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More Muslim students in the US are getting support during Ramadan

There's increased awareness that Ramadan means early rising and late bedtimes for many families. Muslim high school students say they are grateful.
More Muslim students in the US are getting support during Ramadan
Posted at 8:56 PM, Mar 16, 2024

While Muslim students remain a rarity in many U.S. school districts, they are a major presence in some communities, prompting public schools to be more attentive to their needs during the holy month of Ramadan when dawn-to-sundown fasting is a duty of Islam.

For example, in Dearborn, Michigan — where nearly half the 110,000 residents are of Arab descent — public school teachers and staff strive to make things easier for students observing Ramadan.

"We allow students on their own to practice their faith as long as it's not a disruption to the school day," said Dearborn Schools spokesperson David Mustonen. "We also try to find other spaces or activities in the school during lunch for those students who may be fasting."

But he stressed that these students are still required to complete all assignments.

In St. Paul, Minnesota, East African Elementary Magnet School has set aside space in the library where students who are fasting and don’t want to be in the cafeteria can spend the break doing other supervised activities like reading, said principal Abdisalam Adam.

SEE MORE: Faithful around the world celebrate the first night of Ramadan

The 220-student school opened last fall as part of St. Paul’s public schools system, and shares that curriculum, but it also aims to reinforce cultural and linguistic connections with Somalia and other East African countries. Adam said about 90% of the students are Somali Muslims.

Adam, who has worked with the district for nearly 30 years, said he tells his staff that accommodating observance of Ramadan fits in with an overall goal of caring for students.

"All needs are connected," he said.

For school districts less familiar with Muslim traditions, resources are available. For example, Islamic Networks Group, a California-based nonprofit, provides, among other things, online information for educators about Ramadan and its significance to Muslims.

Many districts "don’t know very much about Islam or any of our holidays," said Maha Elgenaidi, the group's executive director. "If they don't know very much about it, there’s not much they can provide to students in terms of accommodation" until they learn more and the parents are actively involved in asking for accommodations.

She says fasting students may need to be excused from strenuous activities in gym class, and should be allowed to make up for tests missed due to absence to celebrate the Eid al-Fitr holiday that follows Ramadan.

"If they’re not accommodated at school or the school doesn't know anything about this, they're kind of living dual lives there."

Fasting is not required of young children, but many Muslim children like to fast to share in the month's rituals and emulate parents and older siblings, according to ING. Educators also need to know of the typical changes to Muslim families’ routines during Ramadan, such as waking up for the pre-dawn "suhoor" meal and staying up late to possibly attend prayers in the mosque, Elgenaidi said.

When Dr. Aifra Ahmed’s children were younger, the Pakistani American physician and her husband would share insight about Ramadan with their classmates, reading to them a Ramadan story and distributing goodie bags with such things as dates.

"I realized that the Muslim families in school have to do a lot of education," said Ahmed, who lives in Los Altos, California.

Ahmed's husband, Moazzam Chaudry, said goodwill gestures, such as when educators offer a Ramadan greeting, send a message of inclusivity.

For immigrant families, "that's the first thing that ... naturally comes to your mind, 'Are we integrated into this society? Does this society even accept us?'" he said. "These little, little things make such a huge impact."

Punhal, the couple's daughter who attends a charter middle school, said she takes part in physical education during Ramadan but skips running when fasting because she would need water afterward.

She said a few non-Muslim friends told her they would like to fast with her in companionship.

Naiel, her brother who’s in a public high school, said he was pleased when a teacher talked to the class about Ramadan and told him that, if he needed, he could take a nap.

He wants others to better understand why he fasts.

"A lot of kids and teachers think ... I'm torturing myself or like it's a diet," he said. "When I'm fasting, I just feel a lot more gratitude towards everyone around me and towards people who don't have as much."

In Dearborn, 14-year-old Adam Alcodray praised the faculty at Dearborn High for their understanding during Ramadan.

"A lot of the teachers are just like more lenient, allowing us to do less," said Alcodray, a 9th grader. "They don't get mad because they realize we are hungry."

Alcodray says he fasts from 6:20 a.m. until around 8 p.m.

"It's not that bad to be honest," he said. "When you know you can’t eat, something in your brain clicks."

Hussein Mortada, a 17-year-old senior at Dearborn High, said family solidarity is invaluable during Ramadan.

"In my family, everybody's fasting," Mortada said. "Everybody's going through the same thing. The whole month is meant for you to get closer to God and make your religion stronger."

This year, Ramadan carries extra significance due to the hardships being suffered by people in Gaza amid the Israel-Hamas war, Mortada said.

"I feel helpless just sitting here on my phone, looking at everything that’s happening," he said. "All you can do is feel for them and pray for them."

Alcodray shared similar sentiments.

"When you look at what the children are eating in Gaza, you appreciate what your mom makes," he said. "When you're having a bad day, realize what they are going through."

At the East African magnet school in St. Paul, Marian Aden — who trains other teachers there — makes it a priority to encourage Ramadan-related accommodations for fasting students.

Aden said her youngest daughter, 4-year-old Nora, woke up excited about Ramadan’s start on March 11 — but her teachers in the suburb where they live weren’t familiar with the occasion. Aden said she’ll be relieved when Nora starts attending the magnet school next year.

"She'll be celebrated for who she is," Aden said.

Minnesota has been home to growing numbers of refugees from war-torn Somalia since the late 1990s. Several school districts have recently made Eid a holiday.

In Washington, D.C., Abdul Fouzi has two daughters, ages 8 and 12, who have gradually learned the meaning and rituals of Ramadan.

Growing up in Sierra Leone in the 1980s, Fouzi said he was fasting for a full day as early as age 11. But he has not pushed his elder daughter to do likewise.

"They're still pretty young so they’re not ready to go the whole day without food or water," he said. "They're not built like that."

Still, he wants them to get used to the idea; this year he’d like them to experiment with fasting for a half day.

To Fouzi, more important than strict adherence to the rules at their age is their understanding of Ramadan’s meaning and the importance of praying for peace.

"They make up their own little rules and find loopholes figuring out how they want to participate in and practice Ramadan in different ways, and I’m okay with that," he said.

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