When Hurricane Irma battered the Florida Coast, volunteers of the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) arranged shelter.
After it passed, they provided relief — from flood-damaged homes in Naples to uprooted tree trunk clearings in Cooper City, Florida.
Abdulrauf Khan, a Pakistani immigrant and assistant executive director at ICNA Relief USA — a network of disaster relief and social services — has been through all of it. Anytime a natural calamity strikes, he’s present.
Khan describes his motives as two-fold: a desire to assist his neighbors, while empowering his three children.
“I have a son who is 18 years old,” he begins to recount a vivid memory. “He asked me five years ago, ‘Dad, what have you done for this country?’”
It’s a simple question that would provide clarity to Khan’s mission.
“We have to work and we have to make sure our children feel that ownership of the country,” he said. “We have to give back.”
‘A basic part of the religion’
From Hurricanes Harvey to Irma, there are many Texans who embrace the work of Muslim relief volunteers, and select others who are hesitant to grant their trust, based solely on religion. But regardless of their reception, ICNA answers the call to assist, and changes some minds in the process.
“Charity is a big part of Islam, and giving back to the community is a big part of Islam,” says Aqsa Cheema, administrative coordinator for ICNA Relief South Florida.
Cheema, 22, a generation Pakistani-American who assisted with Irma relief, says she has been in the habit of giving back since she was a kid, attending mosque.
“You go along with it, and you get the chance to distribute food and do things that can benefit the community,” she says. “That's just a basic part of the religion.”
Open hearts, open arms
Earlier in the week, as Irma’s ruthless winds pounded the state indiscriminately, ICNA facilitated shelter for Floridians — any and all Floridians — in a Boca Raton-based Islamic Center.
Some of their guests said they had never met a Muslim.
“It was their first experience coming to an Islamic Center,” Khan said. “They felt like, ‘this is what we feel like when we go to church, when we go to synagogue’” — welcome, and at home.
Cheema, who is studying to be a social worker, describes her work as enriching, but never complete.
“That lack of true fulfillment is what keeps me going,” she says.
“I accept the fact that I can't help everyone, but maybe if I help one person, and someone sees me helping that person, they will be like, ‘Hey, you know what? It felt nice to bring a smile on a person’s face. I can help them too.’”