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Members of Howard Community Reflect on the Life of Alumnus After His Recent Death

Sultan-Diego Abdullah Sulayman poses in front of the School of Business. Photo Courtesy of Michelle Espada. 

The Howard community and beyond are grieving and commemorating the life of Sultan-Diego Abdullah Sulayman, an undergraduate alumnus and prospective Bayan Islamic Graduate School candidate, who died at 26-years-old in his sleep. The cause of his death is currently unknown upon autopsy.

After Sulayman’s death on Oct. 30,  a memorial service was held on Howard University’s campus at the steps of Carnegie Hall on Nov. 4 and the funeral was held at the Idara-E-Jaferia Islamic Center on Nov. 5. The Howard community, family and alike were in attendance.

Reflecting on his son’s life, Sulayman’s father Rico Leblonde said, “Diego had a lasting impact on everyone he encountered and as his father, I learned so much from watching him grow from a boy into a man. We miss him more than anything else in the world and honestly, it feels unreal to be going through the loss of a son.”

Born on Nov. 28, 1995 in Gaithersburg, Maryland, Sulayman was born into a culturally and ethnically diverse family. His parents, Michelle Espada and Leblonde, come from Bolivian, Spanish, African and European cultural descent which is reflected in Sulayman’s upbringing and cultural values. 

While enrolled in undergraduate school as a Bison from 2016 to 2020, Sulayman was deeply involved in the community at Howard. He was the vice president and president of Howard University’s Muslim Student Association (MSA), restarted the Chess Club, participated in the Howard NAACP chapter on campus and volunteered at the Andrew Rankin Memorial Chapel. He then went on to graduate from Howard with a B.A. in finance in the School of Business.

From an early age, community was very important to Sulayman, and he was very active in giving back to the environments in which he would find himself. Upon graduation from Howard, he worked as a teacher’s assistant for Montgomery County Public Schools, owned his own chess tutoring company, Chess for Success, taught financial literacy courses with Spark Business Academy and volunteered at the 19th Street Baptist Church in D.C. in the tech and sound department.

Espada said, “Diego was always the most giving and considerate soul, he would always go the extra mile in anything he was passionate about and these passions became a part of who he was at his core.”

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After enrolling in Bayan Islamic Graduate School’s Masters of Arts program in Islamic Studies at 25, Sulayman started to become deeply interested in his own background, and became an integral member of both ¡CHANGÓ! and MSA, hosting events within both organizations when he could be on campus.

¡CHANGÓ! is Howard University’s Afro-Latin & Spanish Speaking Student Association. According to the school website database, their goal is to “embrace and raise awareness of Afro-Latine culture within the African diaspora with Howard University students and global communities.” 

The President of ¡CHANGÓ!, junior political science major and Spanish minor O’brian Rosario, was very close to Sulayman. The two worked side-by-side in helping to bring back not only ¡CHANGÓ!, but also the Afro-Latino presence and safe space at Howard. He and Rosario would meet whenever they could to discuss the progress and direction of the club. 

“He was such a genuine person and always put his best foot forward to help anybody he met…¡CHANGÓ! and the Afro-Latino community on Howard’s campus are in a great position because of Sultan Diego,” Rosario said.

 Sulayman became involved with Islamic faith while fulfilling his undergraduate degree at Howard. His mother Espada shared that, “Joining MSA helped him to connect to his faith deeply through conversation and guide his religious journey and foundation.”

Nisa Muhammad, the assistant dean of Religious Life at Howard University, spent a lot of her time with Sulayman working on MSA as a comfort zone for Muslim students. Both executive members of the association, they worked closely on different initiatives and events that progressed the club’s development.

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Muhammad said, ”Sultan was an amazing leader in the Muslim Student Association. He was a joy to work with, and I learned almost as much from him as he did from me…Sultan was dedicated to everything he put his mind to. Howard made him a better person, and the communities he worked with are better because of him. He will be greatly missed.”

Sulayman’s full birth name was Diego Viecente Leblonde, however upon finding his religious conviction, he legally changed his name to Sultan-Diego Abdullah Sulayman. His first name, Sultan, directly translates to “that of a king or sovereign” in reference to Muslim culture. He decided to keep his first name as a connection to his familial roots. His last name Abdullah means “servant of God” and Sulayman translates to “man of peace” in Arabic.

Sulayman’s family would love to keep his memory alive by “committing to making financial and timely contributions to ¡CHANGÓ! and the different communities he uplifted in order to cement his impact on campus,” according to Espada.

Sulayman planned to marry his fiance Maryam in Ghana during the Spring of 2023. 

Copy edited by Chanice McClover-Lee

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