Nour Al Raies, a refugee from Homs, Syria, says she misses the adhan, the call to prayer, the most.
“We miss the sound of the adhan which would come from the mosque announcing the breaking of our fast. You know, each passing day we feel nostalgic for the days of Ramadan in our home country,” Raies, tells Newsweek Middle East.
Raies and her family—her husband and four children, two boys and two girls aged between 14 years and 15 months old—are spending their first Ramadan outside of Syria, after being resettled in Calgary last December.
“It’s so hard for us also to start our special month, Ramadan, away from our families and friends and also away from our home country,” she says.
Canada has welcomed more than 27,500 Syrian refugees since late last year as part of the Canadian government’s push to respond to the refugee crisis.
The refugees have been resettled through government and private sponsorship programs, and community groups across the country have raised money to sponsor Syrian families.
Saima Jamal, an organizer with the Syrian Refugee Support Group in Calgary, says volunteers are regularly calling to ask her how they can best accommodate the newly-arrived refugees during Ramadan.
She adds that many volunteers and churches are organizing interfaith iftar events themselves. “That never happened [before] in Canada,” Jamal said. “These Syrian refugees are just somehow automatically making Canada so much more pluralistic than we thought.”
At least 1,450 Syrian refugees have been resettled in Calgary to date, and their presence has led to a greater understanding about Islam and what Ramadan is all about, she says.
“More and more people are interacting with these newcomers on a daily basis and having that opportunity to help them just changes their whole perspective,” Jamal adds.
“They don’t feel threatened anymore, or they don’t feel like, ‘Oh I don’t know what this is about,’ or fearful of practices, they just want to know. They want to get involved. They want to do it right. It’s really, really amazing.”
With most of their family’s relatives still in Homs, Raies says she also misses the strong sense of community that comes out during Ramadan—and her children are especially nostalgic for Syria.
But in lieu of spending the month with extended family, she invited Jamal to share iftar with her family on the first day of Ramadan. “I invited her because I said to her, ‘You are my family. I don’t have family here. You have to come and join me on the first day of iftar,’” says the woman with a sweet laugh.
Elsewhere across Canada, Ramadan is a chance to build a more connected Muslim community while also educating non-Muslims about Islam and the tenets of the holy month.
Dalia Hashim is president of the Muslim Student Association at the University of Toronto, which launched the iftar Community Initiative this year to connect Muslims who might not otherwise have people to share iftar with.
So far, about 50 people, mainly students and alumni, have signed up.
“Iftar in Ramadan, a portion of it is about community … But some people don’t readily have that, whether it’s because they’re in Toronto to study or whether they’re away from their family or they’re converts.
The initiative was just hoping to bring people together,” Hashim says.
She adds that the MSA is hosting two free iftar meals this year, and that both Muslim and non-Muslim students participate annually.
She said this cross-cultural celebration has become normal in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), with many people viewing Ramadan as a part of their yearly calendar.
“I think in Toronto there’s a lot stronger of a communal sense when it comes to Ramadan,” Hashim says. “It’s not something that’s unique to the Muslim community anymore. It’s something that we share very strongly with the larger GTA community.”
The Ramadan Tent Project (RTP) will also be held in Toronto for the first time this year.
Launched by university students in the UK, the RTP is an initiative that invites Muslims and non-Muslims to break fast together with a free meal, lectures and music. The initiative is being held in cities in the U.K., the U.S., Turkey and Zambia this year.
“We’re hoping that this event will be part of the collective effort to educate the public about what Islam is about, in particular around the practice of fasting,” says Shazlin Rahiman, the communications officer for the Toronto RTP event.
Organizers are raising money to hold one community iftar dinner, on June 24 in a Toronto park, and Rahiman said more than 100 people have already signed up to volunteer.
She says organizers are also encouraging participants to support other marginalized communities in Toronto year-round.
“Ramadan is not just about fasting and breaking fast and then celebrating your success at the end of the month. It’s also meant to build empathy and compassion for people who don’t have as much,” Rahiman tells Newsweek Middle East.
“Events like this are meant to take that spiritual realization that you have [during Ramadan] and put it into action.”
In solidarity with Muslims
Mark Holland was blown away. The Canadian politician never thought his comments about Ramadan in parliament in Ottawa would inspire the reaction they did—or that videos of his speech would rack up millions of views from people around the world.
“It’s been very humbling and frankly shocking, but also very touching, that it’s had an impact and that it’s been meaningful to so many people,” Holland tells Newsweek Middle East.
This is the second year that Holland is fasting for Ramadan, the month during which Muslims believe God first revealed the Quran to Prophet Mohammed (PBUH). Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset during the entire month.
The politician claims the experience has not only shown him how challenging it is to be truly hungry, but has also helped him become “more introspective” about the suffering of others.
“I hope that this message helps those who are not celebrating Ramadan, the people who maybe don’t know as much about Islam, to understand more about the religion and more about the intent of Ramadan and the power of it,” Holland adds.
On June 3, Holland delivered a speech at the Parliament in which he wished Canadian Muslims and Muslims across the globe a Ramadan Mubarak, the phrase for wishing someone a blessed Ramadan.
He wanted to demonstrate to his constituents and the world that “Canada is a place that recognizes the beauty of Islam, the power of Ramadan and what its core message is.”
