Case Study: Life & Relief and Development (LIFE)

On the eve of Ramadan in September 2006, the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) conducted a raid on the Detroit area headquarters of Life for Relief and Development (LIFE). Without warning, they seized several computers containing the charity’s files, databases, e-mail correspondence and financial information. LIFE, the largest U.S.-founded Muslim American humanitarian relief and development organization, was told by the FBI that the raid was not related to terrorism and that the charity’s operations could continue as before. Despite the fact that no criminal charges filed, the raid triggered tremendous media scrutiny. This prompted LIFE’s local bank to withdraw its services, interrupting its humanitarian assistance programs.

Speaking at a July 1, 2009 panel discussion about the legal constraints national security laws have imposed on U.S. charitable organizations, Mohammed Alomari, LIFE’s Chief Operating Officer, described the group’s mission, humanitarian relief activities and the negative consequences government intrusions have had on their operations, donors and the people they help. [A]nytime an NGO or any organization is raided…there’s always going to be that stigma associated with it,” Alomari said.

LIFE has delivered over $150 million in aid since it began in 1992. Originally founded to assist the Iraqi people living under the sanctions of the 1990s, LIFE has since expanded its humanitarian operations to several countries in the Middle East and West Africa. It provided aid in the U.S. after Hurricanes Ike and Gustav, as well as for flood victims in Iowa. Alomari said that LIFE provides “food, water, temporary shelter to the victims” in the aftermath of an emergency, but also does long-term development assistance in communities by building “schools, water treatment plants, and providing clean water to neighborhoods, as well as workshops for low income women, for low income neighborhoods.”

Like other charities raided by the government, the effects of the raid were not limited to the charity. Many of LIFE’s donors and partner groups were visited and questioned by government officials. Alomari said law enforcement officials targeted their large donors, asking, “Why are you donating to LIFE?” “A lot of our donors come from the immigrant communities who are used to dictatorships, that when a local policeman or security person comes to their door, knocks on their door, they’re immediately scared that they might go to jail for something. And so many of our donors, our large donors, have told us because of these visits we can’t donate anymore.”

LIFE and an Arab Gulf charity had planned on partnering to rebuild an Iowa clinic in 2008 after the flooding left thousands in Iowa in need of assistance, but the project failed after a State Department employee told the charity not to “deal with LIFE.”

Before 9/11, LIFE had a good relationship with the Department of Treasury. To conduct relief work in Iraq during the 1990s, a special license from Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) was required. “[T]hroughout the ‘90s we applied to OFAC…and we received licenses. We were one of the very few, if only, American Muslim organizations that was licensed by the Iraqi Red Crescent and by the Treasury Department to deliver medical supplies and humanitarian aid to Iraq at the time,” Alomari said.

Alomari is cautiously optimistic about the future and has advice for the nonprofit sector. “I think one of the reasons the problem remains is the nature of the problem: that regulations were extraordinarily vague to begin with, and one of the things that many of us have encountered when seeking clarifications were vague assurances,” from Treasury.  “As a community we have to push for the precision and clarity around what is appropriate due diligence, what a reasonable and appropriate due diligence system would look like and what you can and won’t be held accountable for,” he said.

Today, LIFE has established partnerships with many international NGO’s including the UN Development program, UNICEF, AmeriCares, Veterans For Peace, American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), the Wheelchair Foundation, Feed the Children, Qatar Charity, and Mohammad Bin Rashid Charity, and many others. LIFE is also a member of the American Council for Voluntary International Action (InterAction), which is the largest alliance of American NGOs.