ICNA Relief Blog

The Other Side of the Sky: Best-selling Author Farah Ahmedi, a Testimony to the Strengths of Refugees - Part I

By Naazish YarKhan

At 17, Farah Ahmedi, a refugee from Afghanistan was the author of The Other Side of the Sky: A Memoir, New York Times bestseller; a visitor to First Lady Laura Bush; and a guest of Heather and Paul McCartney who presented her with a Humanitarian of the Year Award in 2005. At 19, was on a full scholarship at North Central College in Illinois. Featured in Teen Magazine as one of “20 People Who Can Change the World,” Weekly Reader called her a modern day Anne Frank.

Meet Farah Ahmedi, the then seven-year-old who took a short-cut to school, only to step on a landmine, in Kabul, Afghanistan. She was to spend two years, away from her family, recovering in Germany.

When ABC News’ Good Morning America, in collaboration with Simon and Schuster, asked its viewers to write for “Story of My Life” describing their life experiences, the network was deluged with 6,000 entries and more than twenty thousand pages of inspiring stories. A panel of best-selling authors and editors chose three finalists, and viewers voted one from among these, to be published. Farah Ahmedi’s story was that book.


Moving Readers to Gratitude

Rarely does a book move one’s soul the way The Other Side of the Sky does, forcing us to reconsider our own good fortune, persuading us to be our brother’s keepers. Farah’s story is shaped by war, and Taliban rule, in her home country. The Taliban also conscripted young men and boys into their army; coercing many. Fearing for their sons, Farah’s well-to-do parents sent their sons to Pakistan. That was the last time Farah and her family saw the boys. Weeks later, Farah and her mother, Fatima, returned from a shopping trip to find rubble and death where their home had once been. Farah’s father and sisters had been killed in a bomb blast. Farah and her mother joined the thousands of refugees fleeing Afghanistan for Pakistan. Unlike Iran, which had closed its borders to Afghan refugees at the time, there were millions streaming into Pakistan.

In Pakistan, even if they were refugees, freedom from the constant gunfire and bombs was like finding heaven on earth, says Farah. “When we finally made it, we couldn’t stop laughing and praising God from sheer relief.” Once there, Farah’s trials included servitude to children her own age, and becoming caretaker to her asthmatic mother. But despite these setbacks, Farah was sustained by her faith in Allah.

Look out for Part II next week inshaAllah!

Add a comment

It Takes a Village to Raise a Refugee Family

By Naazish YarKhan

For Dr. Emad Rahim, DM, PMP, it has been a long, long ride. A journey that began in the Cambodian killing fields and rendered him a refugee on US shores in 1982. A journey that, most recently, has taken him to Rutgers University as a visiting scholar and to Oklahoma State University as the Endowed Entrepreneur-in-Residence. Today, this resident of Syracuse, NY, also writes for Forbes, YFS Magazine, CEO magazine, IntelligentHQ and more. Through it all he has learned about the hunger to survive, the importance of a giving community and faith in a better tomorrow. Here is his story. 


ICNA Relief: What was the hardest aspect of being a refugee?

Dr. Rahim: We came to America in 1982 when I turned 4 years old. The hardest aspect of being a refugee for my mother and stepfather was the transition itself to America. They did not know the culture, language, custom and did not know any other Cambodians at first. They had to navigate through an unfamiliar system and find employment, get their children enrolled into school, apply to public assistance and food stamp, and learn how to use public transportation to get to all of these places. They had to do all of this barely knowing the language, living in some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Long Beach, Brooklyn and Syracuse NY.


ICNA Relief: What kept you going in your darkest hours?

Dr. Rahim: Often it was through the generosity of other people. People that experienced similar things and empathized with our hardship. When we really needed help, people from different religious organizations, the Cambodian community, and people we considered our friends and family (non-blood relatives) that stepped up. People showed up to our house with food when we had none, brought us clothes and medication in our time of need. A supportive community is the real lifeline for all refugee families.


Dr. Emad Rahim with his wife, fellow entrepreneur Cjala Surrat owner of Muslamb Stationers, and their children.