And apparently Holland is not the only Canadian politician showing solidarity with the Muslim community. Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, has long been observing the month with Muslim members of the Liberal Party he heads, with photos of him sitting in a mosque on the first day of Ramadan surfacing back in 2013, two years before he was elected. And it seems to be a regular practice for Trudeau, who tweeted this Ramadan: “It was a pleasure celebrating the ‘fitour’ and breaking the fast with Muslim members of our party.”
Needless to say, the dashing young premier’s photo in a modest white shalwar kameez, a traditional Pakistani dress, went viral.
Just over 1 million people identified as Muslim on the most recent Canadian household survey in 2011, and that number is expected to grow to around 3 million by 2030. In 2011, Muslims constituted 3.2 percent of the Canadian population, up from 2 percent a decade earlier.
“Ramadan reminds all of us to show appreciation for the countless blessings we enjoy and to put the needs of others before our own,” Trudeau had said in a statement that was released during the first week of Ramadan.
“Let us take the time to recognize, and show gratitude for, the invaluable contributions of our Muslim communities that enrich our national fabric each and every day,” he added.
Holland meanwhile has urged Canadians to donate to a project called Give30, which encourages people to donate the money they save while fasting during Ramadan, to food banks across Canada.
“A huge part of Ramadan is social justice. A huge part of Islam is social justice,” according to Give30 founder Ziyaad Mia, who launched the volunteer-run project in 2012.
“Islam actually compels you to feel a little bit bad through Ramadan and that’s what I found to be quite powerful, that you are actually feeling the hunger for a little while and that should spur empathy,” Mia tells Newsweek Middle East.
He says that Canadians of all religions “have pledged money to the campaign,” with individual donations ranging from as much as tens of thousands of dollars, to only a few dollars.
“It doesn’t matter how much you give, it’s what it means to you,” he adds.
The project has raised over $22,300 so far this year, and over $403,000 since 2012, with hopes that it would eventually expand Give30 to other parts of the world.
“My secret agenda is to remind everyone first and foremost that we’re all human beings coming from God,” Mia says.
“All these differences are just adornments, they’re not really of substance, and if we fixate on the differences, we go down the wrong road and we’re going to have a miserable world. We can see that all over the Middle East where people draw distinctions based on peoples’ wealth or their nationality or their skin color.”
Refugees in Turkey
THE LORD’S MERCY: A Syrian man reads the Quran after a mass prayer session. Thousands of Syrian refugees who attempted to migrate to Europe from war-ravaged Syria have been taken in by Turkey. Under a controversial agreement, the EU promised visa free travel for Turks and membership into the European bloc in exchange for Turkey diverting the flow of migrants from European borders.
CHEF’S PREP: Syrian women prepare food on the first day of Ramadan. It is common for Muslims around the world to prepare small snacks and traditional treats ahead of the holy month. For these Syrian refugees, it helps regain a sense of normalcy and forget the conflict back in Syria, even if for a while.
SWEET DEAL: A Syrian street vendor sells Mushabak in the refugee camp. Mushabak, also known as zeleibi is a traditional crispy fried sweet dipped in a sugar syrup. It is usually orange or yellow in color.
ALL WORK, NO PLAY: A Syrian boy sells dates as others sit nearby. Many refugees who lost everything to the war in Syria are trying to earn a living doing odd jobs around refugee camps. Some have started bakery businesses using aid money, while others offer their services as barbers and food vendors selling traditional Syrian delicacies.
Refugees in Germany and Serbia
FOOD FOR ALL: Migrants get food for the iftar (breaking fast) meal at a former hotel that has been transformed into a refugee shelter in Berlin.
CHILLIN’ LIKE A VILLAIN: A migrant from Afghanistan rests at a makeshift camp at the Serbian-Hungarian border near the village of Horgos.
FAMILY FIRST: Members of a Syrian family eat iftar at a hotel in Germany that has been converted into a refugee shelter.
HUMBLE OFFERINGS: Food for the iftar meal is seen on a table.
Refugees in Lebanon, Jordan and Greece
DELIVERANCE: Migrants pray during Ramadan at a state-run refugee camp in Schisto, near Athens. Dozens of migrants stuck in Greece are queuing up to register for its asylum system, a new process that Greece hopes will speed up their relocation. Some 48,000 refugees are stranded on the Greek mainland.
A FRESH START: A Syrian family from Homs pushes their child on a wheelchair before heading to the airport in Beirut as they leave Lebanon to settle in Italy, as part of a project called Humanitarian Corridors. Nearly 300 Syrian refugees fleeing war have arrived in Italy since February including vulnerable groups (victims of persecutions, families with children, single women, the elderly, the ill and the disabled).
BECAUSE I’M HAPPY: Syrian refugee children play as volunteers entertain them inside a housing compound in Sidon, southern Lebanon. In Beirut, Syrian kids celebrated the spirit of the holy month by attending a Ramadan festival that included a puppet show and other fun activities.
COME ONE, COME ALL: Syrian refugees shop after receiving humanitarian aid shopping vouchers in preparation for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan at Zaatari refugee camp in Mafraq, Jordan. For many who were forced to give up their life savings to escape the Syrian war, the aid is crucial source of survival.