Here are just a few special stories from volunteers about their experience on the ground. Have a story to share? Send it to us via volunteers@irusa.org.

BEHIND THE BLUE SHIRTS

A candid conversation with one of IRUSA’s prized volunteers, Wafa Omran-Elhindi

1. At a young age, or while growing up, did you have someone in your life who inspired you to volunteer or to be generous? 

My parents were exceptionally generous people. Not only with their money, but more with their affection, kindness, and time. They had this extraordinary ability to make every single person they know feel loved. At the root of this effusive affection was my parents’ inability to be selfish. My dad in particular, grew up dirt-poor in a tent in a refugee camp. His mother had to sell her only possessions, to pay for his education.

So when Allah blessed him with wealth and opportunity, he did not believe it was his own. He knew he had the responsibility to share his blessings with his family and his community. My mom has always opened our home to guests for months at a time. She carried a bubbly personality and exuded compassion. My mother is the most down to earth person you can ever meet. I’ve learned early on to live for a bigger purpose than ourselves.

2. Is there any moment in your life that really made you see that volunteering would always be a big part of your life? 

They say “With great pain comes great change.” Four years ago, my son who was a bright, happy, energetic 5 year-old was diagnosed with a rare brain tumor. I witnessed him deteriorate, day after day, to a point where he lost his ability to talk, walk, and eventually he could not open his eyes. Living this pain with my son and the agony of it being so quickly till the night I knew he was leaving us. I held him in my arms till dawn when he exasperated his last breath.

This made me realize how precious life is and how blessed the gifts that Allah bestowed upon us. I had to question my whole life and reflect on what this huge loss meant. I just had to find out what does Allah want from me? He wants more. I kept saying to myself. Even though up until that point I was involved in community service and charity work, I knew that I needed to do more.

Alhamdulillah, I was guided to my purpose and made a conscious decision to contribute all that Allah blessed me with to serve others until the day I meet my Lord, and inshallah be reunited with my son. And that’s how I have lived my life since. Losing my child made me want to be a sponsor mom to as many children as I can. It’s how I keep his spirit alive. It’s how I make meaning of my loss. It’s how I heal.

Photo cred. Alvin Jacob Jr.

3. Is there a particular saying, hadith, ayah, or any other piece that is an inspiration for you to give your time and give your wealth for a great cause? 

There are so many verses in the Quran that guide us to the importance of service as an act of worship. I can’t limit it to one. But if there’s a verse I’d like to live by if Allah allows me it’s this, “And seek with the wealth that Allah has bestowed on you, the abode of the Hereafter.” Then He says “and do good as Allah has done good to you.” We, the believers try to reflect God’s light on earth and be his faithful deputies to promote growth and prosperity as He intended for us. All in efforts to please and attain His acceptance and love. Up to one hundred times Allah mentioned spending paired with belief (Eman).

One of the most beautiful pictures He drew for us in the Quran is the parable of those who spend in the way of Allah like a grain grows into seven ears and each ear into hundred ears. A beautiful display of increase of abundance is through the acts of gratitude.

4. What is your earliest memory of volunteering in life? Who was it for? What kind of work did you do? Did you decide yourself, or were you obligated to volunteer for some reason? (make this question two) 

I remember vividly the first time when I was in elementary school in Amman, my aunt, a social worker, took me for the first time to a community center in the neighborhood. We participated in the “Beautify your Neighborhood” program in Amman, from cleaning up the street, painting school walls, and planting trees. That was the first time I volunteered. It gave me a great sense of fulfillment after accomplishing our goals and feeling the rewards of being part of a collective effort. I knew since then I want volunteering to be a regular part of my life.

5. What is your most memorable volunteer experience? Why does it stand out? 

When I was in college I was blessed to lead a comprehensive fun activity program in (Hamza Ben Abdelttaleb – Orphan Care Home ) in Marka, Amman. Spending time with the beautiful kids, reading, singing, and doing fun activities with them. At the time, that was heartwarming and the highlight of my college experience.

We all need a human touch. There is nothing more beautiful than a hug from a child. The Prophet (pbuh) says that, “The one who cares for an orphan and myself will be together in paradise like this.” He locked his two fingers. Now, I meet some of those kids all grown up and leading good lives.

