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Wednesday, July 6, 2011

IRUSA Team in Palestine

IRUSA's communications specialist, Reem El-Khatib, sends a special thank you from our beneficiaries in Palestine.

July 2-3— A tiring, long trip—48 hours or so—and the IRUSA staff has finally arrived in Ramallah, Palestine. This West Bank town is one of the best known, not just for its famous Rukab ice cream or Al Manara Square, but for its crisp night breeze and its literal closeness to the heavens. It’s one of my favorite places on Earth because its grounds cradle my family roots. Ramallah is a town of high hills and starry nights, and to be here is a blessing from Allah (swt).

We visit three towns north of the West Bank: Nablus, Qalqilya and Jenin, where we interact with people receiving sustainability assistance from Islamic Relief in a variety of ways.

Our visits include a stop to Askar School, in Nablus, a school for boys that is supported by Islamic Relief USA. The school was built to provide educational opportunities for children in the area. Before it was built, the boys had to walk a long way to an older school, over difficult terrain, through harsh weather and in unstable political circumstances that would sometimes close the roads completely or put the boys in danger. The school’s principal, Salah Rasheed, tells me that many of the boys would not even complete a full day because walking home earlier was less dangerous.

The generosity of Islamic Relief donors has changed the boys’ lives. Now, about 500 boys in grades 1-9 can attend school and focus on learning because IRUSA has helped build a safer, more accessible school in the boys’ community. While the boys used to want to leave school early, Principal Rasheed says, “Now, they don’t want to leave.”

I see how much the school means to these boys as I speak with Luay, Ahmed, Osama, Sameer, Mahmoud, Yazan, Mohammed and Marar, boys about to enter fifth, sixth and seventh grade. When they come to play some soccer in the school’s yard, the boys get an impromptu English-word challenge from me. As I write words in English, they try to guess what word I’m writing before I finish writing it, excitedly shouting out the words they recognize—and they know them all.

I watch the boys play around in the yard. I see that this is a place that they feel comfortable in. They are carefree, as children should be. In the periphery, I see a sign that reads, “Supported by Islamic Relief USA.”

That puts a smile on my face.

All the places we traveled to in Palestine,

… whether at this school in Nablus …

… or at Fairouz’s house in Jenin, where Islamic Relief provided her with sewing machines so that she could support herself and her family and put herself through college …

… or to the roads in Azzun that Islamic Relief cleaned so that farmers like Abu Othman could reach his olive tree groves …

… or to the new hospital in Yatta, where patients and doctors repeatedly told us that the close location helps them financially and physically by removing the arduous task of traveling for hours to Al-Khalil (Hebron) for daily dialysis treatments …

… or to Umm Mohammed’s home, where Islamic Relief is helping build a greenhouse so she can plant produce to feed herself and her 15 children and to sell for financial security …

… or to Shwayka, where Islamic Relief distributed 26 sheep to 13 families so they can raise herds that will insha’Allah provide for them for generations …

... all over Palestine, our interactions with local Palestinians who’ve benefited from Islamic Relief programs and projects always ended with a simple phrase: “Thank Allah (swt) and thank you.”

Thank you, Islamic Relief family—volunteers, supporters and donors—for all of the good work you do in Palestine. Insha’Allah these projects will help sustain the people for generations to come.

Jazakum Allahu khair.

Friday, July 1, 2011

IRUSA Team Bids Farewell To "Umm Al-dunia"

IRUSA Communications Specialist Reem El-Khatib sends us some final words from last days in Egypt.

June 30-July 1, Al-Ayyat, Egypt -- I'm ending my trip to Egypt, where and when I started it: around 3 a.m., overlooking a bustling Cairo. The few days that IRUSA has spent in Egypt has been absolutely amazing, between meeting with various ministries and other NGOs, to connecting with the wonderful staff at Islamic Relief Egypt, (shout out to Rasha, Marwa, Hind, Iman, Dr. Yousef, Dr. Khaled, and many more), but absolutely nothing can top meeting the exceptional people of Egypt, including those who have received assistance from Islamic Relief programs.

Our final day in Egypt was spent in Al-Ayyat. It’s an area about 30 minutes outside of Cairo, and its poor are considered among the poorest. A region that relies heavily on agriculture, we learned that about 95% of Al-Ayyat's women work to clean okra so that it can be sold to manufacturers. For many families, this is a primary source of income.

