A few years ago, in Ramadan of 2006 actually, the University of Houston MSA had an iftaar scheduled but due to heavy rains it was canceled. The problem was that the food was already ordered and on its way to the campus. A few brothers and sisters thought of a great idea; why not deliver this food to the refugees who came to Houston, Texas from Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Somalia, and other troubled regions of the world?
In a few minutes the decision was made, and the guys and gals brought their cars, trucks, and SUVs and loaded up the food and were on their way to where the refugees were lived. I was fortunate enough to be with this group of young brothers and sisters.
Fast forward a few years. This group of students evolved into a separate organization, called Al Amaanah, that is now recognized for its charity work from the YMCA, Interfaith Alliance, Catholic Charities, the Houston Independent School District, The Refugee Consortium of Houston, the Multi Ethnic Community Center, and even Rice University.
MuslimMatters would like to thank Ghulam and his exceptional team of volunteers by conferring upon them our Positively Muslim in the West Award (you also might want to congratulate him for his graduation from UH last December and his Nikkah a few weeks ago….Congrats Ghulam and Sr. Aisha).
Here is a short questionnaire that we sent to Ghulam and his team to answer:
1. What do you think are the most misunderstood issues or little known facts about the plight of refugees in Houston?
The situation of refugees is rather hidden from the masses. These people come to the US after seeing their homes destroyed and losing their families, and are forced to completely rebuild their lives from scratch in a matter of months. The financial, social, emotional, and educational aspects are often overlooked more than any other, yet are key to the refugees' survival and success in their new lives.
With regard to finances, the refugees come to the US with literally only the clothes on their backs. They are given four months of governmental rent assistance, and a small monthly allowance that is barely enough to provide food. Resettlement agencies help them initiate food stamps, Medicaid, and social security, but other than that, they are expected to be completely independent at the end of 120 days. The agencies provide ESL classes, but more often than not, the refugees lack transportation to and from the classes and thus are unable to benefit. Many of us do not realize the importance of language as a means of financial independence. Simply put, if one cannot communicate enough to find a job, how can one reach self sufficiency?
In the social sector, many families are isolated from their surroundings. They are housed in very rough and unsafe parts of town. A large number of them do not realize that there are Muslims and masājid in the city. They must be sought out and integrated into the community; otherwise, they are lost in the worst of neighborhoods and worst of crowds. Most of the Muslim refugees coming here are from Iraq, and it is crucial to help them feel at home in their own communities before they can be brought into the prevailing American culture.
Unfortunately, education has taken a back seat for the second generation. Parents are striving to simply survive and provide basic necessities for their families, and their focus is shifted from their children, who are put in public schools and often times fall into the wrong crowds. Again, the language barrier prevents the children from excelling academically and reaching their full potential; they must learn the language and culture before anything else. Somewhere in this process, they often resort to dropping out and working side by side with the parents to help put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads.
Though intangible, the emotional condition of the refugees is one of the most important. They are scarred from warfare, slaughter, injustice, and witnessing the rape and murder of their own family members. Many were forced away from their homes to foreign places. They have gone from thriving business professionals to refugees struggling to provide food for their children; this kind of drastic life change is a form of emotional torture. Over time these frustrations build, and recently family and marital conflicts have arisen in several families.
This is only a glimpse into the plight of refugees. Email me [ghulam [@] alamaanah.com] if you'd like to hear first hand accounts or even witness the situation with your own eyes. Watch Care for Refugees (find their conditions) for more information as well.
2. Drawing on your own experiences with Al Amaanah, what are some concrete practical steps that any individual can take right now to assist or positively impact the lives of the refugees in our own local communities?
First, never think that your community doesn't have refugees. Contact resettlement agencies (Catholic Charities, YMCA, Interfaith Ministries, etc) and tell them you are interested in visiting some families; they are always looking for volunteers. Visit the families and keep good relations with them, but focus on one family and make them feel part of the community. Take them to the masjid, spend a day at the park or zoo with the kids. Create a bond with the kids so they feel comfortable to come to you with questions and for advice; otherwise, they will go elsewhere, and most likely be misguided. When they feel part of the community, they feel “normal” and that means more to them than any material or worldly gain. Listen to their stories, get to know them, and understand where they are coming from. You'll be surprised how much they appreciate the little things.
3. Is your work for Al Amaanah a part-time volunteer effort? If so, how do you manage to find a balance between this work and other responsibilities?
