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Thursday, May 19, 2011

A School That Brings Smiles to Libyan Children

Asma Yousef, Islamic Relief USA's public relations representative, is on the ground in Tunisia at the Ramada camp run for Libyan refugees. The following is her first-hand account of how the camp is serving some of its most precious and vulnerable members—the children.

Thursday, May 19
It is 2:00 p.m. local time. An announcer through a microphone reminded residents at Ramada camp, a camp run by the Office for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for Libyan refugees in Tunisia, it was time for Islamic Relief's after school programs.Children ages 3 to 14 rushed to line up for the start of the program. Libyan mothers came out of their tents calling upon their children to join the activities. Each group was divided by age and class activity. Some of the older children brought their infant siblings along.

The program is part of Islamic Relief USA's child protection initiative for Libyan children at Ramada camp. IRUSA's project provides morning schooling session for 180 students from pre-k to 8th grade. Their subjects of study cover mathematics, reading, writing, science and Quran, with plans to test the students in a month to enable them to complete this school year. After a two-hour break, students begin their after-school program which includes music, painting, handcrafts and theatre.

The 1,400 inhabitants of this camp share the same narrative: they were forced to flee their homes and abandon their possessions as violence gripped the western part of Libya. Amid constant shelling and bombardment, men rushed women and children into trucks and drove for two hours through treacherous mountain terrain to arrive in Tunisia. Inhabitants have told me that their children—traumatized by what they have seen— were having difficulty trusting others. Many I spoke with were hesitant to reveal their names or say where they came from.

But today, I can see the positive effects of the school program, and am most-amazed at the transformation of these brave Libyan children. As soon one comes upon the children at the camp, the first thing they do is extend their hands to shake yours. Children at Ramada smile as they welcome visitors to what has become their temporary home. They are eager to engage visitors in conversation—introducing themselves and asking about who you are and where you come from. As a mother of two myself, it's difficult imagine the level of stress these children must have endured. I find myself comforted by their confidence and smiles as they wave their victory signs, showing pride and courage.

Undoubtedly, the life of a refugee is new to the inhabitants of the camp. As one Islamic Relief staffer explained to me: "The situation in Ramada camp is unique. Usually residents at refugee camps in other conflicts tend to be the less-fortunate, less-educated segment of society. We are seeing the vast majority of residents here are very well-educated professionals, who have never lived a life of hardship but had to adjust to the new circumstances."

UPDATE: Moments after this blog was posted, Islamic Relief was given an appreciation award by scouts from Benghazi who visited Ramada camp.

Learn more about IRUSA's Libya humanitarian relief efforts here. See more pictures taken by IR team members in Tunisia via Facebook.

Currently, there are 1,400 inhabitants at the UNHCR-run camp with plans to expand it further. With your support, these plans can be realized. Please donate toward IRUSA's Libya Humanitarian Relief fund.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Aiding Alabama

On April 27, some 150 tornadoes tore through six southern U.S. states, decimating communities and destroying lives. More than 230 people died in Alabama—the hardest-hit state.

In cities across Alabama, damage estimates range from millions to billions of dollars. Birmingham’s mayor William Bell suggests that removing debris may cost some $10 million while insured losses are expected to exceed $2 billion.

Islamic Relief USA was quick to respond to calls for relief efforts in the aftermath of the April tornadoes. Within days, the IRUSA team was on the ground in Alabama.

IRUSA has been working closely with American Red Cross, Salvation Army, and community and faith-based groups to get resources to survivors as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Here are some of the ways IRUSA team members have helped provide aid:

  • Visiting sites to assess damage
  • Staffing health clinics
  • Operating emergency response vehicles
  • Providing situational reports
  • Providing support to the American Red Cross' staff services, partner services, finance, and mental health services, and its Integrated Care Team.
  • Operating shelters, and providing shelter services, including cleaning, dormitory patrol, child care, front-desk support, answering phones, and setting up cots.
  • Assisting at federal sites
  • Operating preliminary data assessment devices
  • Distributing blankets, clothing, food to survivors
  • Interviewing survivors to assess needs
  • Conferring with other relief organization on best practices and innovative ways to serve survivors and assist with clean-up efforts
  • Connecting the Alabama governor’s office with a real estate agent to help secure temporary housing for displaced survivors
  • Giving toys to children to help create a sense of normalcy for them
  • Advising mosque congregations on how to respond to emergencies; garner supplies and distribute resources to survivors in their areas

IRUSA’s Miriam Soliman said, “We went to the Birmingham Islamic Center and were warmly welcomed by the community. We later connected another Muslim community—the Islamic Center of Tuscaloosa, which has a small distribution center—with B.I.C. and its local thrift store.” This is just one example of how IRUSA and the local Muslim communities worked together to help relief efforts.