ICNA Relief: If you had advice for those supporting refugees what would it be? 

Dr. Rahim: Refugees come to a new country because they are without a country. They are here out of necessity and survival. They only seek short term assistance until they are ready to move forward on their own. These people were teachers, engineers, business owners, merchants, farmers, nurses and other professional back in their home country. They only want to be able to contribute back to society and provide for their family. Refugees and immigrants are the backboard of western economic development. Take a good look at every major city in America and you will see a Chinatown, Koreatown, African Village, Little Havana and Little Italy and other ethnic communities filled with commerce and entrepreneurs. 


ICNA Relief: What is your advice to new refugees?

Dr. Rahim: It is important to locate a local community that supports and services refugees and immigrants. Try to live near these places – close by to these services, people and organizations so that you and your family will receive help in getting acclimated into your new environment. These types of neighborhoods may also reduce your travel time to meet with public case workers, closer to schools with ESL programs, ethnic grocery stores, and more likely have people that speak your native language.


For more of Dr. Rahim's inspiring life story, watch his interview on YouTube. You can also follow him on Twitter @DrEmadRahim.

Dr. Emad Rahim is an award-winning author, educator, entrepreneur and TEDx speaker. He currently serves as the Kotouc Endowed Chair at Bellevue University and JWMI Fellow at the Jack Welch Management Institute. He has been featured in the Huffington Post, Forbes Magazine, Project Eye Magazine, IntelligentHQ, The Humanist and CEO Magazine. 


Help incoming refugees to the U.S.!

Add a comment


What Does it Mean to be a Refugee Family?


By Naazish YarKhan


Hardship. Loss. Grief. These are just some of the words that come to mind when we think of refugee families. However, the word that truly defines refugee families is “resilient."


A.H. Nasser, age 47, his wife, both of whom have war-induced disabilities, and their six children, exemplify courage, despite the worst tests. Nasser, a Sunni blacksmith, and his Shia wife, had been threatened by militia for their union, putting their family in constant danger. Compelled to flee with their six children, they headed to a refugee camp in Jordan. 


A. H. Nasser suffered spinal injuries as their car drove over a landmine, while they were escaping Iraq for Jordan. Of the three passengers in that explosion, only Nasser survived. His wife, who was following in the car behind with their children, never recovered from the trauma. Diagnosed with PTSD, she has been deemed unable to work. 

When Nasser had healed sufficiently, the family was resettled by Catholic Charities in Chicago in July 2014. They arrived with neither a formal education nor knowledge of English.


The US government’s social security disability payments are $625 for each parent. The family also gets food stamps. However, a family of eight, by Illinois law, isn’t permitted to live in anything smaller than a three bedroom apartment and their rent is $1400 a month. 


“Disability payments aren’t enough to pay for their rent and utilities,” says Ahlam Mahmood, ICNA Relief Chicago, Outreach. “We have helped with utilities, text books for the girls, a recommendation letter for their eldest daughter’s college applications and more.”




Their eldest son, 19, currently in community college, aspires to major in biology, while the couple’s 16 year old high school freshman aims to be a pilot. Their 17 year old daughter intends to be a doctor, while the other girls, ages 15 and 14, want to be a teacher and a nurse respectively. The youngest is a son in preschool.


“The kids work so hard to secure their future,” says Mahmood. “They are learning more English. They are in (an) after school program focusing on English and Math. The girls are in “Girls Go Forward," an NGO for refugees. They are in this program Saturday and Sunday.”


While the children are adjusting well, Mahmood says the transition has been much harder for the parents. Making ends meet is only one of the challenges. “It’s very hard for the parents. Their children are doing their best and they will be something in the future.”


Want to help other refugees like the Nasser family? Here's how.


