76 Muslims Take Refuge In Payson Shelter

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As a result of road closures brought on by the weekend snowstorm, the American Red Cross opened an emergency shelter for 165 stranded travelers in Payson.

But in the midst of an emergency, the shelter established inside the old Payson High School gymnasium provided an unexpected cultural exchange.

Dangerous snow levels forced the evacuation of 76 Muslims from 14 families staying at Camp Geronimo for a combined Cub Scout/Girl Scout family event.

"We have a very unique pack," said Cub Scout leader Ammar Abed, whose charter organization is the Muslim American Society based in Tempe. "We have scouts representing many different countries -- Algeria, Jordon, Lebanon, Libya. It's all Middle Eastern."

"We wanted to give the scouts an outdoor experience," said Kafa Saad, co-leader of the group. "They did have fun in the snow, but it's no fun to get stuck in the snow."

Group leaders expected some snow during the event, but not 31 inches.

"Our expectation was to see 3 to 6 inches of snow -- or at the worse 8," Abed said. "We said we could handle that so the boys could have an adventure. But it turned out to be much more than that. We had an adventure." As snow levels continued to increase throughout the day Saturday, Forest Service rangers evacuated the camp.

"The rangers came and told us we had to leave because it was getting worse," said Sana Jarrar, a parent volunteer. "They said the electricity was going to go out. The streets were very, very bad -- very dangerous. We got two cars stuck in the camp. They are still there."

With both major highways closed and all area hotels filled to capacity, the majority of the Arab American group came to the shelter.

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Girl Scout Huda Elsaad, 14, shares a drink of water with Sarah Emran, 18 months.

"We are having a good time -- we are still camping," Jarrar said.

"You come here and you see other people in the same situation, and you really don't feel so bad about your own situation," said Hassan Elsaad, another parent with the group. "You have to keep it a positive experience. Hey, what else can you do? You just keep going."

"We're making up games for the children, so they can have a good experience," Abed said. "They are learning good skills -- how to be patient, to be a team player, to help each other out, to be respectful. It's all part of the Cub Scouts."

Red Cross personnel said the group made a big job much easier, and created an environment unlike most emergency shelters -- more like a family reunion.

"They set up their own games and activities," said Red Cross volunteer Maurice Simons. When they were leaving they helped fold all the blankets, stacked up all the cots, and kept the place clean, which is very important for a shelter. The significant thing is, they did it without even being asked."

Around 10:30 a.m. Sunday morning an announcement that the highways had reopened brought cheers from everyone in the gymnasium.

The group packed up their games and prepared to head home.

Abed said he had no regrets about the experience and believed his scouts had learned an important universal lesson.

"Make it fun and always take the positive experience from anything in life, no matter how hard it is," he said.

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