Mosques around Texas become centers of hospitality for Hurricane Harvey victims

People are rescued along Tidwell Road near toll road 8 in Houston. Photo: Jabin Botsford, The Washington Post

STAFFORD, Texas – As the murky floodwaters of Hurricane Harvey kept rising, a vast mosque here – like several others across the state – opened its doors to Americans of all faiths. It offered a dry place to sleep, diaper-changing stations, endless coffee and sweet tea, and warm trays of Pakistani and Syrian rice dishes.

There are an estimated 250,000 Muslims who live across the Houston area, one of the most diverse cities in the country. Their mosques and charitable organizations were some of the first to open their doors during the disaster to offer supplies and shelter to their neighbors.

“Look, helping is a total no-brainer. You don’t even have to discuss or debate it,” said M.J. Khan, president of the Islamic Society of Greater Houston, who started to load up on fans, towels and bedding last weekend as the rain began to fall. “It’s part of our faith and part of being human. I always feel that this is why God created human beings: for us to help each other.”

Muslim families on Friday were celebrating the Eid al-Adha festival, one of Islam’s holiest days, coinciding with the hajj, or pilgrimage, to the Islamic holy city of Mecca. Part of the holiday’s mission is giving to the poor, and Muslims traditionally slaughter livestock and offer the meat to those less fortunate.

Girls were dressed in puffy and sparkly dresses and boys wore bow-ties they had received as donations from friends and neighbors who had not flooded. Their mothers, surrounded with the smoky, sweet smell of oud, a perfume worn on special occasions, wore dresses and headscarves.

Families at the Brand Lane Islamic Center, which includes cricket fields, a playground and elementary and middle schools, handed out Syrian pastries and cookies to a multifaith gathering. Islamic leaders said that despite large crowds arriving for prayer, it was important to them that hurricane evacuees feel welcome to stay.

“They’re No. 1. They will not be disturbed, they will not be displaced, they will not be moved,” said Khan, who operates the Champions mosque and several others that are providing shelter to Muslims and people of other faiths. He said the evacuees took precedence over his congregants. “If they have to pray in the parking lot, they’ll pray in the parking lot.”

The Islamic Society of Triplex, a Beaumont mosque, has donated hundreds of meals – as well as volunteer medical care – to their neighbors displaced by floods, even though many of the mosque’s members also had to evacuate their homes south of Houston, said Amna Ahmed, a member of the mosque.

Mosque members on Thursday night delivered meals to an estimated 500 people at the city’s two emergency shelters. One mosque member, who is a physician, also visited the shelters offering his services free of charge, Ahmed said.

This weekend, the mosque plans to bring another large supply of meals to a base where first responders were launching in Port Arthur.

The relationship between Muslims and their surrounding communities in Texas, as in other parts of the country, has been strained at times in an atmosphere of rising anti-Muslim sentiments and hate crimes.

At the Stafford mosque, dozens of neighbors of all faiths brought in cases of bottled water and canned goods this week.

Mountasser Kadrie, a professor of medicine who is Syrian-American, was staying at the mosque’s makeshift shelter during Harvey’s relentless rain when he saw “a few big white guys with tattoos coming to the mosque in a huge truck.”

They got ready to offer them shelter, he said.

“But he was bringing us cases of water – I mean in bad flooding – raining like hell,” he said. “I mean, I just sat down and I cried. I was so mentally exhausted after the flooding, and this just really choked me up.”

He showed pictures of the three young men and said perceptions on all sides were changed.

“This,” he said, “is America, our truest selves.”

Muslims here said they were simply trying to help neighbors. But in the process, members of different communities got to know each other better.

Sitting inside the Champions mosque’s gym, one non-Muslim woman told the Associated Press that she was very grateful to make it to the mosque.

“Muslims are just like any other type of person. They’re caring, loving, giving people,” Katherine McCusker said. “I feel very fortunate that they were open and willing to come and have this space.”

Non-Muslims who were being housed in mosques have taken to social media and said they really enjoyed the Muslim tradition of hospitality. Many also didn’t mind that women and men are separated at night because women said they felt as though they were getting their privacy, among strangers.

Many in the Muslim activist community were also busy helping, including Saira Siddiqui, who writes a popular blog and is a PhD student in social justice.

She was connecting people’s distress messages with volunteer boaters and the Coast Guard. She helped them find pregnant women, young children and people with disabilities of all faiths.

Siddiqui also said she was going to offer assistance to anyone who needs help filling out federal emergency assistance forms.

“Tomorrow there’s going to be a volunteer training session at someone’s home where we’ll be led and instructed by professionals on home cleanup postflood,” she said.

She also drove to an Indian restaurant because she got a call that they were preparing food for 500 people. A group of Muslims went to pick it up and drop it off at a temple close by. She said that people’s hearts “aren’t changed by facts and figures. They’re changed by stories.”

By getting to know one another, “this disaster shed all artificial boundaries,” she said. “We were one. One community. One city. For a brief moment, we stopped caring about any differences and distinctions. It was simply: Do you need my help? What can I do for you?”

Does she think it’ll stay this way?

“No, of course not,” she said. “But I think this was an opportunity for us to simply get to know one another. And that is what will bring about long-term change. ”

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