While working in a shelter during Hurricane Irene, we were drastically short on volunteers at some stages. The overnights were most critical. As the worst of the storm was about to set in and we prepared to be hit, relief arrived in the form of an Islamic disaster response group. Around twelve Islamic college students, their female manager wearing a head-scarf, arrived to take over the night shift. This was a poignant moment that conflicted with all stereotypes in our media.
Our Red Cross staff was exhausted. Some of the volunteers had come from Missouri and Florida. We quickly turned over many responsibilities to the Islamic volunteer group, trusting them to manage some shelter operations. What would many Americans think of turning over power in our community to an Islamic group?
Considering the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, our heroes turned out to be who many people thought were our enemies. Working with the American Red Cross does not allow for stereotypes.
Why can’t American schools organize more response teams on the high school and university level? Just like the experience with the Islamic group, besides basic disaster response needs, these groups have the potential for real peace and community building as well as cultural sensitivity training.
Rutgers University was also a staging area for shelters. I was a graduate social work student there at the time, and Rutgers did not have a graduate level disaster response social work team. The Monmouth County Red Cross also did not have any interning relationship with the Rutgers.