Today, Islamic Relief was able to distribute 50 food parcels, packed with rice, macaroni, dried yogurt, cooking oil, lentils, rice and more to families in Al-Ayyat. One-by-one, women lined up to receive the parcels, placing the largest boxes on their heads; warmly thanking the staff; and exiting with their heads and food packages held high. Amira, a girl of about 12 years old, was one of many who patiently waited in line to receive a food parcel for her family. Another young girl, Rasha, was concerned she would not be able to carry the heavy parcel. Amira reassured her that she could, and she did, the two smiling as they returned home with their food parcels.

This exemplifies the wonderful spirit of the Egyptian people, wherever they are found. Everyone we have encountered, no matter what their particular circumstances, has been extremely warm and gracious, much like the beautiful breeze that is flowing into my room as I write this.

IRUSA was also able to spend lots of quality time with a Christian family in Al-Ayyat's Beedif district who have been receiving assistance from Islamic Relief for quite some time, and received a food parcel with today's distribution.

"We are all one," said Wahid Malak Abdel-Shahid, "Islamic Relief is our family...and our family is their family."

Yes, that's right. Al hamdulilah. A hearty "ma3 il salama," Egypt. -- We certainly know now that you are "umm al-dunia."

Thursday, June 30, 2011

IRUSA Team Visits El-Minya, Egypt

IRUSA communications specialist Reem El-Khatib reports to us from Egypt on the living conditions and needs of one Egyptian family.

June 28-29 -- She fainted and my heart stopped as I innately yelled, "Ya Allah." Ilham, a 15-year old girl, fainted as I was interviewing her mother about the conditions she and her children face on a daily basis. Ilham, her sister Hala (16), her brother Mohammed (8), and their mother receive food and monetary assistance from a local mosque and will also be part of the orphan sponsorship program that Islamic Relief will be starting in the region in one month. Ilham and Hala both have had four heart surgeries, and their brother Mohammed is paralyzed. Their house is the second one we visited in the Abu Ghalaq region of El-Minya. -- Its people are considered the poorest of the poor in the region.

Their mother, widowed for some nine years now, explained that she cannot afford medications for the girls or for her son, although she hopes that someday, perhaps through Orphan Sponsorship, she will be able to send her girls away to get proper care for their heart conditions and will be able to get Mohammed the therapy and the prosthetics he needs to be mobile.

I saw Ilham tap her mother's shoulder out of the corner of my eye. I thought maybe she was becoming uncomfortable with my interview and Ridwan's videography and photography, but I learned soon after that it wasn't that simple. --Ilham had been trying to get her mother's attention because she realized that she was going to faint. Her head hit the marble floor behind her.

With the assistance of some of our friends from the mosque, sniffing oils, and a little mixture of water and sugar, we were able to get Ilham responsive again. Her mother tells me that this is normal for Ilham. Her daughters have weak hearts and blood. Malnutrition and lack of access to the medication they need means that they faint regularly.

As Ilham lay in her mother's arms, I wondered what the future of this lovely young girl, her sister, her brother and her mother holds. I hope that through the assistance they will soon be receiving from Islamic Relief, there is much hope to hope for.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

IRUSA team: In Helwan

Children study at the Early Intervention Rehabilitation Center in Egypt. Photo by Reem El-Khatib

IRUSA communications specialist Reem El-Khatib offers a first-hand account from the field in Egypt about ongoing programs supported by IRUSA in the region.

June 27-28—Helwan is a city whose history starts as a recreational destination for jet-setters and the rich. After it was converted to an industrial area, the area began to take a turn for the worse as the pollution spewed out by concrete and iron manufacturers drown the city in dense haze and toxins.

Today, as we discovered during our journey through and discussions with the people of Helwan, its children suffer from genetic disorders and deformities that have been attributed to its conversion.

We first stopped at EIRC, the Early Intervention Rehabilitation Center, a program that started in early 2000s to assist children who need special attention due to psychological and physical conditions that include autism, speech delays, Down syndrome, and mental challenges. The center provides each admitted child with a personal therapist who assists them according to their particular needs, and offers art therapy, family sessions and income-generation projects that help the mothers of EIRC’s children.

Dr. Mansour Yousef, the head of one of the departments, introduced us to so many wonderful children and staff members, including Aya Khaled. Aya is in her last year of assistance at EIRC—the program only follows children until they reach 8 years old. She is mentally challenged, and has difficulty understanding concepts, expressing herself and controlling her hand movements. Five years of help at EIRC has turned Aya, once destined to be dependent upon others for daily life, into a very independent young lady who is able to match pictures to concepts; to respond to her aunt’s requests to bring her “lebene from the refrigerator”; and she now uses her hands to signal certain answers, such as “thank you.”

