Disasters can strike at any time and in any place, devastating entire cities, regions and countries. Alongside the huge losses of life and billions of dollars in damage they cause, there is the unseen psychological toll as well. When a disaster leaves communities scrambling, IRUSA’s Disaster Response Team mobilizes as soon as they get the word. This month, they deployed to California, a beautiful and popular vacation destination, ravaged by wildfires.
In northern California, at least 17 wildfires have torn through over 220,000 acres of land. To put that number in perspective, imagine: the area burned so far is more than three times larger than Washington, D.C. The destruction has been vast. 5,700 structures have been damaged, and at least 40 have died. 75,000 people were evacuated, according to Cal Fire.
The Islamic Relief USA Disaster Response Team worked out of a shelter located in the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, about 20 minutes form the hardest hit area. The mega-shelter, run by the American Red Cross, spanned three separate buildings and served those with extensive medical needs and also sheltered pets.
“Walking outside without a respirator mask is a risk that many are not willing to take,” said Hani Hamwi, Disaster Response Team Manager. “Smoke is billowing in the distance as the wind blows visible specs of ash in the air—almost as if it is snowing in California.”
The majority of the occupants in the shelter were senior citizens and families with young children. Many of them were in a state of shock and feared the worst for the homes and belongings they left behind. Amidst the bleakness, IRUSA volunteers offered a simple yet valuable service: a listening ear. One evacuee lamented about the home she lost that was completed only two days before being burned to the ground. This evacuee, as well as many others, expressed their thanks for the comfort that IRUSA’s presence and hard work offered them.
“Your hard work and dedication has inspired me to come back and volunteer,” said one evacuee after discovering that her home was safe to return to.
Some evacuees were comforted by the sight of Muslims volunteering. “I’ve never met a Muslim before,” said Peggy, an elderly citizen of northern California who confessed that even though she knows of a high population of Muslims near her home, she has never spoken to one before. Having seen Islamic Relief USA on the ground and active in this shelter, she now feels more comfortable about interacting with Muslims.
One volunteer expressed his delight at seeing so many people, from “all walks of life and Abrahamic religions, coming together for the cause.”