(An edited version of this article appeared in the Jan/Feb 2018 issue of Islamic Horizons Magazine: https://issuu.com/isnacreative/docs/ih_january-february_18)
La mezquita de Vega Alta or the Vega Alta Mosque is an iconic site for Puerto Rican Muslims. Nestled on a mountaintop surrounded by broad palm branches and lush greenery, the mosque, also known as Masjid Al Farooq, is visible from Route 2 in Vega Alta, Puerto Rico. Some have even described it as resembling a castle, with its single dome and minaret towering over the rectangular structure with arched windows; it is the largest Islamic center in Puerto Rico. Like other buildings and residences on this tropical paradise, its cement walls have been painted and repainted in bright color patterns, forest green and mint years ago, and more recently a rusty orange with blue accents. On an island whose Muslim population is only between .1% and .2% of the total population of over 3.4 million, Masjid Al Farooq is one of nine mosques, but by far, the most recognized.
Sadly, the beautiful mirage that towers over Vega Alta lost its glimmer and allure. The trees that once hugged the structure were stripped of their branches and leaves, its palm trees were uprooted, and many of the arched windows of the mosque were shattered by the violent wind gusts and heavy rain that pounded all of Puerto Rico on September 20th. Only two weeks before, Hurricane Irma had swept over the Northern Coast, leaving behind power outages and other damage, which affected Masjid Al-Farooq, but it was Hurricane María that became the island’s greatest catastrophe since the early 20th century, sparing nothing in its vicious path.
For Tareq Majed, a member of the Board of Directors of the Vega Alta Mosque and its facility manager, it was disheartening to assess the damages after Hurricane María. In addition to the lack of electricity and access to running water common throughout the island, there were the broken windows, the demolished signs and wreckage around the perimeter and inside the center, soaked carpets sprinkled with cracked pieces of glass, and a new threat of mold. The estimated cost of rebuilding is approximately $80K.
A Palestinian immigrant, Majed has been committed to the reconstruction since the hurricane, although he says that others have been thinking about abandoning the island. “This storm has set the country back about 50-60 years,” He explained, “There is a lot of destruction. Currently we have not received help from anyone. We are doing everything on our own. Most of the community members are Arabs and I understand that there are those who want to leave because the recovery is slow, and this can provoke violence and there is no work for the people.” Despite the hardships, the mosque has maintained its doors open for prayers, powered by a generator and lanterns, and constantly refilling their 1200-gallon water reserve for wudu. They have cleaned up most of the debris and were able to finally broadcast their Friday prayers live on November 3rd.
Other masajid were not as fortunate. The Montehiedra Mosque in Puerto Rico, which also houses An-Noor School, was about 50% destroyed, according to Wesley “Abu Sumayyah” Lebrón, a Puerto Rican Muslim who visited the center while on a humanitarian mission with an initiative called the Three Puerto Rican Imams Project. The rug was completely damaged, and its single minaret collapsed along with some of its walls, roofing, and fence. Lebrón was able to visit two other Islamic Centers and receive reports from other Muslims on the island. “(The mosque in) Hatillo got completely wet inside and will need new rugs, (they) also had worms inside the masjid from the flooding,” He informed, while the mosque in Ponce was not suitable for prayers, “It is full of mold and spores. The smell (inside) was terrible. The rug had major mold growing on it and the entire musalla was soaked.” It was unclear when this mosque would receive assistance or reopen its doors; the Montehiedra Mosque, however, has been accommodating their community members and providing them with a place to pray and share food, even if it is outside.
The Diaspora in Action
Hurricane María ripped through all of Puerto Rico and caused widespread devastation, and it triggered a tidal wave of emotions among Puerto Ricans living inside and outside of the island, igniting a fire of patriotism and consciousness. For Puerto Rican Muslims in the United States, like Lebrón, this sentiment is twofold; as Muslims, providing relief is a call of duty, but as Puerto Ricans, it is a tragedy affecting them and their families directly. Lebrón lost one of his cousins because of the unsanitary conditions residents have been tackling since the storm. As part of the diaspora, Muslim Puerto Ricans are dealing with the trauma of witnessing the place they call home being torn to pieces and their families suffering.
Imam Yusuf Rios, a Chaplain and Director of The Shaukani Institute for the Study of Islamic Sciences, Arabic Language, and Leadership, in Cleveland, Ohio, is a Puerto Rican convert of 20 years. Rios was vigilant from the mainland when Puerto Rico was bracing for Hurricane Irma, but it was after María, that he felt the most desperation. He said, “This hurricane has created a sense of responsibility in me so that the anxiety over the wellbeing of my relatives and others is being channeled into working to alleviate the conditions of hardship that many are experiencing.”
Rios, along with two other Puerto Rican Muslim leaders, Lebrón from New Jersey and Imam Abdullah Daniel Hernández from the Islamic Society of Greater Houston at Pearland, created the Three Puerto Rican Imams Project to provide direct aid to the people of Puerto Rico. The three imams have since raised close to $100,000 for this purpose and have traveled personally to deliver goods to those affected. During Rios’ first trip, he teamed up with ICNA Relief to assess the damages on the island and strategize, and to also check on his own family.
Some of his relatives reside in the most affected areas, where the Category 5 entered the island, the towns of Yabucoa and Humacao, as well as Anasco on the western coast. Because the hurricane annihilated Puerto Rico’s power grid, families lost communication with one another, causing undue stress for those on the mainland and on the island. Rios recalls, “I experienced a deep sense of anxiety and helplessness. I was able to go to the Island and make physical contact with some family members, but not all my relatives.” Rios has since traveled there two more times to distribute food, water, cash assistance, and other supplies to families and community kitchens throughout Puerto Rico through the 3 Puerto Rican Imams Project. Rios, like many others, have decided that the most effective way to help Puerto Rico is by taking matters into their own hands.
