By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 9, 2006
In a Detroit warehouse, boxes of diapers, water-purification tablets, lentils, rice, powdered milk and cooking oil are stacked almost to the ceiling, destined for Lebanon. More packages, mostly from individual donors across the country, arrive every day.
But nobody -- not even the charity that is collecting them -- is very happy about it.
"Obviously, it makes more sense for us to get financial contributions. Obviously, this is the most inefficient way to do humanitarian aid," said Mohammed Alomari, a spokesman for the charity, Life for Relief and Development in Southfield, Mich.
Charities prefer that people send money rather than food, medicine or other goods, because in-kind donations force the charities to pay for shipping, delay the arrival of the aid, and saddle relief workers with the task of sorting and distributing items that may not be needed.
The problem, according to relief groups, is that many people who are inclined to write checks for emergency aid and reconstruction in Lebanon are afraid of ending up in some government database of suspected supporters of terrorism.
Arab American leaders say this is one of the unintended consequences of the U.S. government's crackdown on charities run by Muslims. Though aimed at cutting off illicit funding for terrorist groups, the crackdown has complicated legitimate humanitarian relief efforts in Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank.
"Dozens of people have approached me. They want to help, they want to send money to buy medicine, and they're afraid of the government reaction to their contribution," said Nihad Awad, executive director of the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations. "Some do it anyway. They can't sit idly. But they worry that one day they'll hear a knock on the door."
CAIR, which is one of the country's largest Muslim organizations, reluctantly is encouraging donations of goods, on the grounds that they are better than nothing. Its Web site, http://www.cair-net.org , lists needed items, such as rice, sugar and cooking oil, along with detailed instructions on how to pack and send them.
"We're forced to go the least effective route, which is sending actual relief supplies, because of the restrictions on, and the problems associated with, sending financial relief to the Middle East," CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper said. "If you send lentils, at least no one can accuse you of supporting terrorism."
Some other groups, such as the Arab American Institute, are taking the opposite tack, recommending against in-kind donations.
"We've been encouraged not to do that by the Lebanese Embassy and others -- not to send goods, because it's inefficient and it takes money to sort it out and decide what to do with it. What's needed is cash so people on the ground can buy what they need, when they need it," said James J. Zogby, president of the institute, a Washington-based advocacy group.
Zogby agreed, however, that there is "a chill factor" on giving money to charities operating in Arab countries.
"In the context of the NSA monitoring everything under the sun, people are afraid," he said, referring to the National Security Agency's monitoring of international phone calls and e-mails. He added that he has repeatedly urged U.S. officials to publish a list of legitimate charities, to no avail.
Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. government has shut down three major U.S.-based charities for allegedly funneling support to terrorists, and it has designated more than 40 charities internationally as terrorist financiers. Last week, the Treasury Department barred U.S. citizens from contributing to two more groups: the Philippine and Indonesian branches of the Saudi Arabia-based International Islamic Relief Organization.
Treasury Department spokeswoman Molly Millerwise said that the department's Office of Foreign Assets Control maintains a "one-stop shopping" list of banned entities, known as the Specially Designated Nationals List, on its Web site, http://www.treasury.gov/ofac .
But she said the department has declined to produce a list of approved charities in the Middle East "for two reasons: No. 1, any charity that we deemed clean, we could not guarantee that it would always remain so. And No. 2, it would put the government in the position of playing favorites."
Some U.S. Muslims complain that they get a continual runaround from U.S. agencies.
Shaker Elsayed, imam of the Dar Al Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, said he wanted to make a contribution to a medical clinic in Bethlehem two years ago and sought U.S. government approval. He said Treasury Department officials referred him to the National Security Council, which sent him to the State Department, which directed him to the Justice Department, which referred him back to Treasury.
"After I really badgered them for an answer, they finally said, 'You know what? We'll never tell you this is okay,' " Elsayed said. "That is why our community feels so uneasy about helping people who are in desperate need, and how unfair it is when you go to the authorities and say, 'This is the name of the institution we want to help. Is it okay if we help them?' And they say, 'We're not going to give you an answer.' " United Jewish Communities, an umbrella organization for 155 Jewish charities across the country, announced last week that it will raise at least $300 million in emergency aid for Israel. The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington alone intends to raise $10 million toward that goal.
By comparison, the flow of private U.S. donations for humanitarian aid in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories is a mere trickle, estimated by relief groups at a few million dollars. Donors who fear giving to Muslim charities can contribute to the International Committee of the Red Cross or groups such as CARE and Mercy Corps -- large, international relief groups that are the major conduit of such aid.
Laila Al-Qatami, a spokeswoman for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, said the organization has decided to funnel its Lebanon relief contributions through Mercy Corps, an Oregon-based group that she pointedly noted "is not an Islamic charity."
But some Muslim groups are intent on proving that they, too, can collect money and distribute it without problems.
Ziad J. Asali, a retired physician in Illinois who heads the American Task Force on Palestine, said his group is giving $20,000 each to Makassed Hospital in Jerusalem and St. Luke's Hospital in the West Bank city of Nablus. After consulting with the State Department, he said, the task force decided to pay the bills for medical supplies that the hospitals order from their regular suppliers.
"We specified the exact equipment they're going to buy and the exact providers, and we have given all that information, with all the details, both to the State Department and to the Israelis," he said. "We wanted to have our own channels, because we wanted the Palestinian people to know you can do this and be clean and be perceived as clean."