Editor's Note: For more information and to donate to Melanie’s earthquake fundraiser, click here. To follow along with Melanie’s IG stories from Turkey, click here. A portion of the proceeds from all Haute Hijab sales this week will be donated to earthquake relief efforts.
How do we respond, as a Muslim ummah, when a terrible tragedy befalls our own people, unfolding into a crisis that will last for months to come? What should we do from where we are, when the strongest impulse is to drop everything and physically go and help, but that’s virtually impossible? How do we, as time passes, keep the pain and needs of our fellow sisters and brothers in our hearts and not let compassion fatigue overtake us?
More than a week after two massive earthquakes devastated parts of Turkey and Syria, with more than 30,000 having died
, Islamic Relief USA has taken a team of Muslim spiritual and movement leaders to Gaziantep and other areas in Turkey to minister to earthquake relief workers and survivors, amplify and share their stories, and continue to push fundraising efforts. Our own Melanie Elturk, Haute Hijab founder and CEO, has joined the team, composed of Dr. Haifaa Younis, Sheikh Suleiman Hani, Sheikh Abdullah Oduro and Sheikh Yaser Birjas.
A child's shoe on the ground in Turkey; image source: Haute Hijab
While IRUSA has taken teams into disaster and crisis areas before to help with raising awareness and fundraising, this is the first time the charity organization has taken a team in the immediate wake of a disaster. I spoke with IRUSA’s Engagement Manager Naeem Muhammad about why this decision was made.
“That they’re going during an active emergency – this is something that is fresh and unfolding, and it’s so massive. It’s a delicate balance of what we’re trying to do,” Naeem said.
“We’ve seen cases where people have gone and different groups have made it into sightseeing or ‘voluntourism.’ That’s the delicate thing that we’re trying to make sure is not happening here. It’s going to [take] hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars to rebuild. Having [this team] go at this time, as we lead into Ramadan, they’re going to take this information and bring it back home and really bang the drum for the folks back home.”
Answering the Call of Disaster Relief Work
In disaster relief work, timing is critical, and the attention communities have to give to a crisis happening somewhere in the world can be limited due to the nature of how humans are and the never ending news cycle of things that happen that capture our attention. This was something I learned myself years ago when I worked with IRUSA coordinating their website campaigns.
(Donate here to Melanie’s IRUSA fundraising page for earthquake relief efforts in Turkey and Syria.)
I spoke with Melanie before she left, literally while she was at the airport getting ready to take her flight, about why she answered the call.
“Honestly, something in my heart told me I had to. When [IRUSA] first asked me, I actually thought of every reason I couldn’t go, because I was scared. And then, Subhanallah, something in my heart was like – you have to go. So I was like ok, I have to do this. I didn’t allow my mind to convince me out of it, and I followed my heart, I just listened to God’s voice, Alhamdulillah."
Melanie got to know several children in Turkey who are refugees from Syria, and how their lives were affected by the earthquakes.
Naeem said one of the reasons they organized this team, which includes several imams, is to bring spiritual care to the IRUSA staff on the ground in Turkey and to earthquake survivors. “The workers at Islamic Relief (we have over 150 staff in between Turkey and Syria) are going nonstop right now. I think we had two deaths of staff [in the] quake, and of the staff who are working on the ground, 20 family members have been lost. And that’s only the people who we know of.
“These people are working 20 plus hours a day, sleeping in unsafe buildings or anywhere they can to continue the relief efforts,” Naeem said. "There’s an effort to speak to them and their hearts directly, let them know that the community is behind them. We need to take care of the caregivers.
“And again, we want folks like Melanie to be true ambassadors. Melanie is the youngest [person of this group], which is making a long-term investment in young folks in becoming lifelong humanitarians. As someone who is marshaling this international brand, it’s a big thing. And to the people she speaks to – these are the people [whose support will inform] how we respond to disasters and other situations,” Naeem said.
Melanie said while she was nervous to go, she knew things like this aren’t a coincidence. "Even if you look at the group I’m going with – it’s sheikh, sheikh, sheikh, sheikha, Melanie. Which one doesn’t belong? But I know it’s not like that at all, Alhamdulillah. I have to be me, I have my own gifts and skills and talents. Clearly Allah (S) wants me there for a reason.”
Image source: IRUSA
There is a lot of love to give, Melanie said, and she hopes to share that in Turkey. “I want to hug as many kids as I can, I really want to do that. And, I hope to raise as much money as possible through all the exposure we’re all bringing to this disaster on our own social media platforms. I’m kind of acting as an intermediary between all the people who wish they could be here and the people who need to see what’s going on in order to then help. Insha’Allah I can serve as that medium.”
What Do We Do About Compassion Fatigue?
I asked Melanie about how one manages compassion fatigue and trauma, which are very real things. In my time at IRUSA, I would get overwhelmed at times in constantly working on disaster relief efforts from afar and immersing myself in the stories and lives of people in need and those who have suffered so much. Sometimes we feel guilty for needing to turn away when witnessing the suffering of fellow humans. So, how can we maintain compassion? What do we do?
“This is a hard question for me,” Melanie told me. “Because I’m such a compassionate person, because I’m such an empath, that’s why this is so hard for me. I’m just a gentle soul and really sensitive to human suffering. So, it’s easy for me to keep scrolling or not look at it. I don’t watch news, I don’t even consume social media, and I don’t really use any other platform other than Instagram. I've done a really good job at staying in this little bubble where I don’t have to see anything.
“So I don’t know. I’m hoping that I find out how to maintain compassion without being triggered. Outside of donating money, you feel so helpless. Even posting things just feels like an echo chamber at times, and you wonder whether or not what you’re doing is even effective. And sometimes things are just a huge distraction. This 24 news feed cycle is very distracting and it gets us crippled by fear and anxiety, and I can’t live by those vibrations.”
Melanie in Turkey with Islamic Relief USA; image source: IRUSA
At the end of the day, for those of us not in Turkey and Syria, for those of us sitting at home and desperately wanting, somehow, to make a difference, there are things we can do.
“Give of your money. And don’t be stingy. Like really give, because Allah (S) will give it back to you tenfold.” Melanie said. “Now is the time to do this. And the best thing we can do is du’a. Rasool alayhi as salam said du’a is the weapon of the believer, and it’s true. Our prayers are so important, and we cannot underestimate the power of du’a and praying for our brothers and sisters and our ummah,” she said.
“I know it doesn’t seem like a lot, but it’s a lot.”
Pray for the ummah, Melanie said, because in praying for the ummah, you’re praying for yourself. “Imagine all those prayers going up to Allah (S) being answered, but also going back to you, and how that reverberates within the entire ummah. And then of course, in our circles of influence, whatever that looks like, encourage people to donate. Spread awareness, encourage people to give generously of their money.
“This isn’t some socio-political issue that needs education and awareness. The earthquake survivors need money. So give of your money, make du’a, donate to my IRUSA earthquake fundraiser
or to anywhere reputable that’s giving to this disaster.”
For more information and to donate to Melanie’s earthquake fundraiser, click here. To follow along with Melanie’s IG stories from Turkey, click here. A portion of the proceeds from all Haute Hijab sales this week will be donated to earthquake relief efforts.