This week B.C. & Mordant are joined by Disaster Response Team Manager Hani Hamwi and two IRUSA volunteers, Rasha Mubarak and Imam Azhar Subedar. They were among the first responders following the Pulse Nightclub attacks this past June, deployed by IRUSA to provide support to the devastated Orlando community.
50 people were killed and another 53 injured in the attack, which was reportedly committed by a man who identified with the Muslim faith. As soon as the news reached IRUSA, Hani was on a plane and contacting two of his star volunteers in Orlando. “IRUSA wanted to make sure there was a strong presence on the ground from a Muslim organization,” he says.
“Our primary job was to comfort the families of those affected,” Hani says. They would also be vigilant about possible backlash that could affect Muslims. The group arrived at a senior center where families were camped out, waiting to learn the fate of their unaccounted for family members.
“It was a scene of chaos, a scene of confusion,” Imam Azhar says, describing the sights and sounds that have stayed with him since that day. “Not only are we trying to comfort them,” he adds, “but our faces are being painted as the perpetrators.”
Rasha, a longtime volunteer for IRUSA, discusses the emotional impact of the experience. “There was shrieking and wailing, and I was overwhelmed emotionally,” she says. “That’s when I remembered Islamic Relief’s training and the emotional and mental aspect of it, of having to take breaks and making sure that you’re okay, because if you’re not okay, you’re not going to be able to help others be okay.”
Hani adds that he has never experienced a deployment quite like it. He remembers 40 to 50 families weeping at the same time as they waited. “There’s sounds that I remember that just stuck with me,” he says. “It was very painful to be around. It was extremely painful.”
Yet amidst the devastation and despair, a scene of hope also emerges.
“It was such a formation of unity,” Rasha remembers. She says that what really stands out in her memory is the feeling of solidarity in the community.
“I remember while I was distributing water I was amazed that so many people came and apologized to me,” Imam Azhar says, “and I asked what are you apologizing to me for, and they said because you are always thrown under the bus. It’s not your faith, it’s not you, we totally understand this.” In this episode, Imam Azhar shares one such apology from an elderly woman that truly moved him.
Check out this week’s podcast to hear the first-hand accounts of IRUSA volunteers responding to tragedy, and how Orlando has cultivated a strong interfaith community that was ready to stand together.