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Faith groups share resources

In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Adem Carroll remembers escorting Muslims from their homes in New York City to the places where they might get help.

BY SUSAN KIM | ALBANY, N.Y. | October 24, 2004

"We started getting calls on Sept. 12 from working people who were in harm's way."

—Susan O'Brien

In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Adem Carroll remembers escorting Muslims from their homes in New York City to the places where they might get help.

Carroll isn't a cop or a security guard - he's relief coordinator for the Islamic Circle of North America, and he has been walking alongside Sept. 11 survivors for more than three years now.

"They were afraid to go out," he said.

There are 600,000 Muslims in the New York City area. "And Muslims who were already feeling disenfranchised before Sept. 11 then hesitated or avoided receiving some of the benefits they could have received. Right after the disaster, an amazing array of services were available but many clients did not come forward at that point."

There were 96,000 "tips" called into FBI officials and local law enforcement shortly after the attacks, he added. "People got rounded up. Authorities had to sift through those. We've helped more than 650 detainees. It has been our second disaster."

And it's not over by any means, he said. "There is a lingering sense that all these people were arrested and linked to terrorism. We are trying to help a man who is having mental health problems. He says every time he drives his car he gets pulled over. Either he feels he's being persecuted, or he is being persecuted or both, I don't know."

For many Sept. 11 survivors who are having mental health problems, physical ailments, or financial challenges, faith-based groups like Carroll's are their only line of hope.

The faith community's response to disasters has unprecedented visibility right now, observed Peter Gudaitis, executive director and CEO of New York Disaster Interfaith Services (NYDIS), a nonprofit that develops and leads faith-based disaster readiness, response, and recovery services for New York.

"It is a myth that the faith community is just one aspect of response," he said. "Because the reality is that, many times, the faith-based community is the only response outside of the government."

In the wake of Sept. 11, both New York City and state officials had trouble finding a consistent point of contact within the faith community, Gudaitis said.

But since NYDIS was created, communications between local government officials and the faith community have opened up, he said.

The ICNA is one of NYDIS's governing members, and linking up with other faith groups has helped stretch limited resources, added Carroll. "It takes time to develop trust and working relationships. I wish more of my community would engage in such partnerships."

In the year 2000, he pointed out, 55% of all mosques around the country had no paid staff. "We are terribly under-resourced," he said, and linking up with other faith groups has offered new ways to access resources and exchange ideas.

Susan O'Brien of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH) also found surprising resources from the faith community in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

"We started getting calls on Sept. 12 from working people who were in harm's way," she said. "We began to respond to this."

Despite federal reassurances that the air was safe to breathe - later found to have no empirical studies to back them up - workers in and around Ground Zero were suffering from respiratory ailments and other health problems.

"And we heard from these folks we'd never heard from before - the United Church of Christ (UCC) and Church World Service (CWS)," said O'Brien. "They were coming to say they wanted to help, that they wanted to form a coalition. It has been an incredibly wonderful partnership."

UCC and CWS have provided financial support for NYCOSH programs that offered, almost immediately after Sept. 11, mobile medical units for workers and free respiratory protection.

Once again, the faith-based community became a sole lifeline of hope for many people, agreed Diane Stein of the Mt. Sinai Hospital Center for Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

"There was no federal response for people who clearly needed medical examination and care after the disaster," said Stein.

After months of advocacy from a coalition of faith-based and community-based groups, Stein and her colleagues now have federal money that will allow them to conduct a medical monitoring program that will span five years.

But they can't use those federal funds to treat people, said Stein. "So we turned to private fundraising. But even private funds couldn't provide the medication necessary for treatment."

That's where the faith-based community - with significant financial support from UCC - filled the gap, she said, "and I have to say it was the most sane and wonderful process I have ever had doing this kind of work."

But if partnerships between faith-based groups and partnerships between the faith community and government officials are strengthening - how does that filter down to a local pastor?

More training is available to clergy and their congregations, pointed out Gudaitis.

"After Sept. 11, many clergy felt ill-prepared to deal with the needs in their congregations."

In the past year, NYDIS has raised $3.5 million to help meet the lingering needs of Sept. 11 survivors. And training is an increasingly important part of NYDIS's outreach, said Gudaitis.

"I don't think your average religious leader knows what to do in a disaster unless they've had training."

Knowing what to do for a disaster survivor who arrives at your church is crucial, agreed Susan Lockwood, NYDIS's director of disaster planning and training. "People will start asking: Where is God in this? What is the meaning of life?" she said. "Ritual can help with anxiety, and offer comfort and healing. And then clergy end up walking with them through the whole process of rebuilding their lives."

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