Photo cred. Alvin Jacob Jr.

6. Everyone sees the Blue Shirts (IRUSA Volunteers) but sometimes we don’t get to meet everyone behind the incredible work. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself 

I’m a mother of a wonderful daughter and two lovely sons. I’m a wife to a good man, who is a philanthropist himself and has always supported my work and volunteerism. I am a humanitarian, committed to social justice and community development. With a background in theology and MA in sociology, I am currently doing more learning and studies on sustainability and human development. I’m a traveler who enjoys new experiences and appreciates all cultures. In my spare time, I like to paint. Finally, I love to listen to Islamic Relief podcasts.

7. Our theme has been to envision a better world. Was being a part of IRUSA’s Blue Shirts a part of your vision? How did you get into service? 

My personal life mission as a Muslim woman, has always been to aspire to the highest form of my being through servitude to Allah and service to others. I believe that through compassion and education we can transform lives and communities, promoting development and growth, especially among the most vulnerable.

My personal beliefs are reflected in Islamic Relief’s core values: excellence, sincerity, social justice, compassion, and custodianship. These values are derived from divine revelation and prophetic examples that guide Islamic Relief’s mission resonate with me personally.

IR’s work is driven by a sense of gratitude to our creator, executed with integrity and patience. Thus, when I met Brother Belkacem Nahi at an IR event in Charlotte, NC. He encouraged me to join IR’s family and become a regular volunteer, it was only natural that I got involved and eventually volunteered to do community outreach and organizing in Charlotte, NC for Islamic Relief. Envisioning a better world is what we aspire for. I am so intrigued by the work IR does domestically and worldwide.

I see our vision aligned perfectly. It’s what we all hope and work for, a world of preserved human dignity, prosperity and absence of suffering for all humanity, instilling justice and promoting growth in vulnerable communities. The reason I’m grateful to Allah for facilitating for me to take a small part volunteering for this giant organization.

8. One common value among IRUSA Blue Shirts has been a commitment to compassion. We’ve seen it expressed countless times. Could you tell us a bit about how you’ve seen compassion play out during your time as a volunteer? 

Absolutely, kindness and compassion envelopes all the work of IR.  Whether it’s restoring houses after a disaster hits or providing care packages and food parcels to the local neighborhood. There are so many that come to mind. But, one particular moment touched my heart. During the early stages of COVID-19, I got involved in a disaster response project led by Br. Said Durrah and Sr. Gihan Ahmed.

We needed to secure 1500 masks from Charlotte. I turned to an Afghan refugee family who had only resettled in the United States a few years ago and had just found their footing. I knew they were skilled at sewing and asked if they would like to help make masks. Their teenage daughter, especially, was eager to participate in this project and provide relief to American doctors and nurses during COVID-19. She wanted to pay it forward and to give to the community as a member of the community. It gave her a sense of belonging and american pride.

9. What has been the project you enjoyed the most taking part in? 

In September 2019, we prepared 25,000 meal packs to send to countries in Africa and domestically. Alongside Salman Zaman, we worked with 50 volunteers from diverse religious, racial, and ethnic backgrounds. We came together as strangers but we left as friends, bonded over combating hunger.

Photo cred. Alvin Jacob Jr.

10. We all were rocked by the toll COVID-19 has taken on our communities. How has it been from a volunteers perspective? 

At the beginning, It was very difficult not to be able to do work on the ground. However, that opened room for creativity as we adapted and figured out new ways to help. IR responded by moving a lot of fundraisers and events online. I was able to engage with volunteers virtually.

One of the projects that I was happy to lead a team for was the 2020 Hajj Challenge and Water for Life project. What was nice about that project is that we walked the Hajj steps individually or with teams remotely so we can maintain social distance. In total, IR was able to raise $25,000 and support water infrastructure in 25 villages.

11. What can volunteers take away from having COVID-19 flip everything on it’s head? It made us realize that life is unpredictable. If we want to lead a life of service, we need to seize the moment, step up our game. In times like these we need to wear our thinking hats and be innovative. Yes, maybe COVID changed the way we live, but for those of us who are lucky it did not stop us from living and having to fulfill our duties. While IR relief efforts have been serving over 40 countries abroad, they are doing multiplied work domestically. We now know it can be our next door neighbor that needs support. We need to do more. 

