The brown bag presentations that Islamic Relief’s Public Affairs Division has conducted over the past several weeks have been really rewarding. In addition to learning about the various types of work other divisions of the organization do, it’s even more gratifying to inform people who visit IRUSA headquarters about our mission.
Several weeks ago, it was a United Nations delegation. And more recently, on Thursday, November 9, the visitors were a group of interfaith leaders from Indonesia.
The best part of the presentation came when we told them that Islamic Relief helps people of all faiths. Heck, we don’t even ask. They learned that even though Islamic Relief has a clear religious affiliation, its work and outreach aren’t just limited to helping Muslims. Like other humanitarian organizations with religious ties, such as Catholic Charities, Islamic Relief doesn’t use faith-based litmus tests when it comes to helping people who are suffering. Whether it’s because of a disaster that has upended their lives temporarily, or a more consistent or systemic problem like poverty or lack of advancement opportunities, Islamic Relief helps people of all faiths and cultures. The organization’s recent work in Puerto Rico and Mexico are clear examples of that outreach; neither of them could be considered Muslim-majority places.
As my colleague Jihad Saleh Williams explained, Islamic Relief facilitates its work through innovative programs and a loyal group of volunteers who can be dispatched, usually on short notice.
During the holiday season, regardless of whether it is an Islamic holiday or not, we are doing something. As in prior years, we distributed turkeys during Thanksgiving to needy families in several cities, including Bronx, N.Y. and San Bernardino, California. I even got to participate in the local one in Alexandria, Va., to help accommodate the kind folks from a few media outlets that expressed interest in covering it.
This past fall, we held our annual Qurbani drive, where people help provide 80,000 pounds of high-quality halal meat to families who otherwise would lack access to it. This project take place in more than 30 countries.
Islamic Relief USA, the Indonesian group was told, has another important distinction. We are the first and only Muslim organization that has a formal partnership with the American Red Cross.
As explained to the delegation, food security and helping the working-poor families are among the largest goals of Islamic Relief USA.
We went on to explain the exemplary work we do in disaster relief, which again has often taken place in states where Muslim populations are a smidgen at best.
It didn’t take long before the Indonesian officials asked about what we are doing to help segments of the population that have been persecuted or marginalized. One of the guests pointed out that Indonesia is home to thousands of refugees, including minority Shias and young girls, some of whom have been forced into prostitution.
The guests asked what Islamic Relief is doing about this. It was one of those questions that I felt needed to be asked, even if I knew the answer is one they’d probably wished was different.
Still, there was little choice but to explain the facts. And the fact is that Islamic Relief is in a somewhat challenging position in that even though they work in nations often marred by conflicts of various kinds, it cannot side with any particular groups. Part of the reason is because taking sides can foment resentment from leaders of those nations, damaging relationships and preventing help from being distributed in the future.
Other times, the organization does wish to do more to help people, such as refugees. However, due to government policies or limited capacity, even the best-run non-governmental organizations can feel hamstrung.
That’s just the reality. Despite the limitations, it doesn’t mean the work we do isn’t valued. It almost always is. What’s clear though is that the work is never complete. There’s always someone who’s suffering, who is in need. Even if we can’t get to all of them, we try to get to as many of them.
Skeptics may view the effort as being insufficient. I would say we’re doing the best we can. That’s the reality.