While the city of Flint, Michigan waits for a long-term resolution for its beleaguered water system, as its citizens struggle from day to day for the most basic of needs, that of water, the people of Flint look eagerly to any support they can get. For now, at least, the city is blessed with the limelight and the attention of our fickle media. Help is coming in from across the state and across the nation; at least for now. This is the story of four amazing men who joined in that drive, and built new family connections in the process.
After my recent volunteer experience, I went back to Flint on Saturday with my wife Tonya and our young friend Joshua. This time, we ended up getting sent by the Red Cross to Crossing Water, operating out of St. Michael’s Catholic Church. We spoke with Michael Hood, program director, who is sending support teams to Flint households to determine families’ needs and provide for them as best they can (Crossing Water was also the subject of another writer’s experience, which I re-blogged here). The group is currently working very hard to find people with the most urgent circumstances and get them some relief: disabled people unable to lift and carry cases of water, mothers of young babies that require clean water for mixing formula, undocumented people lacking the proper identification to show the National Guard workers checking residents through the water pick-up stations, home-bound elderly folks without access to the pick-up stations, etc.
While talking with Michael (in a room filled with eager volunteers, many also sent from the Red Cross), we met four young men (see photo above; from left to right): Samah Haider, Wajahat Zaidi, Daniyal Taqvi, and Mohammed Bhayani. These four men had arrived in the room through a very different path from the rest of us. They had just arrived in a U-Haul truck filled with 12,000 bottles of water (300 cases, in six pallets), and they had driven up from Texas to help get water to the needy families of Flint. I spoke later with Daniyal Taqvi, and learned how they had made their way to Michigan.
Earlier in the week, Daniyal had been watching TV, and he saw news reports of Flint children suffering from lead poisoning and going to the hospital with tragic complications. That image truly brought the reality of Flint’s crisis home to him. Daniyal is a board member of the Houston chapter of the “Who is Hussain” organization (an Islamic organization whose Michigan chapter has already contributed directly to Flint, with over 30,000 bottles). As Daniyal explained to me, Hussain ibn Ali, the martyr honored by the group, died while suffering from thirst. “Water is something that touches a bond with us,” Daniyal said. “All people need water, and as a human being, it is my responsibility to be able to provide water to them.”
Already experienced in working together on food and water drives in Houston, Dallas, and Austin (for the homeless, and to help build the Muslim community), these four young men were able to use the Who is Hussain structure and other elements of Houston’s Muslim community to collect some $1,500 for Flint in three days. But they did not just want to send money. Daniyal explained that maintaining a human connection with the care that these men were providing, and with the community they were aiding, was for them a key part of that care. During our conversation, Daniyal was close to tears as he described the love and human closeness that he felt with those of us who joined his team, and with those to whom he gave water.
As the four men made their way up north in a rented car, they had little idea of what was to happen on arrival. Their way was eased by compassionate souls in the rental company, and in a bank helping with the trip’s finances. Daniyal tells me that in both places, the companies waived various fees when they learned of the group’s mission, to help them get aid to the north. However, despite this aid, and the money raised in Houston, the group wanted to dedicate the donations entirely for water; so all actual costs of the trip itself were borne by the four men as part of their own donation to the cause.
Never having been to Michigan in the winter, the team expected a frozen winter wasteland, and they were bemused by the unseasonably mild temperatures and the lack of snow on the ground. They arrived in Dearborn, rented a U-Haul, bought 6 pallets of water from Sam’s Club, and drove to Flint. After using Google to locate aid centers in Flint, the men got the email of an organizer at St. Michael’s church at 609 E 5th Ave; and the men finally found themselves in a room with Crossing Water’s Michael Hood, and with about 15 Red Cross volunteers, including my own little team, Jason Garcia and his family, and others.
Michael Hood’s phased operation (mapping out needs, and then getting water to those specific people needing it) was a longer-term and broad-based system of care, and our Texan friends wanted to get water into the hands of those needing it rather more quickly, and more personally. They did, however, donate about a third of their supply to Crossing Water (two pallets; about 4,000 bottles in 100 cases). As they began unloading cases onto the ground, we formed a daisy chain together to get the cases from the truck to the church, and into a storage area inside. As we unloaded, cars driving by inquired about getting water, and we gave some of them cases of water as well.
Samah and Daniyal getting ready to unload the last of the two pallets for Crossing Water. Photo by Jason Garcia.