Add a comment

ICNA Relief Georgia Provides A Car To A Refugee Family in Need

Alhumdulillah, with the help of Br. Mateen Mahmood a Honda civic was donated by ICNA Relief Georgia to a refugee family living in Clarkston, Georgia.​

Add a comment

Students from Bayyinah Donate Their Furniture to Afghan Refugees in Texas

By Br. Zahid Hussain

A team of blessed Bayyinah students contributed to Afghan refugees by donating their furniture through ICNA Relief Dallas.Their contributions were delivered to the three needy families.


The ICNA Relief Dallas team recently spent a whole day in the Fort Worth area visiting the Afghan refugee families in  different apartment complexes. We documented through the intake process their entire needs, which range from furniture, kitchen items, other household items to copies of the Qur’an and prayer rugs.

ICNA Relief Dallas invited these families to our Food Pantry, most of whom visited and received considerable amount of food based on their family strength. 

In addition, ICNA Relief Dallas has started propagating their needs and have already started working on fulfilling them. 

We all must understand the fact that these people are refugees brought into Fort Worth, TX through a resettlement agency (Catholic Charities, RST or World Relief) which also plays a part in meeting their basic needs. It takes time for a refugee family to settle down and their needs to be fulfilled. We, at ICNA Relief Dallas, understand this process very well and we act accordingly. 

When a similar batch of refugees from Afghanistan started settling down in the Dallas area two years back, we helped settled them down comfortably. We provided them with all of their basic necessities. Approximately 105 Afghan families benefited through this in-kind donation help.

How can a group of good samaritans visit these refugee families in order to support them?

First of all, we must respect their privacy and not invade it. Remember we are dealing with families and do not want to embarrass them. Having documented their needs, we know what a specific family requires. Alhumdulillah, there is a way to do this, which ICNA Relief Dallas knows pretty well. As we did in Dallas, we will surely help these family in Fort Worth too.

Now, how can our community help under this circumstances?

ICNA Relief Dallas will communicate these refugees' current needs and will seek help from the community. Please be on the look out for an annoucement soon. 

What else is needed seeking community support?

Ninety percent of families we visited needs cars. As we all know, without a car a family is immobile in many parts of the U.S. ICNA Relief Dallas has been facilitating car donations for the past three years. Alhamdulillah, we have facilitated more than 25 cars so far to the needy, refugee families and single mothers. If you can find us a car donor, ICNA Relief Dallas will facilitate the car donation to these refugees. The donor will receive not only get a tax deduction but innumerable HASANATH for every RPM, the car rolls on.  



Add a comment

Once A Refugee Herself, A Sister Works to Help Other Iraqi Refugees Settle in America


“Every morning I pray and pray to Allah to accept my work so I can be in Jannah, with my ten year old son, Anas.  When the USA invaded Iraq, my oldest child, Anas, was nine years old. When the B 52’s began bombing, just the sound made the children throw up. We slept away from the windows because they would shatter and we never knew if we would live to see the next day. We left our life to Allah. Anas was so brave and my daughter Rukaya who was five and my Abdullah, who was 7, followed his example.”

You may know Ahlam Mahmood as a staffer at ICNA Relief Chicago’s food pantry. What many may not know is that her passion to serve the less fortunate stems from her own experiences as a refugee. She knows only too well how hard it has been to learn a new language, to raise her children, to put food on the table, to find work that can continue to shelter her family. Even as she fights for her health, her commitment to ICNA Relief Chicago and its clients never falters. This is her story...

“The most difficult day was when we ran out of drinking water and I left the house for the first time in days to get some. I saw dead bodies of men, women and children on both sides of the streets. It was really starting to smell and I knew the dogs would start to eat them. So I called my cousins and we buried 40 bodies deep enough for the dogs not to get to them. From this moment I believed that I have to help my fellow human beings.  

Before the war we had no Iraqi humanitarian organizations.  So I reached out to western agencies such as International Relief, Red Crescent, Women for Women, Christian PeaceMaker Team. The militia’s thought I was working for the American military. They kidnapped me. For eight days, I was handcuffed, blind-folded and kicked, slapped, and hit on my head with the back of a pistol. They shot a bullet beside my right ear and I lost my hearing in that ear.

