Islamic Relief USA’s Partnership Gala Celebrates the Work of Refugee Resettlement Agency Partners

by: Syed Hassan

Islamic Relief USA held its 6th annual Partnership Gala on Wednesday, December 7th, an event that served as an opportunity to thank the many refugee resettlement organizations it has collaborated with over the past year. 

“We’re very blessed to bring you all here together,” said Christina Tobias Nahi, director of IRUSA’s Public Affairs and Research Advocacy Department. “We wanted to honor [the agencies] for the very difficult work they do. It is a dedication to those on the front lines.”

She mentioned a successful program at the University of Denver, where students in hospitality learn to work with immigrants and refugees to obtain culinary skills for employment. She was at the Tripartite convening showing other governments how the US does resettlement, and they got to do a cooking class and then share a meal.

After the government of Afghanistan fell in August 2021, thousands of people came to the US. It was during this time that the federal government, together with Church World Service, approached IRUSA in hopes of alleviating the pending refugee crisis. In total, IRUSA worked with some 35 refugee resettlement agencies across the country. 

Of them, eight of them were recognized for their outstanding service: Afghan American Women’s Association, Dar-al-Hijra Islamic center, Muslim Association of Virginia, Afghan Refugee Crisis Committee, Refugee Relief Network, Khan Ohana Foundation, Refugee Enrichment and Development Association, and Hanan Refugee Relief Group.

Hanan Refugee Relief Group, based in Milwaukee, was named resettlement partner of the year. Its founder, Sheila Badwan, said the agency has helped welcome thousands of vulnerable individuals, providing them with housing, job placement, food, clothing, and English-speaking classes. 

 “I dedicate this award to the refugees. All refugees seek a safe environment for their families.”

Sam Worthington, former chief executive officer of InterAction, received this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award. He praised the guests for helping build bridges across different faith groups. 

“You are all examples of what it means to be humanitarians,” he said, adding that they have embraced the concept that no one should be marginalized. “We cannot do it alone. If we stand together, we can do some pretty amazing things.”

During the event, Sara Abou Rashad, a young poet who came to the United States at age 13 after living in a sprawling Palestinian camp in Syria, dazzled the crowd with poems focusing on identity and how that, while she is a Muslim, she’s just like any other human being. 

“I brush my teeth, I sleep, I cry, I’m afraid of which you’re afraid of….,” read one snippet of the poem. 

“I’m a woman of faith, a citizen, not a suspect,” she added. “I drop poems, not bombs.” 

Sharif Aly, chief executive officer of IRUSA, said it was only a few years ago the organization dreamed of becoming a refugee resettlement agency, but had to essentially put the plans on hold because of “political challenges.” However, the organization continued to persevere, strengthening its social service programs focusing on food security, health-care access and refugee resettlement. The last item served as “a bridge to the organization’s international programs,” he said. 

Aly added that the refugee resettlement partners quickly mobilized to help after the federal government reached out to IRUSA during the Afghan refugee crisis. 

“This wouldn’t have taken place if it wasn’t for our partners. I’m really excited about the future. There’s a lot of difficulty we need to alleviate.” 

Aly added that some 100 million people around the world are in dire need of help. It is our goal to provide them with a home, comfort, and peace.

Lawrence Barlett, director of Refugee Admissions at the State Department, said he hopes to see the federal refugee acceptance program take 125,000 people by fiscal year 2024. That number has long been an annual target under the current administration. However, the program’s infrastructure had been somewhat decimated over the past several years and they’re still rebuilding it. 

Bartlett described refugees as a precious commodity to whom assistance is provided, enabling them to find jobs, obtain an education, and start families.

“We offer them a helping hand. The success of a refugee is one who makes this opportunity amazing. Watch in awe of what they become.”

Aseel Elborno, IRUSA’s advocacy campaigns specialist, said the number of organization advocates has skyrocketed from 40 to 800 this year. Many of the campaigns focused on helping refugees, with advocates writing letters to members of Congress or engaging through social media.

Anwar Khan, president of IRUSA, said the organization does more than just interfaith work. He said simply, “We just do our work.” Society has got to stop determining who is, and isn’t, deserving of help, he said.

“I don’t know who thinks God made someone legal or illegal.” 

Khan added that even in the darkest times, “we can be amazing…I’m thankful to be with you in this amazing city in this amazing country. Our local partners couldn’t do our work if the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration of the State Department didn’t allow [refugees] in the country.” 

Khan described the gala as a family gathering, something there needs to be more of between different groups. 

“We need to sit at the table and break bread…Thank you all for sharing how amazing the US is. We are your partners and we love you.”

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