PEMBROKE, North Carolina – In a year when Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has frequently cast Muslims as violent radicals, the Islamic Relief charity’s volunteers say they have been thrust into the role of unofficial ambassadors for the real Muslim America.
“I think there’s an image that gets painted in your head of who Muslims are,” Hani Hamwi, 29, the charity’s disaster response team manager, told The Washington Post.
“An American practicing Islam, it’s good for people to see that, hey, she’s a teacher or she’s a medical student and that they took a break to come down here.”
Hamwi is the leaders a 13-member team who flew to the red state of North Carolina, helping to run the largest shelter in Robeson County, which was hit hard by Hurricane Matthew.
The words on their blue vests seemed to catch everyone’s eye: “Islamic Relief.”
“Are they Islamic?” one woman whispered to the person next to her. Others simply stared.
The relief teams frequently encounter people who are “pretty surprised to see Muslims,” Hamwi said.
The Islamic Relief volunteers arrived Friday in a team that included a teacher and an occupational therapist, an IT consultant and a handful of recent college graduates.
Embarking on their first “disaster deployment, they had gotten the call Thursday and boarded flights from California, Texas, Florida, Oregon and Washington, DC.
“It was something you don’t expect to see in America,” said Hanna Jalanbo, 22, who traveled here from Orlando, Florida, where she is studying for a master’s degree in social work.
After measuring damage and sorting out cans of food in the first two days on their deployment, the team was asked to care for older children so that overwhelmed parents could seek help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and venture out to assess the damage.
Nasima Chowdhury, 50, of Dallas, who had worked for decades as a special-education teacher, quickly took charge. And within a few hours, a room full of children ages 6 to 10 were stacking Legos with Lina Asfoor, a 23-year-old occupational therapist from Santa Clara, California; reading with Hasana Abdul-Quadir, a 23-year-old AmeriCorps volunteer who spent the past year working in a District school; and playing with Abdussamad Peera, a 55-year-old Pakistani-American IT consultant and father of five from Dallas.
Founded in 1993, Islamic Relief is the largest Muslim charity in America, with about $100 million a year in donations. Most of the money is used for aid operations in and around overseas conflict zones, but the group also responds to domestic disasters with a formal team created five years ago.
So far in 2016, the charity has responded to eight disasters, including tornadoes in Oklahoma, wildfires in Washington state, floods in Louisiana and Texas, and water contamination in Flint, Michigan.
“The coolest thing about it, in the age of Trump, is when we go out, everyone sees our branding,” Hamwi said.
“So whether someone hates it or loves it, wants us there or doesn’t want us there, they get to see that we’re Muslim. Which is kind of awesome because we get to represent Muslims in America in a way that a lot of people wouldn’t expect.”
Among the North Carolina team members, three, including Hamwi, are Syrian Americans, as well as Muslims.
“Right now, those are probably the worst things you can be: A Muslim, a male in your 20s and Syrian,” Hamwi said.
“Anyone watching the news, until they get to know me and understand what I stand for, I can imagine some might have uncomfortable thoughts.”
Receiving enthusiastic support in most cases, some areas were not so welcoming including a sheriff in rural Louisiana who ordered the group out of his parish and the mayor of a small town in Illinois who told Islamic Relief workers to leave a flood zone after people complained that they did not want Muslims there.
The case was different in North Carolina where people were too emotional after meeting the charity’s Muslim volunteers.
“Thank you for what you’re doing,” an elderly white couple told volunteers who were having a dinner at On The Border in Fayetteville, North Carolina.
Hamwi said he likes being noticed, likes that his bright-blue vest says “Islamic Relief” in big, bold letters.
“I genuinely think that people don’t want to live in fear,” Hamwi said. “Which is why I think so many people are excited to see us.”
Hamwi said he often thinks about a man he met last winter after a bout of tornadoes sowed destruction through a small Oklahoma town.
“He had a big belt buckle and cowboy boots, and he came up to us all teary-eyed like he was about to break down.
“He said, ‘I’m sorry.’ And I said, ‘For what?’ And he said, ‘I had the wrong idea about you guys.’ “