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Observing Ramadan with Chicago area Refugees from Syria

(CHICAGO, IL.) –The holy month of Ramadan is traditionally accompanied with an atmosphere of joy and family gatherings, but for those who were forcibly displaced from their home by war, it might be difficult to fully indulge in Ramadan’s atmosphere.

Noor al-Shami, a Syrian refugee, who was resettled in Chicago with her husband and three children two years ago, explains the challenges she and he family faced during their first Ramadan.

“Our first Ramadan here was really tough,” Noor said. “It was very hot and we didn’t have a car. We didn’t know anything about this new country. We couldn’t speak English, and we didn’t know anyone who can help us. We had to do everything on our own.”

Being away from home and loved ones is hard, and it becomes more difficult during holidays.

“Ramadan is always more special with family gatherings,” Noor indicated.  “I miss spending Ramadan with my family. I know there is no hope in seeing my family anytime soon, but I still think about them every day, and wonder what are they doing, what are they having for iftar?!” It has also been difficult for Noor’s husband. “He sometimes says that he feels like he is suffocating,” Noor said.

But life has gotten easier for Noor, as she and her husband have improved their English skills and have gradually integrated into the American society.

“We have come a long way. This Ramadan has been much easier,” she excitedly stated.

Noor and her family usually break their fast at University of Chicago’s campus, where open Iftar dinners are hosted every day. These iftar gatherings create a lively Ramadan atmosphere and make Noor and her family feel at home.

“When you see people around you, when you see Muslims fasting with you, you don’t feel alone,” Noor confided. “You feel others are sharing you the struggle and joy.”

Not all Chicagoland Syrian refugees, however, experience the spirit of Ramadan like Noor.

For Amal (a pseudonym used at her request) is a Syrian refugee who came to the U.S. from Jordan two years ago, and she has experienced Ramadan differently.

“For [my husband, my two kids and me], we don’t feel [the spirit of] Ramadan at all,” said Amal. “We only fast.”

Ever since Amal and her family moved away from a Syrian community located on the north side of Chicago, they felt isolated and disconnected.

“The community completely forgot about us after we moved away,” Amal explained. “As if we no longer exist.”

Amal misses Ramadan in Syria: the large family gatherings around the table, hanging out with cousins, late-night Ramadan shopping and the food.

“Nothing is like Ramadan in Syria,” she indicated sadly, after taking a deep breath. “You feel it much more there.”

But keeping the spirit of Ramadan alive is very important to Amal, especially for her kids.

“We decorated the house with lights and stars so that our kids feel that these days are special,” Amal said. “We are trying to bridge the gap.”

Sharing Ramadan with neighbors and non-Muslim friends, according to Amal, makes Ramadan all the more special. Amal invited her non-Muslim neighbor for an iftar meal. The neighbor, who is a conservative Christian, observed Amal and her husband as they performed Maghrib prayer, and then asked questions to learn more about Ramadan.

“This is an opportunity to educate people about Islam and to change their negative perceptions of our religion,” Amal explained. “Islam is about how you deal with people.”

Amal believes that Chicago’s Muslim and Arab community could do more to bond with refugees and make them feel at home.

“If there is at least more emotional support and bonding,” she asserted, “it would ease the pain of living away from home.”

Photo by Noor al-Shami