Ramadan in Detroit: How we keep the faith, feed our community during a pandemic

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Last week, my children brought up the box of Ramadan decorations from the basement after weeks of anticipation. As we put up lights around the fireplace, hung gold lanterns from the ceiling, and set up block letters on the mantle that spelled out “Ramadan Mubarak,” I realized how different Ramadan would be this year, celebrating during a pandemic. While we’ve certainly still been fasting from dawn to sunset as we do every year, it’s being with family, friends, and the community that we all miss the most. 

For Muslims, fasting during Ramadan isn’t about being hungry and not drinking “even water.” It’s about increasing faith, feeding our souls, helping others, and being together during one of the most blessed times of the year.

This year, the COVID-19 pandemic has transformed all of that. Instead of breaking our fasts with fellow Muslims, we will eat with only our immediate families. For those who live alone, they don’t even have that option. Instead of standing foot-to-foot and shoulder-to-shoulder during the nightly prayers, we now stay six feet apart. Instead of the doors at our mosques open all night, and children running through the rows of worshippers, the doors stay tightly shut without a single person inside. 

Despite being physically apart, I can’t think of a more important time for Ramadan to have arrived. We’re finding ways to come together in different ways to tend to the most crucial, immediate needs of the elderly, essential workers, and those who’ve been hit with job loss and sudden poverty because of the pandemic. This type of outreach isn’t just a recommendation, it’s a pillar of Islam and it’s what makes us Muslim.

I sit on an all-women board for the KBK Relief Foundation (named after one of history’s most notable Muslim females, Khadijah bint Khuwaylid), a nonprofit that provides emergency relief, scholarships, and resources to families in need. Typically during Ramadan, we make it a goal to feed people in underdeveloped countries to help those who do not have the same opportunities as we do in the United States. We have family in Pakistan, India, Yemen, and Iraq so we usually send money to our respective families who then set up Ramadan rations for the needy in the villages. 

But this year was different.

As it became clear that the pandemic had made its way to U.S. soil, our phones began ringing off the hook with families in our own backyard asking for help. I remember waking up one morning to more than 300 messages in our WhatsApp group chat, with everyone scrambling to figure out the best way to combine efforts and get families food on the table. It was obvious that this year, along with feeding people back home, we wanted to make sure to donate and deliver as many groceries to families in our community here in Metro Detroit so people had one less worry during these uncertain times.

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Courtesy of Sobia Haq

It became a divide-and-conquer effort within our group and with other local organizations working on similar initiatives. Fellow board member Sobia Haq called me and told me she was able, to my amazement, to find 10-12 volunteers to make the deliveries and put together the food boxes with the help of ICNA Relief Michigan, the local chapter of a national organization that offers social services to the underprivileged. I remember feeling a huge wave of shock and relief that we found so many volunteers willing to come forward to lend their support during a pandemic.

“A lot of the younger crowd really wants to help and do something to give back during this time,” she said. “They were even asking when they’d be able to do more deliveries!”

Some folks took calls, compiled a list of addresses to households, and determined the number of family members in each home so they could figure out how much food was needed. I couldn’t physically go anywhere to help out because I have an ill family member, but I did my part by taking to social media to raise money to purchase the groceries we’d need. Others tracked the money that was coming in and began collaborating with El-Sayed Meat Market.

The ICNA Relief team put together the food boxes. Sobia and the volunteers then picked up the boxes from a location in Detroit and delivered them to around 50 households.

Just as quickly as we completed our first mission, we met with volunteers at the J&E Community office in Hamtramck. Sobia handed out N95 masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer to everyone before they got to work. Through hours of conversations and laughs, they assembled boxes, sorted through fresh produce donated by Gleaner’s Community Food Bank, packed the boxes with rice, fruits and vegetables, lentils, oil, and other necessities and loaded the cars. Each volunteer was handed a set of addresses and sent on their way. Between both efforts, we were able to donate to 120 families. 

“We’d ring the doorbell when we dropped the boxes off on porches and the look of pure joy over a box of simple food really changes your perspective,” Sobia told me after a day of drop-offs.

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Courtesy of Sobia Haq

As Muslims, we are taught to help others, to think beyond our own needs. Observing Ramadan during this pandemic has shown me how our community comes together during times of crisis.

In the Metro Detroit area alone, there are multiple organizations taking the reins to feed their neighbors. The Islamic Center of Detroit has daily free iftar for anyone who is struggling. Zaman International and Gleaners have partnered to distribute food multiple times this month. The Amity Foundation has its “No Family Unfed” project to deliver food to families.

As I sit every night at my dining table to break fast with my family, with an intricate spread of sweet dates, delicious samosas, fruit salad, spring rolls, and all types of pakoras, I realize and appreciate my blessings, because while I am sitting in front of a dinner fit for a queen, I know people in my own community are struggling to buy basic necessities.

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Courtesy of Minnah Khan

If being quarantined has taught me just one thing, it’s that not everyone is faced with the same hardships. Some of us are just slightly inconvenienced, we miss our friends, we miss going out, and we’re probably working from home. However, many people have lost their livelihoods and aren’t making enough money to pay rent or feed their families.

What’s also interesting, is that we’ve found innovative ways to practice our religion during a quarantined Ramadan. I’ve been taking Quran lessons online and people are using Zoom and social media to listen in on lectures with their favorite Islamic scholars.

I even help my mom set up her daily Quran class on Google Meet. I must have shown her how to start the meeting herself at least 15 times but every day at 1:45 p.m., she brings me her phone with a sheepish smile on her face because she prefers that I do it for her.

“I want you to have the rewards,” she says to me as she hands me her phone.

I can’t help but smile as I set up her meeting and send the invite link to all the other aunties who take the class. They pray for me and thank me every day for helping them. It fills my heart with joy, not just because I helped my mom, but because this time has shown me that even the community aunties are keeping up with technology and following the stay-home order, while still faithfully worshipping.

I think a lot of us in my community were hoping by now that we’d be able to celebrate Eid-al-Fitr together, pray at the mosques and go house-to-house to visit friends.

That doesn’t seem likely this year. But my family will still be dressing in our fanciest clothes, eating delicious food at home, exchanging gifts, and making FaceTime calls to wish everyone a Happy Eid. Just as we’ve found reasons to rejoice during Ramadan, I’m sure we will figure out a way to celebrate Eid.

Each year, Tostada Magazine is proud to publish its Ramadan in Detroit storytelling series. Big thanks to all of our supporters who’ve contributed to the making of this project. If you would like to donate to future storytelling efforts, become a sponsor and make a tax-deductible donation by clicking here.

Tostada Magazine is supported by a generous grant from the Detroit Journalism Engagement Fund, a project of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, that’s working to increase quality journalism and help better inform communities.

Bisma Parvez

Author: Bisma Parvez

Bisma Parvez is a freelance writer and reporter who graduated from Wayne State University with a BA in English and a BSc in Radiation Therapy. Previously, she was a reporter at the Detroit Free Press and has bylines in HuffPost, The Tempest, and Muslim Girl. She is a founding board member of KBK Relief Foundation. Her passion is to portray the Muslim experience and uplift her community in the mainstream media. She is a proud American, Canadian and Pakistani Muslim, a Detroiter, a mother of two beautiful children, and a speaker of truth.

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