Helping Hands Reach Out to Flint Residents

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Almost 600 volunteers from the aid agency Islamic Relief USA distributed truckloads of water bottles over the past two months to residents of Flint, Michigan, a city in a state of emergency due to its contaminated drinking water.

The group, a humanitarian aid agency, has joined other Muslim organizations and the American Red Cross in supplying clean drinking water, filters, and deployed teams of health workers to take blood tests and provide educational material to residents about the hazardous lead in the water.

A generous donation of $100,000 by Islamic Relief USA purchased over 300,000 bottles of drinking water for the community in Flint. The organization donated one case of water to each family every week over the six-week distribution.

“A single bottle of water can save a life,” said Waleed Gabr, Islamic Relief USA’s, New York regional manager.

Lead in the drinking water has caused a major health emergency in Flint. The contamination is a result of a catastrophic decision taken two years ago to change the city’s water supply from Detroit River to the Flint River. Despite the city’s efforts to return to the Detroit water system in October 2015, tests conducted in January 2016 still indicate unhealthy lead levels in the water. For now, the residents cannot rely on clean water from the taps.

Islamic Relief USA provides development programs and humanitarian relief around the world. The organization galvanized efforts to help in Flint shortly after President Barack Obama’s announcement on January 16 that Michigan City was under a state of emergency.

“Every year we see more and more disasters at home,” said Gabr. “It is our religious and human responsibility to help our neighbors.”

Gabr also said that the organization’s help in Flint’s unfolding disaster demonstrates American-Muslim’s commitment to reach out across economic and ethnic boundaries to help American communities. Islamic Relief USA has traditionally donated the majority of its funds to international causes. However, increasingly it is focusing on humanitarian relief efforts at home in the United States, as donors are asking that the money benefit their neighbors in the United States.  The group’s disaster and emergency response team has assisted in the Texas tornadoes in 2012, the Colorado wildfires, Hurricane Isaac, Superstorm Sandy, and the Oklahoma tornadoes in May 2013.

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Islamic Relief  is the only Muslim organization in America to sign a national memorandum of understanding with the American Red Cross. The collaboration meant both groups were more effective in providing help to the community, said American Red Cross Disaster Division Director David Gutierrez.

The American Red Cross used the trucks provided by Islamic relief to deliver aid in Flint. The two together were able to reach the elderly and vulnerable adults or people with disabilities who are unable to travel to the city’s water distribution points.

When the American Red Cross first arrived some of the people in the city were not aware that the water was dangerous. The group provided educational material to raise awareness of how perilous it might be to drink the water.

Thanks to the efforts of the Islamic Relief USA and the American Red Cross, a community focus group formed composed of 82 people from state and federal governments, non profits, and other community groups, to work together to solve the problem. Gutierrez explained that the crisis is expected to continue as no definitive timelines have been given as to when the water pipes of Flint will be replaced.

Meanwhile, Islamic Relief will continue to provide help to Flint residents, as New York manager Gabr explained, primarily in low-income housing areas. Once cited by a 2012 FBI report as one of the most dangerous cities in the United States, In the mid – 1900’s Flint had a booming auto industry, in 1978, General Motors employed in the region of 80,000 people. However, in the 80’s General Motors established industries in Mexico and cut operations in Flint. With the reduction came soaring unemployment rates. According to the most recent Census numbers, 41.6 percent of people in Flint live below the poverty line.

It’s for this reason that Islamic Relief USA has implemented an extended ground project by employing 20 local residents to continue the emergency water drive in Flint through the next six months.  Kenyon Johnson, 41, the father of six children, had been unemployed for several months before Islamic Relief USA’s appointment. Islamic Relief USA’s objective: to employ residents, to empower the community to take ownership of their city, to benefit and improve the quality of life in the community.

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“What Islamic Relief have done for us is amazing, I don’t think there is any other organization doing this,” he said, in a phone interview. He described how when Islamic Relief USA first arrived in January 2016, Flint residents received one case of water per family, and some wipes. The gratitude and appreciation he experienced, he said, was overwhelming.

Until then he said, he and his family had struggled on a daily basis without clean tap water. “We fill the bath with bottled water and take turns to wash,” he said.  There have been some reports that people using the tap water to bathe in were developing rashes and sores. Johnson said, “You can donate so much water, but eventually you need to fix the problem,” he said.

The volunteers in Flint are also finding the experience rewarding. Rasha Mohamed, 20, a student at University of Michigan lives just outside Flint. She volunteered to hand out water with Islamic Relief USA and the American Red Cross because she had learned about the difficulties the residents faced from friends who lived in the city. She has been distributing aid every weekend to the families of Flint.

“Water is such a basic need and people here are so grateful and appreciative when they receive it,” she said in an interview, describing the atmosphere in the community as “depressed and hopeless.”

She recalled meeting a pregnant mother when distributing water. The mother, she said, was seeking a filter and was terrified about the harm the lead in the water might have done to her unborn baby and her 6-year – old child.

“We won’t know the damage for years to come,” she said.