Relief work continues for Pakistanis who banded together after Sandy

Before other help arrived, ICNA Relief distributed food, filled prescriptions —€” and the work still isn't done

Waqar Khan near his house (with red door) in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. One year after Sandy, it is still being repaired.
Hanifa Haris for Al Jazeera America
Sandy Pakistani
Moviz Siddiqi
Hanifa Haris for Al Jazeera America

NEW YORK — On Neptune Avenue, near the intersection of Brighton 7th Street in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn, Moviz Siddiqi is unloading bags of frozen goat meat from the back of his car. On behalf of ICNA Relief, he is donating the meat, recently slaughtered for Eid al-Adha — the Islamic holiday of sacrifice — to the local grocer, who will pass it along to community members who might otherwise go without. 

“Still there are people who don’t have the money,” Siddiqi said.

A year ago, the multiday holiday landed in the middle of Superstorm Sandy, and the usual community meat donation was put aside. But before other organizations had arrived to help the residents of Brighton Beach, ICNA Relief, the disaster-response branch of the Islamic Circle of North America, had set up camp inside Shama restaurant, organizing the community to help those in need. On the corner, Dr. Batool Hussaini was seeing patients. Pervez Siddiqui was filling prescriptions for free and Qasim Bhatti and the team at Shama were feeding the hungry. Though many residents hadn’t heard of ICNA Relief when the storm hit, a year later they haven’t forgotten.

“I was shocked they didn’t know about us — it’s a failure of our marketing,” Siddiqi said. “But now we’re a household name in this area.”

ICNA Relief is a Muslim organization that focuses all its resources on needs within the United States. Its funding comes primarily from private donations, save for a very small amount from New York City specifically designated for its food-pantry project. Getting donations for Sandy aid was a struggle, though, as many people thought FEMA was providing everything that was needed — of the $700,000 that ICNA Relief estimates it spent on Sandy relief, it received just $200,000 in donations. Many of the donors, such as Hussaini, were also volunteers. Though much of New York City’s Pakistani-American community is based in Brighton Beach, ICNA’s services were available to, and used by, people of any religion or background.

Still, Siddiqi’s own Pakistani identity meant he understood cultural norms within the diaspora. One hurdle the organization faced was the strong tendency within the culture to resist asking for or accepting help. So ICNA officials went door to door after dark, offering heaters, blankets and financial help to people who weren’t comfortable accepting it during the day.

Today Mohammad Ameen, who works in the grocery store, is grateful his employers have given him more hours since the storm — his home was flooded and he needs the extra income. After Sandy, he slept on the floor and wasn’t able to change his clothes for nearly a month. When Siddiqi heard this, he looked at Ameen in surprise. Other than a few blankets, Ameen had accepted little help from ICNA Relief.

“He didn’t ask us,” Siddiqi said.  “We were here.”

Preserving community

Just around the corner, Waqar Khan lives in a basement apartment below his family home. There are couches, a bed, a kitchenette and a bathroom, and the narrow hallway is cluttered with a supply of building materials and boxes. Khan has rigged the electrical board, which he fears might give out at any point, and the boiler hasn’t worked all year. But a little less than a year ago, when ICNA finished cleaning his home, there was nothing but the building's skeleton and debris.

“I don’t know how we got signed up for that,” Khan said, “but next thing you know they brought all the Muslim students with hammers and axes.”

Khan’s home has cost more than $100,000 to fix so far, and the repairs aren’t complete. While he, too, was reluctant to accept any help, especially of a material or financial nature (the one heater he was given, he in turn gave away), he was grateful INCA helped to gut the basement because the process would have been costly.

And Khan also knows his family was fortunate in comparison to others.

Sandy Pakistani
Rashid Tauquir
Hanifa Haris for Al Jazeera America

Rashid Tauquir was living in a basement home with his family, and lost everything. After the storm they moved into a shelter further inland, where they shared classrooms as bedrooms and were bused to showers at another site. His sister gave birth to her third child at a local hospital, then returned to the shelter with her newborn. The halal food delivered by Bazah Roohi, an accountant in neighboring Coney Island, was one of the few comforts. Though Tauquir is back in his neighborhood, the effects of Sandy sent most of his family home to Pakistan.

“Everything has been so difficult here, and there was no government support,” he said.

Local businesses have struggled, too. When Pervez Siddiqui first saw his pharmacy, the refrigerators from the back of the shop had been washed up against the front door. His staff cleaned as quickly as they could and reopened for business, working with Hussaini to distribute medicine.

The pharmacy took a significant loss. Siddiqui said he still hasn’t received reimbursement from insurance for the medicine that was ruined, or for that which he gave to patients without charging, and he has had to take out a home-equity loan. But he has also started to put together emergency kits for the pharmacy so it will be better prepared for the next disaster, and the appreciation of the community means his hard work was worth it.

“It was mainly,” he said, “to keep our community intact.”

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