But IRUSA’s efforts have extended well beyond Alabama’s Muslim population—and were recognized by many locals, including priest Jack Hinnen from Riverchase United Methodist Church in Bessemer. Jack sent a warm note, thanking IRUSA for its efforts in Alabama—he mentioned that he wanted to buy coffee for the volunteers, but couldn't do so in time, so he made a donation toward's IRUSA's work instead.

IRUSA's efforts were also documented in "Religious Relief for Southern Disasters,” an article on, one of the nation’s top blog sites.

Perhaps most important, however, are the connections IRUSA has made with survivors and other volunteers, such as Jefferson Traywick. Jefferson, an American Red Cross volunteer working in Alabama, posted this on IRUSA’s Facebook page:

"As a local Red Cross volunteer from Alabama, I just want to publicly acknowledge the great contributions your volunteers have made down here. I spent the day yesterday with five IR workers doing damage assessment in rural parts of the state and helping unload a tractor trailer load of supplies in Alexander City. The IR volunteers worked hard and were an absolute pleasure. Thank you all!"

IRUSA has been using every minute it can to provide assistance. An example: the IRUSA team arrived early for a day to be dedicated to survivor interviews—while waiting for the drivers who would take them to the work sites, team members fulfilled a request from the American Red Cross to help with an administrative task.

"IRUSA is gaining a reputation for filling any need requested,” says IRUSA’s W. Derrick Lea, “And we will continue to serve in this manner."

Thank you for your continued support toward our efforts in Alabama. To help us help more, donate to our USA Emergency fund.

And please remember to pray for the victims, survivors and relief workers in Alabama.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Motherhood brings unspeakable joy, but all moms know it’s not easy

In celebration of Mother's Day, May 8, 2011, Lina Hashem, Islamic Relief USA communications specialist and mother of two, writes about the significance of being a mother.

The early years can mire a mother in diapers, midnight feedings, lack of sleep. Then you watch your child grow older and head away from you – onto the bus for first grade, behind the wheel of a car, off to college, down the aisle on her wedding day.

But in some countries, the hardships are much more basic: Can I get to a doctor for prenatal care? Will I have help from a doctor, nurse or midwife for the birth itself? Will I survive?

And then, looking into the hungry eyes of my child … can I find food for him? Can I get help for her when she is sick? In some countries, as many as one in every four children born this year will die before his fifth birthday – will my child be one of them?

In the United States, good medical care makes childbirth relatively safe. A mother in the United States has a 14 in 100,000 chance of dying. In Afghanistan – where only 14% of births are attended by medical personnel – a mother’s chance of dying during birth is 10,000% higher.

According to the World Health Organization, one thousand women died every day in 2008 from complications of pregnancy and childbirth, the vast majority of them in poor regions of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

Save the Children ranked Afghanistan as the worst place to be a mother — Yemen was not far behind, ranked at 161 out of 164 countries, and Mali came in at 157. Islamic Relief provides programs that help women in all of these countries and many more.

In Afghanistan, Islamic Relief is giving women education and entrepreneurial support so they can live better lives and provide for their children.

In Yemen, Islamic Relief programs are teaching women practices to improve their health as well as that of their children. These programs also help free them from crushing daily burdens so they can work and lift their families out of poverty.

In Mali, pregnant women are at heightened risk for malaria, a deadly threat. An Islamic Relief program is providing them with preventative care and treatment if they get sick. A new maternal health center is helping save lives of mothers in a country where 830 mothers die for every 100,000 births.

Countless other Islamic Relief programs help mothers around the world. In Pakistan, at a new health clinic in Nowshera funded by Islamic Relief USA, teams hired a female doctor so conservative women will agree to receive medical treatment. Here in the United States, an Islamic Relief grant is supporting a shelter for battered women and their children in Baltimore.

Islamic Relief is working to alleviate the suffering of mothers around the world. This Mother’s Day, when you give your beloved mother a gift, consider giving one of these other mothers a gift as well – a gift that might just save her life and allow her children the blessing and right to grow up with a mother.

Please donate.