By: Emran El-Badawi/Contributing Writer
The now infamous Hurricane Harvey walloped southeast Texas between August 25-29, 2017. After more than one hundred tornadoes, flash flood warnings, and incessant rain, Houston was inundated with as much rain in 4 days as it usually sees during a whole year. The “biblical” storm waters and “record breaking” floods destroyed countless homes, displaced thousands and will cost our nation hundreds of billions of dollars—surpassing the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
But Houston is not your average American city. At just over 2 million people, it stands as the fourth largest US city, with a metro area encompassing over six million people. Houston is also the most ethnically diverse city in the US, with the nation’s largest oil refineries and petrochemical plants, and one of the nation’s most active seaports.
So what happens when the largest deluge in American history meets its most cosmopolitan town? The answer can be summed up in one word: community. Almost overnight the city of Houston converged into a single community of human beings, with the sole mission of saving lives and helping those displaced. The outpouring of boat rescuers, first responders, volunteers, and material support for hurricane survivors was unprecedented.
Various communities, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, immigrant, native-born, Republican, Democrat, LGBT, Hispanic, African-American, Caucasian, Asian, Arab American women, and men of every of every stripe, seamlessly converged into one family. In the wake of tragedy, diversity became the city’s salvation—or as they say in H-Town #HoustonStrong!
The Houston Arab American community was, like all others in the city, impacted by the hurricane in some way. Among the 60 plus fatalities is an Arab family who drowned trying to escape flood waters. Numerous members of the community saw their homes flooded and are in recovery mode. Numerous others played an active role in humanitarian efforts throughout the region.
For many, this was a time when the common bond of humanity surpassed all religious barriers. Salma Taher and her husband Yehia Omar dedicated their time to volunteer at the West University Church of Christ.
Several Arab American homes opened their doors to friends or neighbors who lost their homes. Farah Killidar of Houston, a single parent and professional, took in three families and turned what could have been one of the life’s most frightening and gloomy experiences into a slumber party for kids. In the hard hit suburb of Katy, Wael Abou Amin and his wife May Gaafar shared their dry home with families whose homes had lost power, buying extra mattresses when necessary.
The torrential downpours barely subsided in time for the holy day of Eid Al-Adha on August 31. The spirit of the Muslim holiday was felt throughout the Houston metro area as countless Muslims rushed to volunteer their labor and resources at shelters and damaged homes. Several major Houston mosques and Islamic centers served as official city shelters, as did numerous churches, schools, community centers, and businesses.
At the city’s two largest storm shelters, the George R. Brown Center and NRG Stadium, Arab-Americans joined their neighbors and friends to volunteer. The sheer size of the humanitarian effort and the thousands of people streaming in for aid made the experience a bit chaotic at times. The initial outpouring of support, especially Wednesday and Thursday, produced more volunteers and donations than the GRB, NRG or even the American Red Cross could handle. However, given the magnitude of this national disaster, it was a good problem to have.
None of this stopped Michael Fares and Jess Lane from helping out. Michael teaches Arabic full time at the University of Houston (UH), and Jess graduated from UH not long ago. The couple donated their translation skills, raised funds and transported food and hygiene supplies at local schools, yoga studios, and churches.
Back at UH various student groups and initiatives were out gutting homes and clearing debris. Among them were Saudi students from Hand by Hand who teamed up with Habitat for Humanity in the suburb of Meyerland.
The hurricane relief effort pushed Houston small businesses and nonprofits into overdrive. The rain had barely stopped falling and flood waters were still rising on Tuesday when Maysa Zaza, a caseworker at Alliance for Multicultural Community Services, began making food stops. Traveling in a large white van, they almost did not make it. A one hour trip now took over six hours and there were no streets to speak of, just dangerous and possibly contaminated waterways. Maysa and the two brave volunteers sent aid to Houston area refugees, disabled people and even the homeless.
The founders of Promoting Eastern Artisan Collaborative Effort (PEACE), Drs. Rand Omran and Salwan Toumajian reported that a number of their artists lost their home or property to flood waters. In addition to raising funds and providing urgently needed supplies to support them, Rand helped provide a fully functional “flood recovery financial aid” online portal for Arabic speakers across the region.
At the Bougainvilleas Event Venue and Café Caspian, business owners Badra Salameh Andrews, Massoud (Max) Bastankhah and Zack Bastankhah used their commercial scale kitchens to cook and supply food for hundreds of veterans combating PTSD at Camp Hope, as well as area refugee communities.
In a similar vein members of the Ramallah Social Club in the suburb of Missouri City, Wafa Baba and Claudia Baba, supplied hundreds of sandwiches to Houston area first responders on account of risking their lives to save others.
The stories of Houston’s sons and daughters, Arab-Americans included, saving lives and rebuilding the city are too many to recount. Leaders and members of virtually every organization contributed in cash or kind. The Arab American Cultural And Community Center, Egyptian American Society of Houston, Syrian American Club of Houston, Bilateral US-Arab Chamber of Commerce, and countless others.
West Houston remains under temporary evacuation until today. Excess floodwaters are still being drained into the Buffalo Bayou, flooding that part of the city. Most schools remain closed. The full extent of the damage will not be appreciated until all floodwaters have receded in the coming months, and a full-scale recovery will take years.
In America’s most diverse city; after one of our nation’s most devastating natural disasters, I asked my fellow Arab Americans what part of this tragedy and humanitarian blessing stuck with them the most. What images and sounds are burned into their memory? I was taken aback by two answers. “Fear,” says Maysa Zaza with Alliance, “especially if you’re a refugee and don’t speak the language.” I asked her to explain further, she replies “if you don’t know English you don’t understand the TV and radio warnings, so you don’t know where to go.” The other answer came from Michael Fares. He stopped at La Tapatia restaurant to get a bite to eat last Thursday after a long day of volunteering. “There were about 30 members of the Mexican Red Cross sitting across from us,” and the staff was rushing to serve them. Those men and women risked their lives to save the lives of Houstonians thanks to an open border with Mexico, not a border wall.
The sun now shines over Houston. The city walks upon the long road to recovery after Hurricane Harvey. The diversity of its citizens and the goodwill of its businesses serve as an example to all America that building bridges—the kinds made of concrete as well as goodwill to all humankind—makes us a stronger nation.
Arab America Contributing Writer, Dr. Emran El-Badawi, is program director and associate professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Houston. He has contributed to Forbes, The Christian Science Monitor and made dozens of national as well as international media appearances, including for The New York Times, Al-Jazeera and Association Relative à la Télévision Européenne (ARTE). He can be found on Twitter: @EmranE