khalid, as director of the Islamic Center at NYU, what is your mission?

We want to create a pluralistic space for Muslims on and off campus. That means embracing diversity within and outside of our direct community. We have students who come from everywhere, which creates a unique opportunity to learn and find empowerment.

What do you think is the biggest misconception about the Muslim faith? What are the oddest questions you’ve ever been asked?

Given the current political climate, I think the misconceptions are far too many to mention. We're seeing an ever-increasing number of hate crimes and attacks against Muslims in the U.S. In my opinion, there aren't odd questions so much as false narratives that people are buying into through media outlets and political machines that have no interest other than their own self-interest. In New York, where I live, before the election we had numerous incidents—two imams were shot and killed outside their mosque in the afternoon following prayers, a Muslim woman was set on fire in Midtown, two mothers strolling with their babies were assaulted in Brooklyn and a 60-year-old woman was stabbed close to her home in Queens and eventually died from those wounds. After the election, hate crimes have been happening that much more.

You are the New York Police Department’s second-ever Muslim chaplain. Talk to me about the work you do for the NYPD.

I serve as a resource for all members of the department. There are nine chaplains on staff, including myself, and we provide counseling, pastoral care, advocacy and other similar services to anyone seeking them. We are on call one day a week and respond to emergency situations if they come up, regardless of faith affiliation.

How do you and Priya unwind?

Although we can't agree on movies, we do have similar taste in TV shows. We started watching The Walking Dead during Priya's last trimester of pregnancy with Madina. It's strange that watching zombies eat people was our preferred way to unwind, but what can we say? Actually, when Priya finally went into labor, we caught up on a whole season. (She was in labor for 36 hours!)

Priya, tell us about the kids.

Madina loves to read and draw and has more friends than anyone. And not just the kids she’s in pre-K with—she’ll tell you that her friends are also in college and beyond. At any given time, there’s a line of people waiting to spend time with her. 

Kareem likes to do everything his older sister does, and he follows her around the house with a look of sheer admiration. He’s very clever and loves to play, but one of our favorite things is listening to the way he sings and "talks" to himself before going to sleep.

What is dinnertime like at your house?

The kids eat dinner early. Khalid comes home early on Monday nights so I can go to work (I work evening shifts once a week). He and Madina talk about their day while eating, and Kareem keeps busy trying to feed himself while also generously sharing bits of his dinner with the floor. I quietly sneak out to work while all this is going on. On other nights, it's usually just me and the kids. Madina loves listening to fairy tales as narrated by me (I add a feminist twist to most of them!). Kareem is usually just annoyed that food isn't landing quickly enough in his mouth and lets me know through his cute baby yelling voice. 

Which qualities do you admire most in each other?

Priya: I admire how Khalid serves people selflessly and how he’s good at so many things: teaching, business, leading. He even knows how to care for babies really well.  

Khalid: I’ve always admired the depth of Priya’s thoughts and ideas. I also find her dedication to the well-being of others beyond admirable. When I first met her, she was working in finance but always found time to volunteer in some capacity with survivors of domestic violence and rape. After we got married, she made the courageous decision to transition out of a stable 10-year career in finance to start her master’s degree in social work. Her passion, drive and ambition are quite remarkable, and I am so inspired by her every day.  

Khalid, you are one of the cofounders of the halal butcher Honest Chops. How did that come about?

In our initial research, we found that despite the large number of Muslims living in New York City, there was no halal meat store in Manhattan. The values and quality of our products are tied to the highly unethical and unhygienic practices we found in both the commercialized and halal meat industries. Seeing how animals are treated was eye-opening. We shifted toward a humane, local, organic product that people can trust. The response has been great so far—most of our customers aren't even Muslim. We've gotten great press and a lot of interest in expansion from investors and people wanting to franchise.