Once the church’s storage room was full, Daniyal and his team-mates wanted to go into Flint neighborhoods to deliver water personally, their main motivation in coming all the way to Michigan from Texas. We met a Flint woman who needed water; and she told us that her whole neighborhood needed water. Soon a convoy was formed, headed by the Flint native’s car, followed by myself, the water truck, and a couple of other cars of Red Cross volunteers. Other volunteers remained with Crossing Water to help with their canvassing campaign. Meanwhile, our watering convoy descended on northwest Flint, in the area of Dupont Street and Martin Luther King, Jr. Ave. We went door-to-door; some of us contacting residents to find out who needed water, while others did the heavy lifting and moved cases to those homes needing it. The volunteers’ cars all had water as well (which we had all brought to donate), and we emptied out our car stashes while also taking cases from the truck.
In that first neighborhood, a resident told us about another nearby neighborhood needing water, and we found our way to a building with many elderly residents (many without cars and unable to get to the drive-through pick-up locations). We formed another daisy chain, and unloaded a pallet’s worth or so into a central holding area that a building resident had identified as the best place to leave water where everyone could get to it. While we were there, an elderly lady began crying when she talked to Daniyal, learning that help had come to her all the way from Texas.
Another resident told us about a government housing project, Aldridge Place, that was very large and very needy. She agreed to show us the way, and our mobile watering army followed her there. It was indeed a large complex, with numerous buildings and cul-de-sacs. We simply dropped off a case at each door, knocking to alert residents, many of whom came out and thanked us as we worked. As one resident saw Daniyal moving a case of water, she also began crying, hugged him, and said, “Everything’s getting better.” Finally, with only a little water left in the truck, the Flint native who had led us to the project showed us to a last nearby neighborhood where we unloaded cases at each house that showed signs of occupancy. At last the truck was empty. We all thanked each other, hugged or shook hands, took pictures of the truck with our tired little army, and then called it a day. (My family met up with our new Texan friends for dinner in Dearborn later in the evening, but that’s another story.)
A tired relief crew at the end of the day.
When I asked Daniyal what motivated them all to do such charitable work, he reminded me that we are all human beings, first and foremost, whatever else we may be. He also felt it important that, with so much of the media’s attention focused on bad examples of Muslims, Americans should see the positive impact that Muslims and their faith can play in our society, with Islam’s own unique imperatives of charity and brotherhood. His own organization, Who is Hussain, has organized other water drives in Flint, as well as peace rallies in the wake of last year’s darkest moments of terrorism.
Daniyal has come away from this experience with a deep sense of family connection with us in Michigan. He feels new, profound connections with those like myself who followed the lead of these men and helped them fulfill their mission of mercy. And he also feels a profound connection to those needy to whom he gave water, a meaningful and spiritual experience for him. These men came to give; but they got back something that they felt distanced from in the north – family. Daniyal was touched by the realization that “humanity still exists,” that while not everyone is equally blessed, those with more can share their blessings with those who have less. Daniyal wishes now that everyone could do something like this at least once; to realize we are all part of a greater human family. He, Samah, Mohammed, and Wajahat are proud to have given water to their family.
Flint is only one place in the US that needs help, as much as it lies on the headlines of today’s papers and internet sites. My city in Michigan, or their cities in Texas, could be among the next places that need outside assistance, that need good people like these to come from other towns to help. These men did not come here to help people that looked or dressed or worshiped like them. They came here as people, to help other people in need, members of the same community of mankind regardless of petty differences. They came here in the best tradition of their faith, and of the nation we all share, traditions that call for all people with extra resources to help those without. This is the ultimate meaning of our City on a Hill, the building of a community of care and welfare.
Those politicians and extremists who call for restricting entry to our City of people in need of shelter (some of whom look precisely like these four amazing men from Texas) are not building our City, or defending our nation or what it stands for. And they threaten the ties that build our nation – the ties between the diverse communities and cultures of our City. Such ties will be needed more than ever as our nation’s infrastructure ages, as political rhetoric demonizes and marginalizes the poor and the different, as some Americans refuse to accept others as members of the same human race. Instead of such politicians and pundits, we need more men like these four. We need more men like Daniyal Taqvi, like Mohammed Bhayani, like Samah Haider, and like Wajahat Zaidi – they are the true builders of our City, examples of our best traditions, and leaders who give real meaning to our values.
With special thanks to Jason Garcia, Michael Hood, John Gleason; and of course our new brothers in Texas.