When a group of 13 volunteers entered Purnell Swett High School in Pembroke on Oct. 14, people openly stared at the words on their blue vests: “Islamic Relief.”
The day before, they’d gotten a call from Hani Hamwi, 29, disaster response team manager at Islamic Relief USA, the largest Muslim charity in America. Founded in 1993, it’s an affiliate of Islamic Relief Worldwide, an international organization that provides disaster aid and development assistance.
Most of the team members are in their 20s. For many, this was their first “disaster deployment.” Several had recently graduated from college; one is a teacher and another is an IT consultant. One is studying for the entrance exam for law school.
On Friday, they flew to North Carolina from California, Oregon, Texas, Washington, D.C., and Florida to help Hurricane Matthew victims in eastern parts of the state. When they entered Purnell Swett, a rural high school that had been transformed into a shelter for more than 800 people displaced from their homes by flooding, some stared and asked them questions.
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Volunteers from the charity have grown used to the stares. As they visit areas to serve in the months leading up to the 2016 election, they have found themselves thrust into the role of unofficial ambassadors for their faith.
“Our faith tells us to want for your brother what you want for yourself,” Hamwi said. “Before there was a negative rhetoric about Muslims, Islamic Relief was working in communities, training people to respond to disasters. That’s the focus of our work. We’ve been doing this for a long time.”
Some people ask Hamwi if the volunteer work he leads is just a publicity stunt. Others hurl insults and racial slurs online. But the team sees its service as an opportunity to combat people’s perception of Muslims.
“I think people find that there is common ground between us, way more than they thought,” said Nazreena Jaffry, 28, a volunteer from California.
At Purnell Swett, some shelter residents and local volunteers told the Islamic Relief team that they had never met Muslims before. The majority of them were welcoming, thanking the team for its service.
“We tried to be emotionally there for them,” said Unis Barakat, 22, a volunteer from California.
Many of the shelter’s inhabitants had been rescued from their rooftops. Nearby streets remained underwater. The team saw dead fish piled high in people’s yards and watched people wade through the murky brown water to their houses, belongings in tow.
Arige El-Naser, 27, served on a deployment to Louisiana, which was hit by devastating floods in August. Still, she was unprepared for what she saw in North Carolina.
“The level of damage ... though it was just as great as in Louisiana, this was different,” El-Naser said. “I don’t think you get used to seeing how much damage disasters create. The meaning of the word ‘disaster,’ I don’t think I understood it until I saw these type of areas and the impact it has on so many lives.”
Many restrooms at restaurants in Pembroke were out of order because of the flooding.
“I will not take being able to flush a toilet for granted again,” said Nasima Chowdhury, 50, a special education teacher and Islamic Relief volunteer.
The first night the volunteers arrived, they slept side-by-side with shelter inhabitants in a dark room filled with people. Over the next week, they sorted donations of food and clothing and cleaned the school’s wrestling room so that it could be converted into a day care center.Volunteers danced and played games with children while their parents sought help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and went to their homes to assess the damage. Every morning when they arrived at the shelter, parents would be lined up with their children, already waiting.
After one mother dropped her two sons off, one of them asked if she was leaving to return to their house, Chowdhury said. “There is no more home,” his brother quietly replied.
“Many parents had to explain to their children that they didn’t have homes anymore,” Chowdhury said.
During their 10-day visit to North Carolina, the Islamic Relief volunteers say they received words of thanks from countless hurricane victims, local residents and other volunteers for their efforts.
On Oct. 20, they visited a local mosque to hand out water bottles and hygiene kits. One woman told them, “I really appreciate everything you guys have done, because there are people out there who don’t know who you are and don’t care about it ... You can tell the love and care you have for humankind.”
This year, Islamic Relief volunteers have responded to eight domestic disasters, including floods in Louisiana and Texas, tornadoes in Oklahoma, wildfires in Washington and water contamination in Michigan. They have not always been welcome in the areas they serve. In some cases, they have been told to leave and threatened with arrest.
One Red Cross volunteer in North Carolina was surprised after meeting the team.
“He told us we’d changed his perspective on Muslims,” Chowdhury said. “But then he said, ‘It’s sad that it takes a disaster to bring us together.’”
Madison Iszler: 919-836-4952; @madisoniszler