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Islamic Society Of Tampa Bay Opened As An Evacuation Shelter


We've been checking in on people taking shelter from Hurricane Irma. So we're turning now to Ahmed Youssef. He's a volunteer at the Islamic Society of Tampa Bay. And he's with us now from the mosque's hurricane shelter, which opened earlier this week and is housing some 600 people. Mr. Youssef, thanks so much for speaking with us.

AHMED YOUSSEF: Oh, thank you for having me today. I really appreciate the coverage.

MARTIN: Sure. What is the mood there like?

YOUSSEF: Actually, this is one of the most televised hurricanes that I have witnessed in my life. It's been covered internationally in so many languages. We have a very diverse group here at the mosque, people from different backgrounds. So people have been panicking a lot and worried especially after landfall of Irma at the southwest coast of Florida.

MARTIN: How was the decision made to turn the mosque into a hurricane shelter? Had it ever been used as a shelter before?

YOUSSEF: So we actually just have - and we just built a new building that is sustainable to withstand up to a Category 5 hurricane. And we thought about, why can't we open our doors to the community? Since a lot of shelters are checking immigration status, different backgrounds, we wanted to welcome everybody in to show their support and unity of the Tampa Bay community and to show the true unity and the true colors of America.

MARTIN: Forgive me, but I don't know for a fact that people were checking immigration status. Was that was that rumored or do you just - that...

YOUSSEF: I actually had a couple of people that came in and they were afraid to go to other shelters because they were told that they will be checking their immigration status. So that's one thing that encouraged us. Also, people that have a criminal background. Maybe they'd been previously charged with anything, but that does not mean we should judge them on their present. So we welcome everybody. Of course, we screened everybody while they're coming in to make sure everyone is safe and secure at the facility.

MARTIN: But you wanted to be sure that everybody - anybody who needed a place to stay would have a place to stay. I understand that you're at capacity though. Is that true?

YOUSSEF: Yes, we are at capacity. We have 650 people currently in our house. We have been - we have a full medical staff on board that have volunteered to share their time. We have over 50 volunteers from the Tampa Bay community that has been helping out. The community has been giving us great support to help run this shelter and provide people with three meals a day.

MARTIN: Did you have to turn anyone away, though?

YOUSSEF: As sad as it might sound, has been one of the hardest moments of my life is to turn people away mid-storm. But we have provided a full sheet with references and addresses to local shelters that are still eligible to take people. And we have been giving those away to people that we can't host.

MARTIN: That must have been horrible, though. I mean, I'm just saying that must have been hard on you. That must have been a really tough feeling.

YOUSSEF: Extremely difficult. I wish I had a way bigger facility to host the whole world. But if wishes were fishes, the world would be an ocean. But it's been extremely difficult. It's been extremely difficult turning people away, especially people at this panic level. And extremely - I've never seen people being this afraid, but I'm 100 percent sure that we, as Floridians, will stand strong and definitely get over this.

MARTIN: We only have about half a second left - about 30 seconds left. But how are you trying to keep people calm?

YOUSSEF: We have received - the part is, we have people from different backgrounds. We have African refugees, Syrian refugees. We have a full medical staff that have been able to take people in, calming them. We have been playing cartoons, videos for the kids, giving them coloring books. We have different activities to keep people engaged so they're not literally just staring at the sky while it's raining.

MARTIN: All right. Well, thank you so much for speaking with us. We know you're very busy. We do appreciate it. This is Ahmed Youssef. He's a volunteer at the Islamic Society of Tampa Bay. He's managing the mosque's evacuation shelter, which is currently housing more than 600 people and opened earlier this week. Mr. Youssef, thanks so much for speaking with us.

YOUSSEF: Thank you. You have a great day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.