During The Brutal Polar Vortex In Chicago, 40 Locals Found The Same Strange Note On Their Doors

When a prolonged spell of Arctic weather hammered the Midwest in early 2019, Chicago resident Sabeel Ahmed decided to reach out to 40 of his neighbors. He wrote each of them a letter and delivered it to their homes. And when they read it, he managed to melt hearts in spite of the polar conditions.

In January 2019 almost two-thirds of the United States found itself in the deadly grip of a freezing polar vortex. The low-pressure phenomenon occurs mainly around the South and North Poles. In layman’s terms, it is a band of powerful winds that sits high up in the atmosphere and usually keeps colder air confined to the Arctic and Antarctic regions.

But while the two weather systems are normally confined to the poles, they can sometimes deviate from their usual locations. This is exactly what happened in January 2019 when the Arctic polar vortex shifted much further south than expected. However, this wasn’t the first time the U.S. had experienced the phenomenon.

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A similar incident had occurred back in 2014, when the press first popularized the “polar vortex” term. On that occasion, the cold snap that struck parts of Canada and the upper United States in January lasted well into March. The icy winds were also partly responsible for the so-called “bomb cyclone” that hit America’s east coast in 2018, which saw snow dumps as far south as Florida and Georgia.

When the polar vortex hit the U.S. in 2019, it broke into two parts. Described as “two swirling blobs of cold air,” by climate change expert Jennifer Francis, the weather conditions wreaked havoc across the Midwest, plunging the region into the the coldest conditions it had faced in decades. As a result, it was estimated that more than 90 million American experienced freezing temperatures.

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The polar weather system’s arrival was preceded by a winter storm that covered some parts of the U.S. in 13 inches of snow. The subsequent icy winds made venturing outside dangerous in some areas, putting people at serious risk of frostbite. With that in mind, school were closed across the country and cities became ghost towns as authorities urged residents to stay indoors.

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However, even with the safety advice, tragedies occurred. During January it was reported that 16 people had died as a result of the big freeze. By the time the Arctic conditions eased in February, the estimated number of deaths had risen to 21, and at least one specialist in Chicago, Illinois had reported a big rise in the amount of frostbite cases. Stathis Poulakidas of John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital told Time magazine in February that in some instances, amputation of affected areas was the only option.

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Some of the most dangerous conditions occurred in the final week of January 2019. It was then that temperatures in the Midwest plummeted to record-breaking new lows. For instance, temperatures in Rockford, Illinois, hit about -24F, while Chicago experienced -6F. However, it’s likely that wind chills made even these frigid conditions feel even colder.

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So it’s safe to say that the weather conditions brought about by the polar vortex were dangerous. However, as is often the case, even in the most adverse of circumstances, communities came together to help one another. As a result, heartwarming examples of random acts of kindness began to emerge from all corners of the frozen Midwest.

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For example, there was the story of the so-called “Wall of Love” that was created in Cleveland, Ohio. Using a set of railings at Cleveland State University, student Holly Jackson encouraged people to leave warm clothing for the city’s homeless population, who could come at take them at will.

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Meanwhile in Kansas City, one family of nine made headlines when they were forced to huddle around an electric heater to keep warm after their boiler broke. “I just hope we don’t freeze, we don’t get frostbite and that no one gets overly sick,” mom Jessica Harvey told local TV network Fox4 at the time.

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However, after the Harvey family’s story aired, the community rallied around them. Local businesses dropped off hot food, while one generous lady offered to put the family up in hotel until the weather conditions improved. “It’s so wonderful what people are doing,” Harvey later enthused. “I’m so grateful. This is all so overwhelming, but in a very good way.”

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There were more good deeds in Lake Odessa, Michigan, where pharmacist Andrea Cusack thought up a novel way to ensure her customers remained stocked up with medication despite the weather disruptions. With the help of her teenage son, she jumped aboard her snowmobile and delivered orders herself. “I truly care about people and want to help them,” she explained to local news station WILX.

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Even in a big city like Chicago, people were eager to help those less fortunate than themselves through the cold snap. After a group of homeless people in the city were evacuated from their camp when a one of the dozens of propane tanks they were relying on for warmth exploded, someone paid for all 70 of them to stay in a hotel.

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What’s more, in true altruistic style, the donor chose to remain anonymous. A spokesman from the Salvation Army later explained to the Chicago Tribune newspaper, “Some wonderful citizen is going to put them up at a hotel for the rest of the week. Isn’t that wonderful? At least they’re warm and they’re safe.”

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Another generous person who calls the Windy City home is Dr. Sabeel Ahmed. In his role as director at the GainPeace Project, Ahmed runs schemes to educate people about Islam. Some of his work has included placing billboard and newspaper adverts, and he also gives presentations all across America.

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Born in India, Ahmed later moved to America. He has since settled in Chicago with his wife Asma Naheed and their three children, who live together in the Morton Grove neighborhood of the city. And it was there that Ahmed was eager to show some of the true values of Islam, by reaching out and caring for his neighbors, whatever their beliefs.

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In January 2019 Ahmed told the Chicago Tribune why portraying his Muslim faith in a positive light was important to him. “Helping neighbors is a big part of the faith,” he explained. “But there is also a fear about Islam and Muslims. We don’t want people to judge Islam or any other faith just based on the news… There are so many commonalities we have as humans, as Americans and as people of faith.”

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For Ahmed it is important for members of all communities to live side by side in harmony. In February 2019 he told CNN, “Despite racial and religious differences, at the end of the day, we have to meet.” So with that in mind, Ahmed wanted his neighbors to know that he and his family were there for them when the polar vortex took hold.

