As news of the recent natural disaster in Oklahoma unfolded, many were surprised to hear about the influx of organizations contributing supplies and volunteers on the ground—in particular Muslim organizations. However, on the East Coast where communities united, rebuilt, and continue to rebuild in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Muslim relief organizations have become a staple on the scene.
Hurricane Sandy inflicted a great deal of damage in New York, New Jersey, and the nearby coastal areas, leaving countless neighborhoods and communities devastated in its path. Yet through the despair brought by the storm, we saw stories of selflessness and heroism that inspired our nation. American Muslim grassroots organizations that provided much needed help in post-Sandy aid work were among these stories, offering a narrative rarely discussed in mainstream discourse-- a narrative of Muslims as dedicated Americans helping others in a time of need.
The destruction of Hurricane Sandy was accompanied with exhaustive media reports of the post-relief efforts. Sandy represented the largest Atlantic hurricane on record and it affected over 8 million Americans. 170 people were killed in the path of the storm and many more were critically injured, and countless people lost their homes and were left without essential items needed for survival.
In this difficult time, grassroots organizations stepped in to help rebuild impacted areas; and in doing so rebuild the public narrative surrounding American Muslims. Groups such as Islamic Relief USA, the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA)-Relief, the Muslim American Society, the National Network of Arab American Professionals, along with individual efforts by American Muslims who started new groups specifically to bring aid to those in distress such as the Hurricane Sandy Yellow Team, spent countless dedicated hours in post-Sandy relief.
These Muslim organizations built multiple coalitions with government entities such as FEMA, and partnered with various faith groups of all denominations, to provide clean-up operations and aid services in several hard hit communities while also strengthening interfaith bonds.
One of the more impressive efforts based in the Muslim community came from ICNA-Relief, who set up a Muslim response to Hurricane Sandy Survivors-- a campaign which cost upward of one million dollars. The funds were used to distribute more than 9,000 meals to hurricane victims. Sleeping mats, school bags, and other essential goods were provided for anyone in need. ICNA-Relief was especially active in New Jersey, where their efforts were praised by Mayor Lorenzo Langford of Atlantic City. In New York's Brighton Beach ICNA-Relief held a health fair with assistance from FEMA, and they distributed food packages, winter clothing, blankets, and heaters to those trying to recover from the disaster. Free medical care was also provided to those in attendance. Those efforts in New York earned the organization recognition by channel NY 1 as "New Yorkers of the Week."
“They were the first people to show up on the scene in this neighborhood and give everybody help. They came, they gutted out the house as quickly as possible,” said Nicole Pogan, of Brighton Beach, in a report by channel NY1. “It was very emotional for me to go through what I went through, just like every other New Yorker that was hit by Sandy. And when the ICNA relief showed up, I was just so happy. They really helped me out a great deal.”
Kiran Siddiqi, a lawyer from New York, was one of the many American Muslims who had the opportunity to volunteer and help neighbors impacted by Sandy. “I volunteered because as a Muslim I felt a strong compulsion to help my neighbors who were in much need and distress,” said Siddiqi. “After a glimpse of the devastation my fellow neighbors were facing, I felt an obligation to help in any way that I could.”
The efforts by hundreds of volunteers and numerous organizations summed up an outpouring of support from the American Muslim community– a narrative that offers a compelling contrast to the usual portrayals we see on our televisions or hear from elected officials. At a time when anti-Muslim hysteria is at its peak, and well-funded Islamophobes are routinely questioning the loyalty and sincerity of American Muslims, efforts to help victims of natural disasters has overwhelmed many negative stereotypes. Relief work in the unfortunate aftermath of natural disasters have brought out the best in all Americans. We have accepted the challenge and united to offer a helping hand in a time of difficulty for many.
Helping each other out as Americans becomes especially important in light events such as the Boston Marathon Bombings which led to a flurry of reports of violent incidents on American Muslims as misguided 'revenge' attacks. Media pundits have also contributed to the amount of Islamophobia in mainstream discourse. Most notably among them was Fox News contributor Eric Rush, who, in reaction to the Boston Bombing, tweeted that all Muslims should be killed.
Needless to say, the kind of people who engage in acts of violence, or spew hatred on social media or television news, are not the same Americans who are rolling up their sleeves to help our nation recover and rebuild. And those Americans who are on the ground, have overcome stereotypes and differences to achieve a greater good through compassion. What the Muslim organizations and volunteers have taught us in the aftermath of Sandy and the Oklahoma tornado, is that along with restructuring many parts of our nation that have been devastated through storms, a new and more accurate depiction of American Muslims is being restructured as well. We can only pray that this re-built image, like our re-built streets, homes, neighborhoods, and lives, will be stronger than ever.
Fahad Hasnain is a Community Outreach volunteer with CAIR-NY. He is a graduate from the CUNY Queens College and currently leads an effort to promote voter awareness and voter registration drives at Islamic Centers across New York City. .