By Jerod MacDonald-Evoy, The Republic, Feb. 24, 2018
A Muslim-founded non-profit works alongside Mormon missionaries and other faiths in Arizona to serve those in need locally and abroad.
In a small building tucked into an industrial area of Chandler, a group of volunteers quietly packs boxes bound for far away lands.
“It’s a good feeling,” 12-year-old Aman Aar said as he helps load boxes into a shipping container. “We all come together as one and learn new perspectives.”
That includes building understanding about people around the globe and here at home.
Gul Siddiqi is the area manager for the Arizona chapter of Helping Hand for Relief and Development, which began three years ago. The non-profit partners with government agencies and the private sector to send aid to areas of disaster and humanitarian crises.
They also help refugees in the Phoenix area and hope to educate the community about this population that many know little about.
Helping Hand primarily gets support from members of the Muslim community but strong interfaith partnerships such as with missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have developed.
Boxes from Helping Hand for Relief and Development ready to be shipped.
Assistant Manager Mustafa Alalusi said not all problems can be solved, but the effort is “a message of hope.”
‘God is love and you feel it whether you’re in a mosque or in a church’
Susan Whetten Udall, executive director for the Mesa Welcome Center for Immigrants and Refugees, became aware of Siddiqi’s work at an inter-faith event in Tempe.
Volunteers at Helping Hand for Relief and Development create a line to carry boxes out to a shipping container which will be shipped off to refugees.
Udall was looking to learn more about the Muslim faith and a local Imam told her about the local woman-led Muslim non-profit. She went to the Helping Hands’ warehouse and instantly realized it was something she wanted to be a part of.
“I just asked, ‘what can we do to help you?'” Udall said.
Soon she was helping pack boxes for those in need.
A box of supplies that contains, a blanket, toiletries, cooking supplies and more, awaits to be sent out from Helping Hand for Relief and Development.
Udall and others from the Mormon Church have partnered with Siddiqi since spring 2016. Both belong to religious groups that can be the subject of false information or controversy.
There were 354 reported anti-Muslimincidents in the United States in the third quarter of 2017, according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Volunteers with Helping Hand for Relief and Development help sort and pack boxes that are sent to various countries.
“God is love and you feel it whether you’re in a mosque or in a church,” Udall said.
Muslims and Mormons collectively make up 7 percent of the religious population in metro Phoenix, according to a 2014 Pew Center Research report.
Evangelical Protestant, Catholic and unaffiliated make up 72 percent of the the Valley’s religious population.
Boxes full of supplies sit ready to be shipped out to areas in need.
“There’s truth in all sources,” Udall said, adding that she and others have learned much from one other while filling boxes at Siddiqi’s warehouse.
Members of local Mormon, Christian, Sikh and Hindu faiths have all helped pack and load containers full of aid.
Udall and Siddiqi both hope that interfaith partnerships for the betterment of mankind will cut through the negativity that can be aimed at religious groups.
“We come together on a common platform,” Siddiqi said. “That’s what unites us.”
As for Islamophobia, “I know it’s out there,” Siddiqi said. She’s heard from friends who were harassed or had people aggressively question their faith.
“If you’re really concerned and really want to know about the religion, there are plenty of ways to do that,” Siddiqi said,suggesting people can visit their local mosque.
Boxes full of hope
Helping Hand’s main mission is to provide aid to people in areas of crisis, Siddiqi said.
The volunteer-loaded boxes contain items such as medical kits, canned food and water. The packed boxes are then loaded into large metal shipping containers and sent to locations hit by natural disasters or refugee camps.
Three years ago, Siddiqi was working at Verizon and wanting to do more with her life.
“It was a blessing in disguise,” she said when she saw the job post to start a Helping Hand chapter in Arizona.
“We come together on a common platform. That’s what unites us.” Gul Siddiqi, area manager of Arizona chapter of Helping Hand for Relief and Development
She got involved and soon they were shipping containers across the globe and to people here at home, such as victims of Hurricane Irma.
“My passion became to help families that were vulnerable,” Siddiqi said.
But sending supplies isn’t always as simple as it seems.
That has included trying to ship containers of supplies to refugees in Bangladesh. Escalating violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine region has created a massive refugee crisis with many fleeing to nearby Bangladesh.
The Muslim population of Myanmar, known as the Rohingya, are being attacked and killed in what the United Nations has called the fastest growing refugee crisis in the world.
“Due to their own political issues they are not letting it in,” Siddiqi said of the supply containers. The non-profit redirected the supplies through another country in hopes of getting the items to the refugees.
Maricopa County saw 110 refugee arrivals in 2017 and similar numbers are expected in 2018, according to the Arizona Department of Economic Security.
For Siddiqi and her group, empowering those refugees arriving in the Phoenix area, especially Chandler, is a key part of the work they do.
That empowerment can be in the form of making sure the refugees have items that most take for granted such as clothes, supplies and training on how to find jobs and interact with Americans.
Stigmas around refugees is something Siddiqi said she hopes to change.