Mahmoud ElAwadi, an Egyptian immigrant who came to the U.S. more than a decade ago, found himself, like so many Americans, searching for any way to help the victims of Sunday's shooting at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando where Omar Mateen shot and killed 49 people and injured more than 50 others—the worst mass shooting in American history.
ElAwadi, a Muslim-American living Orlando and working as a vice president at Merrill Lynch, decided donating blood was the answer, even as he forgoes food and water between sunrise and sunset in observance of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month. He waited in line at OneBlood, a company that operates blood banks, for hours, and snapped a picture to share on Facebook afterward.
Part of his caption read, "Yes our community in central Florida is heart broken but let's put our colors, religions, ethnicity, sexual orientation, political views all aside so we can UNITE against those who are trying to hurt us."
His post, as of this writing, has been shared over 180,000 times:
ElAwadi spoke with Fusion by phone Tuesday morning about the attention he's received, and why he wants his message to reach as many people as possible.
The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What message are you trying to send with your photo?
That we have to put aside our colors, religion, background, political background, sexual orientations, and unite against those who are trying to hurt us, against the extremists, against hate, because only love can conquer hate.
Is the desire to push this message out what propelled you to go public with your blood donation?
Yes, it needed to be out there, and I couldn't find something more than my blood to share with other humans' blood to show this is what it comes down to. We're all the same thing—we're all human, we all share the same blood. That's it.
What's the response looked like from the post?
It's been overwhelming support and kindness. I'll never forget the first comment that really caught my attention that said, "You are an American hero."
That just put tears into my eyes. You come here as an immigrant, you start from nothing, you just want to be told from fellow Americans that you are an American, that you are an American citizen. It is an honor to be told that you are an American by another American.
I don't know if you will ever get this feeling because you are not an immigrant, but to hear you are an American hero—I mean, I've been working so hard for almost 14 years to earn the title "American." Yes, I have a passport. Yes, I am a citizen. But to hear it from fellow Americans—this is the day I felt like I really earned my citizenship.
But I am not a hero. The heroes are the first responders that went in there despite everything—the medical teams that worked like crazy for two days trying to save lives, and above all, the true heroes are the 50 innocent American citizens who lost their lives for doing nothing but just trying to have a good time with their friends.
The families, with the grief they're going through, they are the true heroes.
What's the general attitude in Orlando right now? How are people reacting?
Everyone is going through stages. When the news came out, everyone was in denial. As the casualty numbers came out, people went into shock, and then into fear. And from fear—fear got everyone to unite against those who want to hurt us. That's why we all gave blood.
And my wife, she was scared. She was like, "If someone finds out you're Muslim, they might try to hurt you." But no one was going to hurt anyone because people are sick and tired of watching people get hurt. No one was going to hurt me.
The general atmosphere, now, is unity. People are standing together. It doesn't matter what they pray for, they know the only way to make it through is to unite together as humans and as proud citizens of Orlando, Florida.
What do you think made this post resonate so strongly?
I think the number one reason is that people are struggling for any act of kindness. They want to hear something positive, because everything around them is negative. Turn on the news, it's terrorism, blood and hate.
I also think that we as a Muslim-Americans, we need to do say "we are proud." I'm not hiding, I'm not denying, I'm actually proud. And even if I'm fasting, I'm here for my brothers and sisters.
What have the last two days been like for you?
They’ve been hectic—but replying to these messages, it keeps me going. I’ve been sleeping thre hours—5 a.m. to 8 a.m. I’m no celebrity—I’m not gonna be in this for long, so for now I just want my message to reach as many people as possible.
Is there anything else you wanted to share?
Muslim-Americans are just like everyone else here. They’re here to build our nation just like everyone else. Hate is just destructive if we don’t fight it with love.
In this attack, we have pay the price twice. As a person, you’re scared just like everyone—scared for your kids, scared for your wife. And then you pay the price again for being a Muslim because you’re labeled as a bad guy, even if you didn’t do anything. I pay taxes, and I’m a proud American, but we pay the price for something we didn’t even choose.
Michael Rosen is a reporter for Fusion based out of Oakland.