Islamic Relief chief on violence, Trump and self-reliance

Anwar Khan, executive director of Islamic Relief USA. Photo by: Joseph Molieri / Bread For The World / CC BY-ND

Attacks on aid workers are on the rise and humanitarian organizations working in fragile states are often faced with a variety of challenges that limit their work.

“We are concerned with the increased number of medical facilities, warehouses and other humanitarian sites, which have been affected in the last few years,” said Anwar Khan, chief executive officer of Islamic Relief USA, a humanitarian organization that provides relief and development services.

Attacks on aid workers is almost becoming the new normal and nongovernmental organizations working in the field are often pressured to pick sides between different factions in a conflict in order to secure access to the people in need of aid, he said.

Devex spoke with Khan, to gain more insight on the situation and how the development community can secure the future of international humanitarian work free of attacks.

You’ve said that often the humanitarian community doesn’t talk about security of staff in the field. Could you shed more light on this?

Instead of seeing [our safety] as increasing we see it as more precarious now than it was before. We are careful. We don’t want military that wear uniforms to attack our locations but we don’t want the combatants who don’t wear uniforms to attack our location either. On both sides we need to make it clear that this is a mutual area. We are concerned that people are politicizing or making us pick sides. We cannot pick sides. We have to be seen as helping everyone with the humanitarian principle … Recently, air forces [have been] used to hit convoys … and people still claim “it is not us.” At the end of the day we are not seeing the humanitarian corridors that we need. People are risking their lives and ultimately they are paying the ultimate price when they do that.

What do you mean by humanitarian corridors?

That means that when people are starving in the city, they don’t have enough food, we are still able to bring in food and medical supplies. So when you have an area under sanction and under siege, according to international law, you are still meant to provide for basic rations. We are seeing more and more that is not being done now. This was common practice in the medieval times but we but we are meant to be in an enlightened time. We don’t want to starve people out.

How do you think the global development community can help resolve this?

We need the U.N. Security Council to make it clear that humanitarian corridors must be [created] in conflict zones around the world. We need government to make it clear they are not going to arm any sides. This is more diplomatic and political in nature.

One of the things your organization is working on is trying to help communities you work in be more self-reliant. Can you tell me a little bit more about your efforts on that front?

One example I’ll give is in Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya. We noticed that the local Muslim communities like to teach [the] Quran. The kids won’t go into the normal schools but would go into the Quranic schools. So we understood what they [want]. But we said, “that is fine but your kids need to learn English because we don’t know how long you are going to be in Kenya.” … We encouraged them to learn English. We encouraged them to learn with the Kenyan curriculum so that they can at least get a job whether they are in Kenya or any other place afterwards. This program was funded [in partnership] with the United Nations … [as] a way of empowering the local community to get an education while still teaching the Quran.

As a Muslim organization based in the U.S., what are your expectations for the new administration under President-elect Donald Trump?

Our job is to work with whatever administration that we have. If we see people of different background and views in the administration who represent what we look like and what we believe in, then that will ease any concerns that we have. … There is a lot of fear in the Muslim community that people who have called themselves advisers are often the most outspoken people against the Muslim communities and basic rights … if the constitution is abided by, we’ll be fine. But if people are doing religious test … talking about registering Muslims, placing surveillance on houses of worship, and banning people of a particular faith, this is not to us the best of American history.

Stay tuned to Devex for more news and analysis of what the Trump administration will mean for global development. Read more coverage here and subscribe to The Development Newswire.

About the author

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    Jennifer Ehidiamen

    Jennifer Ehidiamen is a Nigerian writer who is passionate about communications and journalism. She has worked as a reporter and communications consultant for different organizations in Nigeria and overseas. She has an undergraduate degree in mass communication from the Nigerian Institute of Journalism, Lagos, and M.A. in business and economics from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, New York. In 2014, she founded Rural Reporters ( with the goal of amplifying underreported news and issues affecting rural communities.