Al Amaanah is full time for me; it is a part of my daily schedule and a priority amongst my regular activities. The initial stages were very time consuming because there were very few volunteers and lots to be done. But as the volunteer base grew, the work load spread, and we were able to take on more without overloading a few of us.
After much trial and error, we've become more organized, and I have found a balance between Al Amaanah and everything else in my life. Emergency situations still arise, and sometimes I have to drop my plans and help find a home for a widow or go to emergency room with a single mother at 2 a.m. because she has no one else here. Having a dependable staff is key, and alḥamdulillāh Al Amaanah has been blessed a team of awesome individuals who are talented, committed, and full of energy. At the end of the day, however, it is only with Allāh's help that I am able to balance Al Amaanah and everything else and keep a sane mind (for the most part).
Here are some things that I've witnessed in my time with Al Amaanah.
4. Do any of your family members or friends work with Al Amaanah?
My wife works with Al Amaanah, as do many of my friends. Thinking back, most of my friends have either previously or are currently helping Al Amaanah. When we are out, even on non Al Amaanah related events, we find ourselves talking about the organization, our clients, planning some event, and taking shura from each other.
5. In the past, have the organization's efforts garnered any criticism in light of your commitment to Islam? If so, how have you responded?
Other faith based organizations have approached and successfully collaborated with us, calling upon us to handle their Muslim clientele because they trust our experience and work. We have, however, faced a two-fold criticism from the Muslim community. Many say that by helping the refugees become a part of the American society, we are doing more harm than good to their deen because we are increasing them in materialism by integrating them into an essentially greedy and selfish society. Furthermore, they question our services to different sects within Islam, as well as non Muslims. We consult the elders and Shuyūkh of our community, many of whom are nationally recognized, to make the best decision. As a refugee service organization, we don't see the person as Jew, Christian, or Shi'a; rather, we see them as someone who is in need of the basic necessities to live. At the same time, we ensure that we are within the bounds of the Shari'ah for Zakah, and have special handling requirements for all such money so that it only aids the Muslim population.
6. Are there any plans to expand Al Amaanah to other cities and/or states?
We have not yet even scratched the surface of refugee services in Houston. Many more services can and need to be provided, so for now we will focus on Houston.
7. What other non-profit organizations have most influenced your work with Al Amaanah?
Other refugee resettlement agencies, including Alliance, Interfaith Ministries, and Catholic Charities have been very receptive to Al Amaanah. We are continuously learning from these larger, nationally recognized organizations on how to better serve our clients. AlMaghrib Institute played a major role in our formation, as the concept of having a Muslim based refugee service and local Zakah distribution organization stemmed from one of its seminars.
8. Which organizations would you like to collaborate with in the future, or hope to increase your current level of collaboration?
We hope to begin working with local furniture banks, refugee offices, community colleges for education and technical skill programs, car dealerships for transportation for clients, Houston Independent School District (HISD) and other districts, and local business owners and employment agencies for job placement. We are looking to increase collaborations with YMCA, Interfaith Alliance, and Catholic Charities and hold more joint programs with them in the future. All of these collaborations are key for our clients to integrate into society and in to turn be able to positively impact their surroundings.
9. What advice do you have for Muslims interested in entering the social work/services field?
Join in! Muslims are very underrepresented in this field. It's not an easy field to be in so do not take it lightly and remember that your reward will not be in the tiny paycheck you receive, but in the akhira insha Allāh. You can start slowly and see if this truly is for you. Volunteer in areas that pique your interest, whether it's in hospitals or food kitchens, but remember that social work requires technical knowledge and training, and cannot just be done on the weekends. If you feel that it is right for you, learn about accreditation programs at your local colleges.
10. What advice do you have for others, particularly new and upcoming young professionals who are planning or have already started non-profit organizations?
Don't start your own non-profit unless you've explored every other avenue, appealed to all non-profits serving the same group or providing the same services, and been turned away by each and every single one. There are over 10,000 non-profits in the city of Houston alone. Chances are there is someone serving the population you want to help, or providing the same services. In an age of too many non-profits, many are willing to collaborate or expand pre-existing services. They want volunteers with the drive and motivation to help in their programs. Existing non-profits already have a network that you can latch onto and use for your benefit as well, and you are probably much better off that way. This truly works out for both parties. You won't have to worry about sustainability, research foundations to fund you, worry about the best database to use to store information, or get caught up in the administrative details that go into starting an organization from scratch. Whatever you do, be prepared to meet the challenges, to give lots of time, and make uncountable sacrifices to see the fruits of your labor.
A video about the administrative details: