In 2015, a UTD alumnus went overseas to help with the Syrian refugee crisis. Recently, he applied his experience to lead a disaster relief training for students.
The training program is the first Muslim program to partner with the Red Cross, so attendees may receive valid certifications during the training. Islamic Relief USA regional U.S. programs coordinator Abdullah Shawky graduated from UTD in 2009 and previously worked in disaster relief efforts in the United States, such as during the 2012 Lancaster tornado in Texas.
He said he hadn’t been prepared for the scale of human suffering among the refugees when he was deployed to Greece during the Syrian refugee crisis. The total refugee count, as of 2017, is around 22.5 million refugees, with 5.5 million coming from Syria, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency.
“Disasters here in the U.S, they’ve never occurred on the scale that was in Greece,” Shawky said. “When a disaster happens, you see all this support and money and resources, whereas working in Greece, Greece itself is a country running on little resources, even more so that we were on this small, remote island.”
He was dispatched with a group of volunteers by IRUSA in October 2015 to help refugees at the height of the crisis. They worked on the island of Lesvos — an hour plane ride from mainland Greece — and helped with language translation, as well as receiving and transferring incoming refugees from boats to buses to be taken to safe locations. He said initially, he didn’t realize the scale of the crisis until he went to Lesvos and experienced it firsthand.
“For me, it was a very emotionally taxing time that I didn’t fully process until I actually got back,” Shawky said. “There’s a lot that I remember very vividly, and I think that’s part of what happened to the volunteers. We’d never seen anything like this.”
The first day they arrived, the group saw around 300 refugees. After two weeks, he said he estimated the group seeing around 7,000 refugees come to the island per day. He said the numbers kept growing, and, throughout the month they had spent in Lesvos, they had seen and transferred nearly 30,000 refugees.
While in Lesvos, Shawky was called during his lunch break one day because a baby on a recently docked boat was critically ill. He said even after passing the baby to the doctors to treat it on site and trying to transfer him to a local clinic, the baby did not survive.
“That really hit us very hard, it was the first time we’d seen a death happen in front of us, it had happened to this young baby,” Shawky said. “His name was Omar and he might have been six or eight months old. His mother was a Syrian refugee and 19 years old, she was a child herself.”
Islamic Relief at UTD, a college chapter overseen by IRUSA, coordinates IR events on campus, such as Project Downtown to feed the homeless, and the annual Disaster Relief Training. The organization conducted their annual DRT program on March 3 and 4 to train people to be prepared for disasters and to volunteer overseas in the ongoing refugee crisis if interested and able.
Umar Khalid, secretary of IRUTD, said he and his team of officers were involved in coordinating the event and began the program in spring 2017, however Islamic Relief USA covered costs and sent Shawky to help train the attendees.
Shawky said in the training, he focused on three components: disaster assessment, housing and case work. Other topics included psychological first aid, CPR and first aid, food and clothing distribution and the construction of temporary shelters.
“We pride ourselves in having some of the most trained volunteers in the disaster response community,” Shawky said. “A lot of times, other organizations take spontaneous volunteers, but anybody can do that type of help. When the disaster response team was formed back in 2011, it was set with a specific goal in mind, is to have our volunteers to have full training, to have full understanding of disaster relief.”
Khalid said the board will continue the DRT program in the future and continue to bring individuals such as Shawky to train students and others. Khalid said they are considering evening courses and spreading it over a week to accommodate for students with time constraints or those who cannot come during the weekends.
“It’s always good to learn a new skill, have another notch on the belt … with CPR and first aid,” Shawky said. “If the need were to ever arise, if the volunteer would need to use those skills to save those lives, it’s just another way for people to benefit the community.”