What is unique about the situation in Puerto Rico is that this unprecedented tragedy has struck in a territory of the United States. However, this island does not house “typical Americans.” In Puerto Rico, the main spoken language is Spanish and the culture is a mixture of native “Taíno,” Spanish, North African, West African, and even Italian. It is a tropical archipelago with summer temperatures year-round, housing North America’s only rainforest, with rolling hills of greenery where brightly colored flowers abound against a horizon of vast blue ocean.
Despite this blissful scenery, Puerto Ricans are often forced to leave their land in search of better opportunities of employment and living conditions. This is due to problematic laws and oppressive policies related to its political status as a colony, or commonwealth, of the United States. The state of limbo in which the Puerto Rican people have found themselves for more than one hundred years does not allow the island to fully prosper as either a state of the union or a sovereign nation. Now, in the aftermath of the greatest, most unforgiving hurricane to ever devastate the land, the complexities of this relationship have been brought to light. Rios further elaborated, “What is a concern and a point that needs to be communicated is that Puerto Rico is in serious trouble on a number of levels. The problem in Puerto Rico needs long-term solutions and immediate response to deal with the immediate need. The demands go back to systemic issues in economy and politics. In any case, people are suffering and dying, and in need of immediate aid, especially the elderly and the chronically ill.”
The Slow Relief Process
Following the catastrophic path of Hurricane María, the American news media presented the headline: “Puerto Rico has been destroyed.” However, the spirit of the Puerto Rican people would not be broken. While the world watched intently and waited, they began to pick up the pieces of their shattered communities in the slow process of rebuilding. It was now up to the United States to come to its territory’s aid, and so all eyes turned to the White House.
Puerto Rican activists, celebrities, and politicians, including the Mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz, voiced that the United States, which has all but ignored a recent referendum pushing for Puerto Rico to become a state of the union, was also slow to recognize the state of emergency unfolding on the island immediately after hurricanes Irma and María. Cruz accused the US government of placing hurdles in the relief process and pleaded on national television for the US to put an end to its bureaucratical policies and “help save lives,” after aid was being stalled due to unnecessary paperwork and lack of organization. Two weeks after Hurricane María followed its destructive path, President Trump finally paid a brief visit to Puerto Rico.
He praised relief efforts and congratulated governor, Ricardo Roselló, for the progress made, but was widely criticized for making a comparison between the disaster and Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the Gulf coast from central Florida to Texas in 2005. He stated, “Every death is a horror, but if you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina, and you look at the tremendous – hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people that died, and you look at what happened here, with really a storm that was just totally overpowering, nobody’s ever seen anything like this.” He was referring to the death toll in Puerto Rico, which at that moment, officials claimed to be only 16, a number which doubled by the end of the same day.
To date, the official death toll is 55, and there have been over 900 deaths reported, which may have been caused by the hurricane, but cannot be confirmed because the bodies were cremated. According to a study by CNN released on November 20th, two months since Hurricane María, the total number of deaths due to or directly related to the hurricane is 499. Even two months later, less than 50% of the island has electricity, there are people who have not received any aid whatsoever, who have no communication, no food, and no water; they are literally on the verge of starvation in America’s backyard.
A Message of Hope
Since María, Puerto Ricans on the mainland US have limited communication with their relatives. In the immediate aftermath, thousands browsed through social media, posting pictures of missing persons, and downloaded walkie talkie apps to piece together clues about the welfare of their families in the days and weeks following the hurricane. From one moment to the next, power had been shut off by brutally damaging winds, as if the island had been wiped off the map.
One Muslim Puerto Rican woman described living through the storm felt like the world was coming to an end. Her and her two daughters spent the night of the hurricane hiding in their bathroom. Windows were shattering, roofs were flying away, and structures were collapsing around the home. Her final post on Facebook before her power went out was “Ar Rahman ar Raheem” (The Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful). It is during these moments of chaos when people realize the fragility of life and that they have no control over their own existence.
They say there is a silver lining in every rain cloud and in the Qur’an, Allah reassures mankind that with hardship comes ease. There is a similar expression used in Puerto Rico, No hay mal que por bien no venga, there is no evil that does not occur but to bring about some good. The catastrophe of Hurricane María brought with it a great deal of wisdom. Imam Yunus Fasasi, who has been the Religious Director of Masjid Al Farooq for five years, feels that this tragedy has opened more opportunities for dialogue between the Muslim community and their neighbors. “We have always had an open-door policy and a good relationship with the universities, local government, and neighbors,” said Imam Yunus, “The situation got even better after the hurricane, with all of us (Muslims and non-Muslims) helping each other to rebuild. There has been stronger interaction and a relief organization hosted a health fair which brought many people in to get to know the mosque more.” Although the electricity and running water have yet to be restored, the number of worshipers coming into the Vega Alta Mosque is steadily increasing.
This natural disaster has served to awaken the fighting spirit in the people of Puerto Rico, and it has also been a cause of unity, strengthening bonds of kinship and solidarity between those outside and inside the island. It has also brought attention to the political situation of Puerto Rico and its status as a colony of the US, along with its implications. Now in the mosques, on the mountains, near the shores, in the barrios, and on the street, Puerto Rican voices, both Muslim and non-Muslim, echo with one message, supporting one cause: Puerto Rico se levanta, Puerto Rico will rise again. The island will be rebuilt, and it will be even stronger and more magnificent on the foundation of unity and peace.
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