Harvey Survivors Find Hope: From California to Corpus Christi

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Wasan Abu Baker with Father Bruce Wilson and Violet Russell Edwards, a leader in her community at the Calvary First Baptist Church in Corpus Christi. Vanessa Richardson, FEMA and Red Cross workers assisting the victims of Harvey and provide them with the help they need. Photo courtesy of Wasan Abu-Baker.

By Wasan Abu-Baker

Editor’s Note: A version of this article was published in Kings River Life Magazine at http://kingsriverlife.com/10/28/harvey-survivors-find-hope-from-california-to-corpus-christi-in-texas/. It is republished with permission.

A few days before Harvey Hurricane made landfall, my husband left our new home to perform the Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. As the hurricane approached, and in the days before that, my phone was ringing like crazy with weather warnings and cautions to leave South Padre Island. Given my experience growing up in a war zone, I quickly began to think about the safety of my children. My husband and I thought it would be best for us to leave the island for safety.

It had only been a few weeks since we moved to Corpus Christi, Texas, from Fresno, where we had lived for three years. We had no idea how to prepare for a hurricane and didn’t have many friends here yet to help us figure things out. I sent the kids to school that morning and went home to pack our most essential things.

We were lucky enough that a friend of my husband’s from work was in contact with us to help us figure out where to go. So we packed the car, picked up the kids in the afternoon, and left Corpus Christi to go to Dallas, following each other on the road. We knew that Houston and maybe San Antonio would get affected by the storm, so we went as far away from the hurricane’s path as possible.

The road to Dallas was crowded, people were trying to evacuate at the same time, and there were many car accidents. We drove 10 hours until we reached our hotel in Dallas. We were exhausted and afraid, not knowing how bad the storm would be. Each day, we woke up watching the news and each day we witnessed more people escaping the storm coming to the hotel. We met many evacuees coming from Houston who also did not know how bad the storm would be and feared the worst.

Hurricane Harvey hit Padre Island, Port Aransas, and many more areas close by, leaving damaged houses, businesses, churches, museums and schools. We kept hearing that the hurricane wasn’t over and that it would do a lot more damage, so we were unsure when to go back or whether we should at all. After a few days in the hotel, we decided to return to Corpus Christi just days before our Eid Al-Adha holiday.

We arrived back in Corpus Christi late at night. Although we tried to make a reservation at a hotel, because it was dark and the hotel had lost power, we weren’t able to find it. So we had no choice but to go back to our rental on Padre Island not knowing what we would find. When we arrived it was windy and scary. It felt like we were the only people on the island and we probably were. We were relieved to find that we still had power and no flooding had occurred. There was sand everywhere around the house, but everything was still dry.

The kids dozed off quickly from exhaustion, but I couldn’t sleep hearing the wind outside and all the sirens in the distance. It was not a good homecoming. The next morning, we went to the grocery store and saw that the shelves were almost completely empty. We did have some contacts in Corpus Christi, some friends we had met through an interfaith group, who invited us to dinner at their house. This made things a little more normal, and we greatly appreciated that. I was grateful for those who helped us find safety and made us feel welcome in a new place.

I felt weak during this disaster, which is something I am not used to. I am usually the one helping those in need, especially during my work in Fresno with refugee families, helping them find homes and the necessities of life. This time, it was my family that needed shelter and a welcoming home.

At the end of the week, we went to the mosque and celebrated Eid Al-Adha with other Muslims in the city and we felt the sadness there. The Imam was encouraging us to empower each other, help others overcome this disaster and to be patient in the face of this challenge. We collected donations, and through this I regained my strength, partnering with others in the Muslim community of Corpus Christi to help those less fortunate. Through this, I also met many more new friends and families who helped me and my kids overcome our fear and difficulty during this time.

Wasan Abu-Baker’s children, Layan, Omar, and Lamees Abu Baker after a few days of Hurricane Harvey. They returned back to Padre Island safe. Photo courtesy of Wasan Abu-Baker.

I continued to look for other opportunities to work with interfaith leaders to help the Corpus Christi community. Many faith leaders combined their efforts to do fund-raisers and open prayers for the victims of the hurricane. Through these partnerships between different faiths, we found ways to work together to serve people. The nonprofit organizations, the governmental organizations and the faith-based organizations all wanted to help. The week after the hurricane I visited other Texas cities such as Port Aransas and saw the massive damage to them, which broke my heart.

We use different terms to label people.refugees, evacuees and immigrants.and what is common among them is that they have all lost safety and security. Hurricane Harvey brought back memories from the past and made me reflect on the world around us where people are being killed, injured and forced to flee their homes because of terrifying conflicts or natural disasters. Oppression, persecution and financial crises are forcing people to seek safety and protection, which is not entirely different from what we saw with Hurricane Harvey.

According to the United Nations, 125 million people around the world have had their lives devastated by conflict or disaster, and countless families are being pushed deeper into poverty every day. Through governments, aid agencies and the United Nations, the world provides humanitarian aid to millions of people behind the scenes. Countless heroes are stepping forward with their leadership skills to help.

I believe as an American Muslim that my faith and upbringing give me a sense of responsibility to care for others and comfort their pain and sadness. If our hearts are not strong, then when we are tested, we will not have the will to care for those in greatest need. My beliefs also empower me to inspire people to always try to do good for humanity by serving those in need. We all must pass on this inspiration to each other, no matter which faith we have. We must serve all humans in need and strive to do good in this life for others. In Islam, helping others is a core principle where we are encouraged to contribute positively to society.

When I was a child in Palestine, we learned about all religions in school and that those religions agreed that every human regardless of her/his faith had a natural right to food, clothing and shelter. In the early history of Islam, when many Muslims escaped Mecca (Muhajirin) because they were being tortured because of their faith, the Muslims of Madinah (Al Ansar) supported them, brought them into their homes and cared for them as if they were family. The Prophet Muhammad said that “the example of the believers in their affection, mercy and compassion for each other is that of a body. When any limb aches, the whole body reacts with sleeplessness and fever.”

We need to realize that our brothers and sisters are suffering, and they need us just as we need them; we should feel pain and anguish when we hear stories of their suffering, and this should motivate us to perform constructive action in the form of charity donated through trustworthy and authentic relief organizations.

Faith groups have an important role to play in strengthening resilience and reinforcing the unity of the community. Faith is important because individuals who hold these beliefs can recover from or manage crises well. Interviews with survivors of hurricanes and tsunamis reveal that belief and prayer remain important in helping many people to cope with disaster.

In many disaster areas in other parts of the world, the population goes without drinking water, power, food and communication for weeks. These disasters deserve more coverage in the news and a better-coordinated response. What came to mind a couple of days after Harvey, as I drove around Rockport, Port Aransas and other places nearby, was the destruction I had witnessed when I was a child living in a war zone. Having a community to help me and my family overcome the difficulty was important. This is why I feel strongly that if we are able, we must be there for those in need.

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Wasan Abu-Baker was born and raised in Palestine and was brought up in a highly educated household. She moved to the United States after she married her husband and has three kids. She earned her master’s degree in special education and is a community leader; is an advocate for refugees, especially Syrian refugees; and did a fellowship at the American Friends Service Committee of Pan Valley Institute. She was a staff member at Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries (FIRM) to serve Syrian refugees and a member of the Central Valley Islamic Valley Council (CIVIC), a large council that includes all the Islamic centers in the Central Valley. She now lives in Corpus Christi, Tex.