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During the bad weather, in January 2019, Chicago was described as “the epicenter of the extreme cold,” by Dave Hennen, a meteorologist for CNN. Temperatures in the city lingered well below zero for a number of days. As a result, there was severe travel disruption and a real threat to life.

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But while other people were sensibly taking refuge, Ahmed defied the cold and set off on a journey around his neighborhood. Working his way through his community, he delivered a series of handwritten notes telling his neighbors that he was there to lend a helping hand should they need anything during the cold snap.

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In February 2019 Ahmed told NBC Chicago his family’s offer to the community was simple. Summarizing the notes, he revealed his message had been, “We are your Muslim neighbors. The temperature will be very cold. We are here to help if you need to pick up groceries, or medicine. Or shoveling of snow.”

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Later it emerged that another of the lovely letters read, “Greetings of peace. As temperatures dip way below zero, neighbors are the ones to help each other. My family and I are available if you need assistance in picking up groceries, medicine or removal of snow. You are also welcome to drop into our home for hot tea and samosa.”

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Ahmed and his family were very serious about their kind offer. In fact, Ahmed even cleared his diary to ensure he was around if any of his neighbors called upon him for assistance. “I took two days off work,” he explained in an interview with the Chicago Tribune. “If anybody needs help, I’m available.”

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Furthermore, to ensure their message spread far and wide, the Ahmed family turned to technology for help. With that in mind, they emailed their offer to neighbors they weren’t able to reach on foot. Meanwhile, Ahmed’s daughter made a YouTube video reiterating the proposition outlined in the letters to anyone watching.

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In the video, Ahmed revealed why he had reached out to the community. “It’s an obligation of us as being humans, us as being neighbors, us as being Muslims to not only make sure that we remain safe but we want to make sure that our neighbors, they also remain safe and protected,” he explained.

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Speaking to CNN, Ahmed later revealed he’d decided to write the letters after worrying about his elderly next-door neighbor. And after offering to help her, he thought he’d extend his generosity to the rest of his near neighbors. In the end, he and his family delivered notes to 40 homes. And what’s more, they expected nothing in return.

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In February 2019 Ahmed told CNN, “We need to take care of our neighbors. That was a big motivation for doing this.” He added that “teaching our children” had been another driving force behind his kind act. “It’s not about me,” the father-of-three explained. “It’s about humanity. It’s about the world.”

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Once again playing down his good deed, Ahmed told the Chicago Tribune, “It was just a neighborly initiative to motivate the neighbors so more of them can hopefully connect with each other and get a sense of community.” However, he did add, “Even though this was a personal initiative to help neighbors, it is connected to the bigger work I do, which is to dispel misconceptions people have about Islam and Muslims.”

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When neighbor Maureen Hartnett discovered the Ahmed family’s gesture, she told the Chicago Tribune it was “heartwarming.” Furthermore, she claimed the message had reminded her of the community spirit she remembered from her youth. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is kind of old-fashioned, how we used to be,” she recalled.

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Hartnett was born and bred in Chicago, and she remembered a time when people would look out for one another. “I grew up in the city, and that’s how my block was,” she told the Chicago Tribune. “Everybody knew they could stop at the door. [Seeing the letter] made me feel good that my family lives in a community where everybody is still like that.”

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Meanwhile, after Alexander Slagg learned of his neighbor’s kind deed at work, he praised Ahmed for showing how community members of different religions and races should treat one another. “Especially when we have this scary weather,” Slagg told CNN. “All the differences don’t matter. What he did, that is awesome.”

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And if encouraging his neighbors to help one another was the lasting legacy of his letters, Ahmed would have been happy. “Hopefully the ice is broken and hopefully there will be more connections made … and neighbors will carry it on, as a ripple effect,” he told CNN. However, little did Ahmed know that his actions would earn him even more recognition.

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One of the people who took Ahmed’s offer of assistance up was Susan Engel. The elderly neighbor is disabled and required help getting some supplies. So Ahmed and his loved ones came to the rescue. “We went as a family and dropped off groceries to her,” Ahmed told NBC Chicago in February 2019.

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Following her interaction with the Ahmeds, Engel told NBC they were “like saints.” The elderly resident of nearby Park Ridge added, “I needed help and they came to my aid.” Speaking about Ahmed specifically, she declared, “He’s like my knight in shining armor.” And she wasn’t the only one to publicly commend his thoughtful actions.

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Once the cold snap had subsided in February, the Ahmeds were honored at a Morton Grove village board meeting. The session was attended by Mayor Dan DiMaria, and he praised the family’s actions as “an amazing, amazing example of what Morton Grove is all about.” He added, “It shows us there is good news in this world.”

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Ahmed later told NBC Chicago, “We are all humans at the end of the day… stories and lessons are nothing if you don’t practice them.” Revealing what went through his mind when he heard about the predicted polar vortex, he added, “The very first thought came to my mind, let’s protect my family and immediately, what about the neighbors?”

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The gold-colored award was handed to the Ahmed family on February 11, 2019, by Mayor DiMaria and the Morton Grove Village Board of Trustees. It was given in recognition of the family’s community spirit and the kindness they had shown to their neighbors during the polar vortex.

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Upon accepting the special recognition from his community, Ahmed reiterated his hope that his family’s actions may inspire others to reach out to their neighbors in times of need. “More people should do something like this so that we can have a ripple effect,” he told the attendees of the village meeting as he took to the stage.

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Ahmed said his family was happy to have been of help. “We would do it again,” he told the Chicago Tribune in February 2019. And he also assured his community that he was always there to lend a hand. “Being a neighbor, there is no expiration date on that,” Ahmed said. “Anytime anyone, for any reason, needs help, please give us a call.”

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