When I was released, we fled for Jordan, then Egypt and Syria.  I explained what was happening to my 9 year old Anas and he explained it to my Ruqaya and Abdullah. The little ones listened to him so well. Anas became my best friend. But on the morning of the 3rd of May 2006, Anas said he had a pain in his right shoulder. As refugees we were not able to afford a private clinic, so I took him to one of the hospitals for Iraqi refugees. They gave Anas an injection, but they gave him an overdose. It caused inside bleeding and they took him for an emergency surgery. The last time I saw him he was looking at me as they took him into the elevator. The last words I heard from him was “you are my friend.” My nine-year-old son died 15 minutes later. The men in my family never allowed me to see him, nor go to the cemetery. I was not even told where his grave was.  

My husband took six months to recover from the shock of losing his son. To stay patient, I began working with agencies like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to help Iraqi refugees like myself. The Syrian government imprisoned me for refusing to gather intelligence for them. With pressure from Amnesty, I was released, and put on a plane with my kids. I did not even know where I was going. The first time I saw the sun in five months was from the plane. I arrived in Chicago, and Amnesty International sent Beth Ann Tuopin to check and see if I needed something. Three months later, she and I co-founded a non profit, Iraqi Mutual Aid Society. We have collaborated with foundations and organizations including the Illinois State Department, Refugee Assistance  Programs and ICNA Relief.

Today, with income that sometimes nearly covers my rent, Ruaqa, Abdullah and I survive. As I said, I am doing all this to be with my son, Anas, in Jannah. I am also doing it because I never want to see another mother or her children go through what we have gone through. As citizens of the world, we must never allow our governments to use war to rob any other mother of her child, ever again. Let us never forget to use our voices to make sure our government does what is just and what is right. Let us never forget that our neighbors may need our help, even if they don’t ask for it.”

Add a comment
Financial Assistance Program Helps Record 900 Families This Ramadan
There is a general perception among people that individuals who find themselves in poverty in America can easily get help and if they are lacking something it's because they don't work hard enough. ICNA Relief meets with immigrant and refugee families every day who because of numerous issues and despite their hardwork fall short in paying for rent and utlities at the end of the month.
We have single hardworking mothers like Razia Begum who already are not making enough earning minimum wage, sometimes can't afford to pay their rent because a child falls sick causing them to miss a day of work. Or as in the case of Br. Bilal Usmani from Ohio, only require $400 in order to repair a car to look for a job he now has. Alhumdulillah, this Ramadan we helped over 900 families with financial assistance  -- a record amount!
ICNA Relief requests that you continue to support us as we strive to uplift our brothers and sisters in poverty. Imagine; anyone of one us could be in Razia Begum's shoes one day.
Add a comment
Refugee Education Project RACE Graduates Its First Class
ICNA Relief recently held its first graduation ceremony for students enrolled in Project RACE (Refugee Assistance for Children's Education) in Clarkston, GA. The 120 students, all refugees who had fled various countries like Burma, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, Bhutan and Iraq, were taught Qur'an and Islamic Studies as part of RACE. Students studied year-long under different teachers and volunteers and were tested in June in order to proceed to the next level. All students received certificates for their participation, while 18 students received special gifts and award certificates for their excellent scores on the tests.
InshaAllah this coming year we plan to add English and Math to Project RACE's curriculum.


Add a comment

Syrian Refugees Arriving in the United States Face Crippling Challenges

RefugeeWith the situation in Syria continuing to deteriorate, refugees fleeing the country are finding it extremely difficult to start over. Many have lost everything; family and friends who were tortured and/or killed, their homes destroyed and life savings gone. Fleeing their homeland seeking safety, many Syrian refugees are finding their way to America, however without the support of UNHCR or refugee benefits. Those who were able, have found their way to America on a visa seeking a new life for their families free from the horrors of war. 

ICNA Relief USA has extensive experience with helping refugees adjust to life in America. However, times are difficult for Syrian refugees. Those arriving in America have come on their own seeking safety therefore they do not have official refugee status from the US government. 



ICNA Relief Can Help

Add a comment