“The program has made a huge difference in Aya’s life,” says her aunt and guardian Muna. Muna takes care of Aya because her mother, who has twins at home, cannot afford to. Muna relays that she is so thankful for the program and for all of the wonderful therapists that have helped Aya grow—but what’s next, she asks? Aya has met her term, and now, Muna, Aya, Aya’s therapist and Dr. Yousef all wonder if the progress that she has made will stick with her or will fizzle away as her weekly one-hour sessions do.

This is a common concern that I heard throughout our time at EIRC—what is next? When I asked Mohammed’s mom if she has hope for his future, as a child with Down syndrome, at first she wasn’t sure, and then she said, “yes, so long as he continues to progress with the help of EIRC.” Amin’s mom had the same hopes for him, as did Samah’s mom and the mothers and aunts and therapists and families of the 134 children who were in EIRC and the hundreds more who were waiting to get in.

There was another commonality that the children at EIRC shared with me—smiling faces. Every child smiled, despite his or her condition. Smiles abounded, and they were warm and sincere.
Those same smiles met us as we traveled with staff members Rasha, Hind and Iman to visit several families throughout Helwan. These families were among Helwan’s 30% of extremely impoverished who are going to soon be receiving financial assistance, food parcels and health care support during Islamic Relief’s one-year sponsorship program.

Suad, Samira, Sameer, Mustafa, Iman, Mohammed, Ro’ayah, Ashraf, AbdelRahman, Salma, Zainab, Ziad, Nurihan live in extremely—extremely—poor circumstances. Although from separate families, the contents of their collective households would likely fit in one closet of ours. Dwellings were so tight and consolidated that they had bathrooms in kitchens; kitchens separated from bedrooms by one torn and tattered curtain; and typically one bedroom that would be shared by 5 or 6 occupants. Sometimes, the bathrooms wouldn’t be in the house at all—Suad tells us that 17-year old Samira (engaged to be married) has to stand guard at the outdoor bathroom, holding the curtain shut, so that no one can see or go in while it’s in use. Samira demonstrates how she does this and literally steps about 4 feet to get to the eggplant that is burning on the stove because of our lengthy set of questions.

And when we first walked into the room that Salma, who was left by her husband who married another woman, we all tried not to look so puzzled when we noticed Zainab, a former EIRC participant, sitting in a green bucket. Our puzzlement turned to heartbreak when we learned that she sat in the bucket because her wheelchair was broken. Zainab was immobile and did not even have the assistance of a wheelchair to help her move about. What's more? The setup of the space that Salma lived in was constructed in such a way that the bathroom is four steep stairs up; the kitchen is three stairs up; and the exit is almost a leap down—definitely not an accommodating space for someone with a wheelchair, let alone a paralyzed young lady whose wheelchair is broken. Salma told me that she has to carry her 12-year-old daughter or ask for assistance any time she wants or needs to move Zainab somewhere; that is likely why you'll find Zainab sitting in that green bucket most of her day, every day. Salma is older and weaker and just can't muster the strength to move Zainab regularly.

There is so much we want to know, but sometimes the pictures and the experience of being there and meeting children like Samira is more than any word can describe. Insha’Allah, IRUSA will bring you more information about Samira and her family as well as the wonderful families we met throughout Helwan in following days—in both words and pictures.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Hope and Help in Egypt

IRUSA communications specialist Reem El-Khatib offers a first-hand account from the field in Egypt about ongoing programs supported by IRUSA in the region. Below is the first in a series of day-to-day posts of her experiences.

June 25-26

The anxiety of what a trip to Egypt would be like now—in a post-revolutionary era, at a time where Egyptians of all backgrounds, ages, religions, classes stood together to demand better living conditions—set in when I first realized that I would be traveling to Egypt for Islamic Relief USA. I had never been to Egypt before, and while I have traveled to many parts of the world, I've never traveled internationally on the behalf of an organization.

Creative director Ridwan Adhami and I have joined several Islamic Relief USA executives to see first-hand how IRUSA programs continue to help improve the living conditions for Egyptians throughout the country. When we first exited the airport late night June 25, we both took a deep gulp of Egyptian breeze and almost simultaneously said, "This feels like when I go home" (home for me being Palestine and for Ridwan being Syria). Tonight, Umm ad-Dunya resonated with both of us as just that.

