Students provide for city’s international refugees
On a road in Baghdad, Ghada Fouad’s life changed forever.
Iraq was engulfed in sectarian violence in the wake of the US-led invasion in 2003, and Fouad’s husband was to be its next victim. As he was driving with his family, his car was ambushed by gunmen. Fouad, at the time pregnant with her third child, watched her husband die.
Eventually, in order to protect her children, she fled with them to neighboring Jordan.
Fouad found herself in a UN refugee camp in Jordan and applied for asylum. Fouad and her children were sent to Houston with only the clothes on their backs and a handful of possessions.
Social workers provided her with an apartment, enrolled her children in school, and gave her food stamps for about six months.
Fouad’s apartment was in one of the roughest neighborhoods in Houston. Unable to speak English and surrounded by violence in a country foreign to her, she refused to open the door for anyone and wouldn’t let her children attend school. The food had run out.
It was then that a refugee neighbor mentioned Fouad’s situation to Ghulam Kehar.
In 2007, the UH campus was unfamiliar to Ghulam Kehar. He was a new economics student and was slowly becoming accustomed to the University.
In August of that year, he heard about an Islamic seminar on charity taking place on campus and decided to attend. Deeply inspired by the seminar, Kehar and a few classmates decided to sacrifice their time to help the needy. In his charity work, Kehar realized Houston was full of refugees who were desperate for help.
In July 2008, he and his friends founded Al Amaanah, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping refugees. Al Amaanah, which in Arabic means “The Trust,” began offering food, rent assistance and other basic necessities to their “clients,” as they call them.
Unlike other organizations, though, they provided emotional support to refugees, befriending them and integrating them into American society.
It was in this capacity that Kehar first knocked on Fouad’s door.
“It took us 15 minutes to talk her into opening the door,” Kehar said. “We had to convince her that we meant her no harm and we are only there to support her.”
Al Amaanah soon helped Fouad to move to a better neighborhood and introduced her to the surrounding community. Kehar and his team helped enroll the eldest daughter, Haneen, in Houston Community College where she took English as a second language and is now seeking a degree in Petroleum Engineering. Mohammed, her son in high school, was hired by Al Amaanah to help with the delivery of furniture to other refugees.
“(Fouad) is also enrolled in HCC where she is learning English. She is also working for Al Amaanah,” Kehar said. “She helps with the deliveries and provides support to others who were in her shoes. They are now giving back to the community.”
Houston is one of the largest recipients of refugees in the US, with families coming from Burma, Nepal, Somalia, Liberia, Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries. Depressed from the ravages of war, these families struggle to make a new life here.
“We provide a personal approach,” graduate student in business administration and social work Tabinda Ghani said. “We assist refugees in their integration into society while maintaining their honor. We have a personal connection with our clients and we’re invested in getting them back on their feet.”
Al Amaanah has rapidly grown over the years. It now has over 200 volunteers, most of whom are UH students. They have assisted approximately 800 refugees and document their experiences on www.alamaanah.com.
“It is a humbling experience to see how much Al Amaanah has grown,” Kehar said. “We don’t realize how much we have grown until we step back from the work and see where we are. We have reached hundreds and benefited their lives.”
Kehar, Ghani and other volunteers sacrifice their sleep and free time in order to juggle their school responsibilities while making Al Amaanah what it is today. Encouragement from the community and the fruits of their labor became their driving force.
“As students, we have time now that we might not have later. We have what some people can only dream of,” Ghani said. “This is the ideal time to give back. Go out and volunteer somewhere. Anywhere. Give back.”