CHICAGO: Major disasters strike communities across the US each year, including floods, hurricanes, tornadoes and wildfires. But while the aid organizations that respond to them are often praised for their vital work, what is less-often highlighted is fact that many Muslims and Arabs are among the dedicated teams that help to provide relief to victims, in partnership with government agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency and aid organizations such the Red Cross.
The Islamic Center of North America Relief is one of the largest Muslims and Arab relief organizations in the US. It was founded in 1968 and has been working since then to provide food, clothing, shelter and medical care to the victims of disasters, officials from the organization told Arab News.
It is now works in partnership with FEMA to support relief efforts, and was part of the responses to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington in 2001, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and most recently the floods in Illinois in July this year that damaged more than 35,000 homes.
The majority of the people who benefit from the aid provided by the ICNA Relief are not Muslim or Arab, and officials from the organization said this is helping to counter the persistent, inaccurate and negative stereotypes that continue to fuel anti-Muslim and anti-Arab racism.
“For us, these stereotypes actually motivate us — at least, me,” Mohammed Dahsheh, ICNA Relief’s assistant director of disaster relief services, told Arab News. “They really motivate me because I know I am on a mission to show my faith, because everything in my faith is positive.
“Really, it doesn’t ask me to hurt anybody. This is our mission: To help as many people, no matter where they are from or what their color is, whatever their nationality, race or religion. It doesn’t matter. We are all humans and we all need help sometimes and we all deserve that help, whoever we may be or wherever we may be from.
“It doesn’t matter where they are from. They are human, they deserve to have dignity, even if they are going through challenging times. We all go through challenges in our life, we all go through difficulties, it doesn’t matter who we are or where we are from.”
Describing the achievements of the Muslim and Arab Americans who have worked for the organization over the years, Abdulrauf Khan, ICNA Relief’s chief commercial officer, said they have helped more than 5.2 million Americans of 70 national origins in 42 states through their work, which includes 26 shelters for women, 58 food pantries, eight medical centers, 27 refugee resource centers, and four mobile medical clinics deployed in crisis zones.
“Our goal is whomever comes to our door, we serve them” he said. “It’s not about ethnicity, race or where you are from, what language you speak or how you get here, legal or not legal. We just serve them because, first of all, being a Muslim, it is our responsibility to help our fellow Americans, our fellow neighbors. We do it because it is our responsibility.
“That’s why we are so very careful of what we do and how we do it, because people are looking at us as a representation of Islam, a person who has to represent Islam in a very positive way. So we are very careful, very mindful of people around us, how we do it, the way we do it, to present it in a way that people accept it.”
Khan agreed with his colleague that such efforts have a direct effect in helping to debunk negative stereotypes, given his own observations of Muslims and Arabs helping Americans in need.
“Our services are not just for Muslims only,” he said. “Whoever comes, we welcome them. We don’t force them to become Muslims. We don’t even tell them about Islam. We just do what we do, and if they like what we do and they like where we are doing it and how we are doing it … they like to be part of us.”
What American see when they encounter the organization’s workers is very different from what they might have heard about Muslims and Arabs, he added, and this helps to challenge the stereotypes that fuel discrimination.
As schools across the country reopen after the summer break, another example of the work of ICNA Relief is the distribution of more than 1 million backpacks filled with school supplies for American children.
And after several years of lobbying by the organization, the US Department of Agriculture, which oversees the approval and distribution of foodstuffs during emergencies recently gave the green light the inclusion of Halal foods in relief packages.
“When it comes to community engagement and being within the community, all of our services within ICNA Relief are domestic services,” Dahsheh said.
“So everything that we provide, any service we provide, is here in the United States of America, 42 states across the nation with these food pantries, with the different services and the programs we have.
“We try to reach those vulnerable communities that really need the support, that are having challenging times. ICNA Relief, its mission is really just to alleviate human suffering with compassionate services that we provide around the country.”
Both Khan and Dahsheh are immigrants. Khan came from Pakistan, while Dahsheh was born in Lebanon to Palestinian refugee parents who came to America when he was an infant. Both said they consider America their home but are very proud of their heritage, their culture and their family traditions.
“Now we are here,” said Khan. “Now, our responsibility is to take care of people, those who are not able to take care of themselves. We are at this point now, have been serving millions and millions of people every year.
“We want to make an impact on people who are not able to at least take care of themselves. We give them a helping hand and help them to become self-sufficient as early as possible.”
Khan and Dahsheh said ICNA Relief is a donation-driven organization and only 7 percent of the money it receives is used to fund administrative costs, with the remaining 93 percent directly funding relief efforts.
“We are at the table,” Khan said. “It took us 30 or 40 years, but we are here.”
Khan and Dahsheh were speaking during an appearance on The Ray Hanania Radio Show, which was broadcast on Sept. 13, 2023, on the US Arab Radio network on WNZK AM 690 radio in Detroit and WDMV AM 700 Radio in Washington D.C.
You can listen to the radio show’s podcast by visiting ArabNews.com/rayradioshow.