I think we need to look at this pandemic as a pivotal moment in how we approach service. Despite the disparate effect COVID-19 has had on different communities, at the end of the day we are all experiencing this pandemic and its various challenges as a collective. But knowing that some of us are much more disproportionately affected by COVID-19 should compel us to step up and give our time and effort to our communities in need, now more than ever.

But beyond COVID-19 and the current state of emergency, we need to tap in our hearts and find our passion. Service is rooted in passion. I pray that each one of us can find his or her purpose and carry on to translate it to action.

Photo cred. Alvin Jacob Jr.

Father and daughter drive 18 hours to volunteer in Flint, MI

Flint, Michigan, is a long way from the East Coast, and not many people would make that drive to volunteer to deliver water. But for one father/daughter pair from Virginia, providing safe, clean water in Flint was simply their priority one February weekend in 2016, so they made the drive.

“It all comes down to priorities,” said Zakaria Shaikh. “Everybody has the same number of hours, but what do you do with those hours? Allah is going to ask us. … We ask Allah that we always prioritize service to Allah’s creations, which is really service to Allah.”

So Shaikh and his 12-year-old daughter Alexandra-Ola Chaic hit the road and drove to Michigan, where they lived before moving to Virginia.

They met up with IRUSA’s team in Flint. There, the Disaster Response Team was delivering cases of water to residents whose tap water was unsafe to use.

“I wanted to do something to help a cause that really disturbed me,” Alexandra-Ola said. “The best part was on Sunday where I actually got to sit with Sister Arooj in the U-Haul truck, even though we did get lost.”

Alexandra-Ola enjoyed helping, and she also enjoyed the bond the volunteers formed.

“When we were all there, I felt like we were all on the same level,” she said. “I felt on a spiritual sense like we were all kin, because we were all there for the same reason—serving our community and giving them what we needed. That’s what I felt was really magical about the weekend—we were really close.”

Her father jumped in: “Notice she mentioned our community. It doesn’t have defined by religion, by skin color, by ethnicity or geography. The world is our community.”

He said their 18-hour round trip shouldn’t be seen as something exceptional.

“Alhamdulillah, we’re thankful for the opportunity to serve,” he said. “We have all the blessings. When you get up in the morning and you have health, food and a place to sleep, you have ample reasons to be thankful to Allah.

“What is the ni’mah that Allah has given us? It’s both physical and immaterial. Physical, we have a car, we have gas money—it takes about $200 each way, about $400 in gas money—we have clothes to wear, winter gear.

“What are the immaterial ones? Those are really important. We have health. Allah has given us a heart and empathy for fellow human beings. Allah has given us the most important one—Islam, and then the ability to understand the implications of that. Islam comes with responsibilities, to my lord and to my fellow human beings as well. One of these I strongly believe is doing such a thing that we did.”

Shaikh deflected praise to the IRUSA team leaders.

“I want to mention the great work that Islamic Relief is doing,” he said. “There’s a lot of staging for volunteers to come and take advantage of this training. Local coalition building. A lot of behind-the-scenes work that Islamic Relief does to provide a platform within which people can come and engage productively. Without that, you have haphazard efforts that don’t have a focus and have very little impact. You have to have a focus, and Islamic Relief provided that focus for us.”

Alexandra-Ola added, “One of the beautiful things about Islamic Relief is that you don’t have to be Muslim for Islamic Relief to help you, and you don’t have to be Muslim to join Islamic Relief either.”

Shaikh said, “We saw that there. We saw someone driving by and said ‘I saw you guys and just decided to join.’ ”

Alexandra-Ola said the trip was completely worthwhile: “I felt really proud to be there with everybody helping and delivering clean water for them to drink.”

On IRUSA’s Volunteer Team, sometimes youth lead the way

Before he even became volunteer manager, Said Durrah was at a conference once, sitting at IRUSA’s booth, while some young people were filling out volunteer applications. They asked where they should put the forms.

“I’d say, ‘Put it in the donation box,’” he says. “And they’d always be taken aback.”

