Many communities in New Jersey are still recovering from the damages caused by Hurricane Irene that struck states from North Carolina to Vermont on August 20. Wayne, a town in northeast New Jersey, is one such place where Anna Walker had been waiting for weeks for federal help to clean up her basement, which was flooded by water.
She was surprised to see a group of Muslim volunteers show up at her door and offer to help clean up her flooded basement. ICNA Relief, the only relief organization of the American Muslim community, sent the volunteers to help Anna, a wheelchair-bound senior. ICNA Relief had selected 40 homes in the community for clean up from a list published by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) that detailed those who had requested federal help.
ICNA Relief volunteers flushed out water from Anna’s basement, removed the damaged household items and sprayed pesticides – an exercise they repeated in all the homes they cleaned. Anna said she had always respected Muslims but her interaction with ICNA Relief volunteers further added to her positive image of them. She says she wouldn’t have cleaned and fixed her damaged basement in a “million years” if she had not received their help.
FEMA has been making efforts to reach out to all Irene victims who still need help. Besides deploying its own assets and resources, it has partnered with several community relief organizations, including ICNA Relief, to do the job.
“We were deliberate in selecting only those [from FEMA’s list] to help who were elderly or disabled, and were in no position to clean up their flood-damaged homes,” said Abdul Rauf, assistant director at ICNA Relief, who oversees the group’s 12 Halal food pantries and soup kitchens across the nation.
The group picked 40 homes in five cities and towns in New Jersey, including Wayne, Paterson, Lodi, Little Falls and Garfield, and started the clean up work on September 14. With the help of 42 volunteers—all Muslims from the local communities—ICNA Relief completed the task in almost four weeks.
Rauf, who traveled to NJ from Florida, says he opted to stay in local mosques in these towns instead of hotels during the clean-up operation. “I wanted to share our work with my fellows Muslims so that they may also come forward and participate more actively in the relief work,” he said. The organization has been courting Muslim youth in mosques and community centers to devote some time to volunteer work.
Shahid Farouqi, ICNA Relief’s director for strategic management, says his organization needs volunteers and more resources to expand its relief work in areas hit by natural disasters all over the US. “We need more volunteers and relief goods for our work, which is changing the public perception of Islam and Muslims.”
Rauf says relief and community work is the best way to improve Muslims’ image in the US. “It gives us a huge morale boost every time we receive compliments for our work and it encourages others to join our noble work,” he adds.