'Foray into disaster relief'

Volunteers from Orlando's Islamic Center for Peace helped clean debris from city parks.

BY HEATHER MOYER | ORLANDO, Fla. | August 30, 2004

"This is really indicative of our faith, this wanting to help."

—Bassem Chaaban

Volunteers from Orlando's Islamic Center for Peace helped clean debris from city parks over the weekend - one small part of the Islamic community's foray into disaster response.

The Center for Peace is a Muslim community center that does educational outreach around Orlando, said Assistant Director Bassem Chaaban. 'The essence of our faith is peace, helping, and building community," he said.

Community-building is in full effect after Hurricane Charley devastated a wide swath of Florida. Chaaban said his organization is doing all it can to network and learn from other faith groups already skilled in disaster relief and recovery.

Already, Chaaban has attended several disaster recovery planning meetings organized by the Florida Interfaith Networking in Disaster (FIND).

"(Our disaster response) is no way to the degree of the Southern Baptists or the Lutherans, but we're working with them and seeing how we can model our relief work to be more like theirs," he explained. "We want to build a solidarity with other faiths."

Center for Peace volunteers have teamed with the American Red Cross and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to help with translation and cultural assistance in affected Muslim communities. "(FEMA and the American Red Cross) have welcomed us and really appreciate our efforts."

Chaaban added that volunteers are also doing whatever else is needed, such as helping around relief centers, holding blood drives, and even providing transportation for affected families who lost vehicles to the storm.

A lot of volunteer time has been independent of the Center for Peace as well, he added. Many Muslims Chaaban knows have gone out independently to check on neighbors and family members in damaged areas. "This is really indicative of our faith, this wanting to help," he said. 'The response has been phenomenal so far.

"This is our first real foray into disaster relief. We did gather donations after Hurricane Andrew, but this time we're trying to collaborate more with churches and other groups in order to be more organized. We're trying to learn as much as possible so we're ready next time."

According to Chaaban, there is no national Islamic disaster relief organization, which makes a more organized response challenging. Yet he said a Muslim group located in Miami is attempting to put together a national group that could help in the future.

As for hurricane damage to mosques across Florida, most escaped with little or no damage. Several had minor roof damage and many had downed trees, said Chaaban. The Center for Peace also escaped serious damage, despite Hurricane Charley ravaging many parts of the Orlando and Kissimmee areas.

On Sept. 11, the Center for Peace is holding a vigil of remembrance and a volunteer fair. 'We're inviting many agencies to participate," explained Chaaban. "It's to mark remembrance of 9/11, and it's also being done to thank the 9/11 and Hurricane Charley rescue and relief workers."

He added the event is also a chance for community members to get a break for a day and gather in fellowship. They also hope to match new volunteers with agencies that could use the help. "We want to send the message that we're part of the community and we want to help."

Chaaban said the Hurricane Charley relief effort isn't the first time his organization has united with other faiths. They've partnered with local Presbyterians in an exchange program where each faith hosts a member of the other faith. "It's a dialogue that promotes understanding," he said. "We're very humbled by their willingness to partner with us to help bring peace. We hope to do this with other faiths as well."

And as far as long-term Hurricane Charley recovery goes, the Center for Peace is in it for the long haul. "We're in it for the long-term and will do whatever it takes," Chaaban said.

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