Floodwaters are slowly receding in Houston, but many freeways and neighborhoods near dams and reservoirs are still under water, meaning thousands of flood victims are still in need of shelter.
Several mosques have opened their doors to flood victims, providing shelter and donations.
For 19-year-old Sara Al Azaat, who is from Saudi Arabia, passing the time at the shelter has not been easy. She has only been in Houston for four months.
“We’ve never had any experience before ... with any kind of storm (like that) from where I came from,” Al Azaat said. “We didn’t take it that seriously.”
She said the flooding has been “a life-changing experience” for her.
Forced to evacuate
Al Azaat and her family were forced to evacuate their neighborhood in west Houston. The mosque they are sheltering in is part of the Islamic Society of Greater Houston.
Al Azaat’s mother is originally from Indonesia and her father is from Syria. Al Azaat’s cousins, who live in the same apartment complex as her family, also are at the mosque.
While the younger children play with toys that have been donated to the mosque, the adults say they are anxious to return to their homes. But no one knows when the mandatory evacuation order will be lifted for their neighborhood.
There are only a couple of families at this shelter, mainly because some volunteers at the mosque have taken flood victims into their own homes.
“We were really amazed,” IIyas Choudry, who is originally from Pakistan, said of the volunteers who took people into their own homes. “We were really touched by that. There’s a lot of feeling of brotherhood, sisterhood among the community. I never knew that these things can happen. A calamity [can] bring the whole community together.”
People from this community on the west side of Houston, where there was no flood damage, have been coming to this shelter to donate items, such as sheets and blankets, and even toys. For some people, it is the first time they have gone inside a mosque.
“I have never been inside a mosque. I was a bit apprehensive about which door to go into. And a young lady met me in the parking lot and led me,” said Gina Mandell, a volunteer who stopped by to see if the mosque was still accepting donations.
‘Purely on basis of humanity’
Choudry said, “People of all faiths, they have come together.
“They’re working purely on the basis of humanity. Nothing else. Just human beings helping each other. So this is really heartwarming,” he said, adding, “and then we learn from different people because everyone has different backgrounds, different thought processes and we’ve learned a lot through this.”
Mandell’s visit to the mosque-turned-shelter also helped her dispel certain assumptions.
“They’re a lot warmer than I expected on the males. The females I’ve always expected kindness and warmness, but sometimes I tend to shy away from Muslim men because I don’t know the traditions and what I should do correctly,” she said.
Choudry said he also saw it as a learning experience.
“They are human. They’re our friends and they want to help the humanity without any discrimination without any fear, nothing. They just want to help people,” he said.
Al Azaat said her experience at the mosque shelter was nothing like the anti-Muslim rhetoric she has seen on the news.
Non-Muslims are “coming and donating. It made me have a different perspective about the U.S.,” she said.
Al Azaat and her cousin said they are grateful and appreciate the help of strangers.
Fourteen-year-old Joud Al Azaat said, “I’m more than thankful for them,” of the non-Muslims who came to the mosque to donate.
The volunteers said breaking down barriers and working together will make the community stronger as they rebuild the city after the flood.