When the news of a disaster strikes, what is your first reaction?
Do I know anyone there? Does anyone I know know anyone there? Could this happen to me?
Now, Facebook allows you to mark yourself “safe” in the event of a disaster. It’s a new feature that adds updates to your feed that let you know (rather casually) that your friends are okay while simultaneously sparking an eerie realization: This could happen to me.
When I joined the staff of Islamic Relief USA, the way I reacted to disasters changed. I learned that when I heard the news of a disaster, I would put aside my other tasks and focus on the emergency: talking points for fundraisers, video scripts, emails. A landing page where people can go to donate to help those affected by the flood, the earthquake, the fire. Now, when a disaster strikes, I think one thing: work. And action is truly the best remedy to feeling helpless.
Just as I think ‘work’ when disaster strikes, IRUSA’s Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) thinks ‘move‘. Staff and volunteers are deployed immediately and rush to the aid of survivors, partnering with organizations like the American Red Cross. They are known as “the blue shirts,” and their reputation precedes them. They are always early, efficient, and work long and hard hours. And many of them are young, 20-somethings, choosing to spend their time rescuing others.
Over the past couple months, devastating disasters have struck here at home: floods in Louisiana and wildfires in California. In answering their calls for help, youth led the way. Below are some of their personal reflections on their experiences in the field.
Faran Kharal, Disaster Response Coordinator for Islamic Relief USA
We arrived an hour before doors opened at the Local Assistance Center (LAC), and began to set up our table alongside the American Red Cross and Team Rubicon. Hani and I familiarized ourselves with the different government agencies and NGOs that had assembled to help the people who had been affected by the Sand Fire. Initially, our booth was lost in a sea of several organizations, and since we were the furthest away from the main entrance some folks had trouble finding us and even when they did, many did not know what we could do for them.
Islamic Relief USA was providing immediate financial assistance to those that had been affected. Almost 17 people had their homes completely burnt to the ground with several others having been affected in various capacities. When we got there we had been provided with a list of addresses that had been verified to be affected. When clients arrived it was a simple matter of comparing their identification with the address that we had in our database to determine the eligibility of our clients to receive the aid. We began to distribute cash gift cards to people who came and explained their situation to us. I recall one family had their refrigerator destroyed and needed immediate assistance to buy food. Others had trouble paying for the hotel rooms they had been staying in since being evacuated while others needed to fix portions of their home so that they could live there again.
On Friday, people were not sure what Islamic Relief USA could do for them? Were we only offering aid to Muslims, were we providing spiritual care etc, these questions remained on the minds of several people who walked inside. However the picture changed entirely on Saturday and Monday when people began coming to our table in droves. Telling us that they had been strongly recommended to come see us by everyone they met. Soon we began to listen to the incredible stories that people were sharing about their vivid experiences with the fire and how many of them stood helpless and watched their houses engulfed by the flames. I will never forget one of the people that I met at the LAC, an older lady arrived with her daughter and sat infront of our table. She was sad like the other families but there was something different about this woman as she was particularly heart broken. I came to realize that her husband had been the sole fatality of this fire. She painted a picture for me and I imagined her words form images in my head as she spent thirty hours packing franticly in preparation for the evacuation. For only a moment she decided to sleep out of exhaustion leaving her husband to carry on the work. An hour and a half later she woke up and saw complete darkness outside her window, this alarmed her because it was only mid-day. She rushed outside to see a pillar of smoke rushing towards her house and some sparks already making their way to the kitchen. She ran to her husband and alerted him about what was going on. The husband rushed to the backyard to grab the car which was packed with the materials the family planned to evacuate with. She ran outside to secure some of the animals they had on the front yard. It was then a fire fighter came and told her, “Ma’m we both have to leave RIGHT AWAY! If we do not we will die”, screaming for her husband she went with the firefighter hoping her husband had driven out already. In the chaos and confusion she was confident that the husband had already made his way down the road and tried to find him. When she could not she went to the fire station and could not find him their either. She desperately tried calling him to no avail. She would later come to know that her husband never made it out from their property and perished in his car. I still remember the tears in her eyes as she painfully recounted the story and thanks us for doing all that we could to help her. They even took down our information and told us that when they were back on their feet they would make a donation towards Islamic Relief USA.
Kayla Botelho, Disaster Response Team Volunteer
In the heart of rural Louisiana, I sat with my colleague in a Red Cross car mapping out the next neighborhood we would assess for flood damage. In that time, a woman approached our car and tapped on the window. As a hijabi my natural reaction was fear, I had gotten used to hateful people and I expected nothing less from this stranger. I rolled down my window just enough to hear her but high enough that my suspicion of her was clear. She opened her mouth and said “I just wanted to thank you for being here,” it was the first of many times that I would be thanked by the flood victims of Louisiana. Volunteering for Islamic Relief allowed me to abandon the labels of terrorist, extremist or oppressed woman and embrace the symbols of aid, rescue and fellow human. The Disaster Relief Team of Islamic Relief not only provides an essential service to victims of disasters, it helps to influence the hearts and minds of the communities they come into contact with. Their work changes public rhetoric from hatefulness to gratitude and I couldn’t be more proud to serve an organization with such a profound impact.
Arige El-Naser, Disaster Response Team Volunteer
I never knew ten days could feel like a month. As I flew into the clouds on my way from PDX to Baton Rouge I wondered what lay ahead, trying to prepare mentally for what I might encounter. Could I imagine myself in their shoes? Of course not; my brain wouldn’t fathom the idea. Such loss is something I have never experienced, at least not in such a major way. Thank God.
When I landed in Baton Rouge after a 5 hour flight I was picked up by two strangers, their only identifying mark the royal blue Islamic Relief t-shirts they wore. We drove through dark, empty streets mostly in silence. They explained that a 10:00pm curfew was in effect because of an increase in looting incidents. Once we arrived at the mosque ( my home for 10 days) I entered slowly, attempting not to wake any of the other volunteers or flood victims who were already sleeping. Eventually I found a pillow and blanket that my teammates had left for me and tried to get some sleep, knowing there was a long physical and emotional journey to come.
After a couple of hours spent tossing and turning, I finally fell asleep in the small hours of the morning only to be woken by the call to prayer. I got up, got dressed, met my teammates, and started my first day. Each team was assigned to drive through certain parts of the disaster zone to asses the damage to each home in that zone. At first I did not see any signs of flooding then slowly I began to notice piles of furniture in front lawns . I saw people throwing things adding to the piles. Driving through street after street the piles became a common scene to distinguish the flood-devastated areas from the relatively untouched ones. Both to my right and left appeared piles of clothing, furniture, washers, dryers, kids’ toys, TVs, carpet, hardwood floors, drywall, decoration and anything else a house might hold. I wondered, what could be left inside? At first I left it to my imagination, assuming these people must have been able to salvage at least some of their belongings. “No way the water touched everything.” Then I took a closer look, getting a quick glance into a home through an open door as we drove past, seeing the reality of it. The houses were stripped down to the bone, only the frame left standing. That was when it really hit me, my heart sinking a little deeper with each open door we drove past. The people of this neighborhood had lost EVERYTHING.
I could not help but think about my parents, who had just bought a house 6 months ago. They worked tirelessly to reach this goal and are still elated with their accomplishment, still committing endless hours to repairs and working in the yard make it home. What if??? What if that were my parents’ house? I couldn’t bring myself to finish the thought. But the real victims of this flood did not have that luxury, to to push aside such images because they are more than thoughts; they are reality. Unable to fully understand what they were going through, I could only have compassion, wishing I could do more.
We kept driving, documenting conditions house-by-house, looking for a muddy water line recording over and over again (Destroyed: water line above 36’ in essential living space). We occasionally saw water lines up to 4 or 5 feet, and cars that had been fully submerged in the flooding, now sitting useless wherever the water had dropped them. While some people had already begun gutting their houses, others could not yet bring themselves to undertake the task. Going into the second week after the flood, some houses still had about a foot of water in them. The stench of swamp water was unbearable, as dead fish and other animals floated in the stagnant water.
Now I began to understand the true meaning of “disaster”: entire neighborhoods marked as destroyed, no salvaging anything. Driving from neighborhood to neighborhood, we witnessed an array of emotions in the people who had once called this place home. Some spirits were down, people knowing they had lost their life’s work in minutes. Others were resilient, and determined to rebuild. We saw tears and smiles, neighbors working as a community fighting the loss together, barbequing, with music playing in the background and hope in people’s eyes. Together they worked on each house. We met other volunteers and aid workers from out of town who had come to help, and locals who were minimally affected asking how they could assist their neighbors. One man we asked about the flooding smiled and said said “I am good, I am alive, my family is alive. I couldn’t ask for more. Stuff is just stuff; it can be replaced.” Such interactions made my deployment in Baton Rouge by far 10 of the Most meaningful days in my life thus far. While there, I met team members that quickly became like family. We were welcomed by the Red Cross with open arms. Seeing the hope and resilience of the people of Baton Rouge, combined with that famous southern hospitality even during the roughest of times, is an experience incomparable to any other. Thank you IR for allowing me the honor of being part of this team and part of this experience.
Nadeen Ibrahim, Disaster Response Team Volunteer
As I continue to reflect on my service deployment to Baton Rouge, Louisiana to assist with the flood relief, I am compelled to share the stories that I have been entrusted with, and the very visible, clear image I saw of the damage. Upon arriving to Baton Rouge, I was welcomed by a group of young Muslim Americans that were just committed as I was to serve the Baton Rouge community. We were all volunteering under Islamic Relief USA with the American Red Cross. I was welcomed into the American Red Cross with ‘thank yous,’ countless smiles, hugs, and selfies. I felt at home. I felt welcomed. And, for the first time in a long time, as a Muslim American, I felt that my presence was valued and that I belonged.
At this point, it was about 3 hours since I had landed, and we were all tasked with documenting the damage in each of the neighborhoods that had experienced flooding. As we drove past each home, I was shocked, heartbroken at the damage. Nearly every 20 feet we drove, we saw a pile of wood, toys, sheet rock, heirlooms, albums, and furniture. To us, it was a clear indication of damage due to flooding. To the homeowners, it was devastation – their life’s earnings, moments, and investment lost in a matter of minutes. In fact, one homeowner, in the presence of his children and grandchildren, cried as he described the 47 years of countless hours and hard work him and his wife spent to build their home only to have it lost in a matter of minutes. In the midst of this and one of the remarkable aspects of the people of Louisiana, I witnessed the community’s commitment to resiliency, optimism, and collaboration. I saw neighbors helping neighbors. I saw the BBQ smoke from grills rise as community members enjoyed a break over some burgers before going back to work in gutting their homes. This hope and resiliency is beyond captivating, and I have yet to explain its source.
For the next several days, we drove down every street, through every neighborhood documenting the damage. Honestly, after a couple of days with having documented damage for more than 600 homes, I became desensitized to the situation, the damage. It was during this time that I saw the photos of Omran – a Syrian toddler covered in blood and dirt from an airstrike that struck his home. As he sat in the ambulance, he was silent, but his pose and facial expression spoke of the trauma he has been through, and how the ‘norm’ of bombs and airstrikes was just another day in Syria. And, with that I thought of the global community and how we have become desensitized to the violations of human rights and home destruction in Syria. Quickly, I was reminded of the need to be an ally, to be active, and to be grateful. I was reminded of how privileged and grateful I am to go home every night to my family knowing that I am not at the risk of a flood or airstrike.
I am filled with gratitude for the privileges I have, for being welcomed into the Louisiana community (yet again), to serve alongside community members from around the nation, and to be entrusted with the stories of many.
Please continue to keep the people of Louisiana in your thoughts and/or prayers as the road to recovery is a long one with a need for resources (donate to American Red Cross/Islamic Relief USA). And, as always, keep those oppressed in your thoughts and/or prayers – the road to global equity and justice is a long one with a need for a collective community effort.