But to Durrah, that’s exactly where it belongs, because volunteer service is a donation—an invaluable one.

IRUSA’s volunteers span the country, representing many backgrounds and even many faiths. And they range in age from senior citizens down to the toddler who carefully drop granola bars into lunch bags for the homeless.

In fact, young volunteers often make a very large impact. In California in 2016, two eighth-graders—Najm Masri and Mariam Mustafa—led a drive at their school that raised $3,000 for Syrian refugees. The girls presented a check at a dinner, addressing hundreds of guests with a poise and maturity that belied their young age. “We pray that Allah relieves the people of Syria and puts barakah in our efforts to help them,” Masri prayed. The girls shared an excited smile when IRUSA’s chief executive officer joined them on stage to accept the donation.

Meanwhile, across the country in Virginia, students at Al-Fatih Academy in Reston also worked for Syrian refugees, raising $5,000 and making 22 refugee welcome kits.

At the college level, Muslim Students Associations across the country gave back in many ways, including through Project Sadaqa. The MSAs competed with one another to raise funds for Syrian refugees through a tournament called the MSA Showdown. More than 200 students represented 19 universities at the event hosted in Texas. The associations each set up pages on LaunchGood, a crowdfunding site that helps raise awareness in addition to funds. Together, they raised $16,442.

IRUSA’s Abdullah Shawky accepted the MSA donation at the Showdown. He described what an incredible sight it was to see so many youth excited to help:

“It’s extremely important for youth to be engaged in programs like this, to remind them of what else may be going on in the world. It energizes them to want to help and do more for others, and the added element of competition makes them want to ‘be the best’ at helping.”

IRUSA staff hope to see more projects started by volunteers—of all ages, backgrounds and faiths—in the coming years. If you want to help, volunteer manager Said Durrah wants you there.

“It’s not necessarily the size of the resume—it’s the size of the heart,” he says.

He invites you to join one of the activities already planned, or plan one of your own.

“YOU create a project,” Durrah says. “Some of the best projects we’ve ever had were created by volunteers. They say, ‘We want to do this, we just need a little bit of support.’ And we support them.”

Pair of volunteers host dinners for charity

Sonia Laflamme and Naeem Randhawa are the perfect example of what one or two people can do.

Longtime Islamic Relief supporters, they noticed after moving to a new city that there wasn’t much activity there. So when drought and famine hit East Africa in 2011, they decided to run a fundraiser themselves to help.

They’d never organized an event like that before, and hosting several hundred people turned out to be more complicated and difficult than they’d bargained for. But a few months, a thousand details and—Sonia admits—a fair number of tears later, they did it. Alhamdulillah, their event raised $85,000 for food, water, medical care and other aid for families suffering in the terrible 2011 drought and famine.

“That’s life-changing,” said Khalid Bakali, a development coordinator for Islamic Relief USA who mentored them. “How many smiles did they put on the faces of small kids? How many hungry people have been saved because of the initiative they took?”

The pair were so relieved and happy with the result that they forgot the pain and decided to do it again the next year, this time for Syrian refugees. The planning was going much more smoothly that time—until their mentor fell sick and they were left all on their own.

“That was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to die,’” Sonya says. “We were either going to get divorced or this event was going to happen.”

They didn’t know how to proceed with the final preparations alone, but through their panic, the remembered that the refugees they wanted to help couldn’t see the road ahead either, and needed their help. So they kept going and figured it out. Naeem got some pledge cards made, and one of their helpers went to the bank and took out his own money to give change. And all the other details fell into place, and it worked.

With two dinners under their belts, why not a third one? The third year, dedicated to children in need, they gave their guests an event to remember, with entertainment and an auction run by a professional auctioneer—this is Texas, remember. By the end, attendees were taking off their jewelry and offering it up to be auctioned off as well.

Naeem said, “There’s nothing more rewarding than putting on an event like this, whether it’s with five people or 150, and looking around the room and seeing grownups cry and make that connection that you’ve made and pull out their wallets to help.”

Islamic Relief USA is a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization (Tax ID# 95-4453134) | CFC# 10194 | Islamic Relief USA © 2021 | All Rights Reserved

QUICK DONATE: