This feature in the Washington Post looks at how Muslim communities and organisations are playing a key role in responding to disasters in the United States. Anwar Khan, President of Islamic Relief USA, talks about our work and experiences:
Their volunteers’ blue vests, emblazoned with the words Islamic Relief, may draw stares, particularly in the South, but being part of a network ensures they are welcomed. So does their interfaith approach. “We’re not here just to help the Muslims and their mosques. We’re here to help everyone in the community,” said Khan.
When it was founded in 1993, Islamic Relief USA focused on international humanitarian projects, particularly those alleviating crises in Muslim-majority countries and hot spots such as Palestinian territories and Kashmir. That changed in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina struck the southern United States. The group led a $2 million relief project in the storm’s aftermath, distributing food and medicine, providing shelter and housing, cleaning out homes and funding reconstruction in affected areas of Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.
Islamic Relief now has 140 staff and 15,000 registered volunteers who have developed an expertise in damage assessment — not a glamorous assignment, Khan said, but it’s what victims need to receive their insurance money. His teams also distribute cash cards to help victims pay rent and purchase groceries as they await insurance funds and government aid…
… Anti-Muslim suspicion can still be an obstacle, however. After the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, in which the perpetrator identified as Muslim, Islamic Relief offered emotional counseling. Some on the team, however, including a woman who wore hijab, were asked not to enter the building where victims were, Khan said. Even after a Red Cross partner recognized them, not every Muslim volunteer was permitted entry.
In Louisiana in 2016, a sheriff ordered Islamic Relief volunteers to leave his parish; in Illinois, a mayor asked volunteers in 2015 to leave a flood zone after receiving anti-Muslim complaints…
… Khan said his staff receives active-shooter preparedness training every year from Virginia police as a counter to numerous death threats the group receives. “We have been threatened to be burned alive, bombed and more from the very beginning,” he said. “People have made false allegations against us and threatened our religious freedom, our religious obligation to feed our hungry neighbors.”
Khan prefers to focus on the Latino woman he met at the FBI’s victim support center after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. The woman’s son, a student, had missed a few days of his evening job due to trauma, and her family was not able to pay rent. When Khan handed her a cash card, she began crying and calling his team “angels.”
“It’s nice, mashaAllah [by the grace of God], when people aren’t trying to kill you and insult you,” he said. “We’re not angels, but it’s nice when they see we are trying to do the work of God.”