Post Sandy, Muslims are Seen Through a Different Lens

Voices of New York|  December 3, 2012
By Gabrielle Alfiero
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Abdulrauf Khan, 40, warns a group of volunteers to avoid stepping on errant nails in the kitchen of a small home on Brighton 8 Street in Brighton Beach. He’s surrounded by ripped up floorboards and industrial trash bags full of debris. His black felt hat is speckled with white dust.

During Hurricane Sandy, the basement and first floor of this home filled with water. Now the house is being gutted while the residents, a family of five, are in a shelter.

Khan is the assistant director of disaster relief for the Islamic Circle of North America Relief USA, a nonprofit relief and social services organization with headquarters in Jamaica, Queens. The responsibility to help those in need is informed by the Islamic faith, Khan says.

According to ICNA, approximately 300,000 of those affected by Hurricane Sandy are Muslims, but Khan stresses that anyone in need can benefit from ICNA Relief efforts.

“This is part of our religion,” Khan says. “When you help, it is regardless of any ethnicity, any race, any religion. That’s our mission.”

Mucahit Bilici, assistant professor of sociology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, says the Muslim community’s call to service comes from humanitarian as well as religious concerns.

“Muslims are so misrepresented in popular culture that it becomes incumbent upon them to prove that they care, that they are human beings,” Bilici says.

ICNA Relief set up a drop-in station in front of Masjid Omar mosque on Neptune Avenue. Women in hijabs wait in line behind young people in sweatpants and jeans to receive blankets and portable heaters, or to see Dr. Batool Hussaini, who takes vitals and provides over-the-counter medication. Volunteers translate FEMA applications into Urdu and Punjabi.

Rafael Brenes, 51, is waiting for a heater for his son’s room. His nearby home is still without heat.

“Night times get real cold,” Brenes says. “My son has to sleep with all his clothes on.”

The Arab American Association of New York, a nonprofit social service and advocacy group in Bay Ridge, has also been active in hurricane relief. Linda Sarsour, 32, executive director of AAANY, says the organization has received food and clothing donations and delivered hot meals.

Sarsour says her faith urges her to serve those in need, but service also provides an opportunity to engage with people who know little about Islam, a concept that Muslims call Dawah.

“This is our way of not necessarily telling people to become Muslim, but for people to interact with Islamic faith from a place of service,” Sarsour says.

Days after Hurricane Sandy left more than 8 million people without power, AAANY staff knocked on doors to deliver pizza in the Midland Beach neighborhood in Staten Island.

At one apartment, an older woman cracked open her door to find Sarsour standing on the other side, wearing a blue hijab and holding a pizza delivery box. Sarsour asked if she was hungry, and the woman opened the door a little wider.

The woman immediately said, “‘I didn’t know. I should have asked more questions.’”

It took Sarsour a minute to understand what the woman meant.  Two years earlier, a Muslim group sought to open a mosque in the same neighborhood. Some residents vehemently opposed the mosque, including the woman to whom Sarsour was offering a pizza.

“This was her first opportunity to see people like me through a different lens,” Sarsour says. “We were seen as people coming to provide help. We were seen as New Yorkers.”

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