The Egyptian night breeze, the hustle and bustle of honking horns and jay-walking pedestrians—feels so beautifully familiar, yet, also surreal. I told Mohammed, who picked us up from the airport, that I had been glued to a TV screen for months watching the events unfold earlier this year and "That's the Egyptian Museum!" and "Now, we're driving on the Oct. 6 Bridge!"

I asked Mohammed, who also works with Islamic Relief in Egypt, how now is different than then—before the revolution started on Jan. 25. Quite simply, he said, we are now comfortable in mind and we have hope. He assured me that Egyptians are not disillusioned and do not think that everything is fixed and perfect. They know and we know there is much to do—and the Islamic Relief programs we are preparing to see in the following days are evidence of that. But, overall, there is a pure, comfortable hope that progress is being and will soon be made.

Ahmed, an extremely accommodating hotel host, offered a similar note, as he helped us secure our rooms for the night—he said that relief organizations were seemingly strengthening their programs here and visiting more often to help more. He had heard "Islamic Relief" a lot in the past few days, and he was happy to welcome more of its staff.

Now, settled in for the evening, I look out at the Cairo night at 2:15 am July 26 ... I see the hilal hanging in the sky and I ask ALLAH (swt) to watch over and protect Ridwan, Mohammed, Ahmed and everyone I interact with during my time here; I ask for protection for all of the Islamic Relief community who supports IRUSA programs in Egypt and elsewhere; I pray for the protection for all of the wonderful Egyptians who work in the field with or receive assistance from Islamic Relief—I pray and feel the Cairo night pulsing with horns and hope.

Insha'Allah, I'll keep you posted on more news from Egypt—with special regard to our food distribution and therapy programs—in coming days. May ALLAH (swt) accept your good deeds always, and may all of Egypt's warm, welcoming and good people sleep a sound and hope-filled night.

Tisba7o 3ala khair.

Monday, June 20, 2011

World Refugee Day: Supporting refugees worldwide

Aisha is 10 years old. She used to live in Nalut in western Libya. Then, early this year, violence erupted in Libya, and Aisha and her mother and four brothers had to leave their home. They found shelter in Tunisia at a refugee camp managed by the United Nations. At the camp, Islamic Relief provides 180 Libyan children daily classes and recreational activities. Despite being far away from home, in a state of uncertainty, these classes allow the children to keep up with their studies … and maybe, for a little while, forget their homesickness.

Today is World Refugee Day, and Aisha’s family is among tens of thousands of refugees Islamic Relief USA is caring for around the world. More than 20,000 of these refugees, who fled from violence in Libya, are taking shelter at several camps in Tunisia where Islamic Relief is providing services. At the camp where Aisha is staying, Islamic Relief is focusing on services for the children; at other camps, Islamic Relief teams are providing basic necessities for survival, such as food, water and shelter. Many thousands more refugees have already stayed at these camps and then received help getting home.

As turbulence has spread across the Middle East, Islamic Relief’s effort to help is also growing. Islamic Relief recently launched an effort to provide food and hygiene supplies to 6,000 Syrian refugees who have left their homes to escape violence and taken shelter in northern Lebanon. The first packages for the Syrian refugees and their Lebanese hosts were distributed June 7: Teams handed out 375 kits to 375 families in 19 villages in the Wadi Khaled area. Each family received food, hygiene items and 20 liters of water.

Islamic Relief also recently began providing assistance to people in Yemen who have been displaced by the upheaval there. More than 1,000 internally displaced families will receive hygiene kits and a one-month ration of foods including rice, oil, beans and flour. Teams are also setting up community kitchens in schools.

None of this can take away the fear, the uncertainty, the homesickness the refugees experience … but it gives them hope and the sense that someone cares for them.

Help Islamic Relief help refugees globally. Donate today.

Recent Visit Earns Praise for Islamic Relief's Children Education Initiatives

Friday, June 17
Update. Antonio Guterres, High Commissioner of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, visited the Ramada camp for Libyan refugees in Tunisia last week to check on the progress of Islamic Relief's Child Protection program for Libyan children, a program that has provided support, schooling and after school activities to refugee children. News crews including CNN and Press TV covered the event, as Commissioner Guterres praised Islamic Relief's team for their school initiatives.

Here are some photographs from Islamic Relief's most recent children's activities in the Ramada camp: