“It is isolating this year”: Colorado’s Muslims forego community gatherings as they observe Ramadan amid a pandemic

When Ismail Akbulut and his family break their fast each night this month during Ramadan, there will be a sense of loneliness at their dining room table.

Rather than a group of friends gathering to pray, talk and laugh, Akbulut, his wife and their three daughters will eat dates and lentil or mushroom soup as a single family. As immigrants from Turkey, their friends from their mosque are the family they turn to each year during the Islamic faith’s holy month.

“It is the community and the gathering with others that is missing. The more you get together with your friends, it gives you a feeling of home and inclusiveness,” Akbulut said. “It is isolating this year.”

During Ramadan, which began Friday, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, avoiding all food, drink and even chewing gum. Traditionally, they gather at mosques or friends’ homes or community centers to break the fast with meals, known as iftar. It’s that gathering that is so important, especially for immigrants and refugees who do not live in a predominantly Muslim country surrounded by others who are foregoing food, devoting time to reading the Quran and praying.

This year, mosques across Colorado have been closed for more than a month because of the novel coronavirus. Imams across the state used a lesson from Prophet Muhammad to encourage their members to stay home and avoid large gatherings — even Friday prayer services, said Imam ShemsAdeen Ben-Masaud, communications officer for the Colorado Imam Council.

“Each individual needs to be doing their own prayers at home and reading the Quran themselves,” he said. “We can still have a spiritual Ramadan, a special Ramadan while continuing with our religious traditions.”

The prophet’s teachings instructed people to stay home during plagues, Ben-Masaud said.

“We take that as imams and religious scholars as proof that we should not be a reason for spreading disease or spreading harm,” he said.

Each year, Akbulut and his wife spend weeks preparing for Ramadan. And they especially look forward to Eid, the big celebration that marks the end of the holy month.

“We plan ahead what days we would invite friends to our home and what days we would go to someone else’s,” he said. “We would sit together and plan what food we would serve.”

Some Muslims will gather via Zoom or WhatsApp to socialize this month. Akbulut’s parents and siblings live in Germany and his extended family is in Turkey. While they will talk to their families throughout Ramadan, they won’t be able to break fast via video because of the time difference.

Akbulut’s wife and three daughters — ages 13, 9 and 6 — will decorate their home with lights and signs. It’s a tradition but “this is probably going to be the best decorations we’ve had in home because it’s all going to be in our home.”

For Nadeen Ibrahim, the thought of spending Ramadan alone was too much. In March, the 25-year-old Denver resident moved back to her parents’ home in Wiggins as stay-home orders were enacted. She grew up there, and her Palestinian family, who owned a convenience store, were the only Muslims in town. Now, she’s readjusting to life with her parents and three younger siblings reunited under the same roof.

The only sibling who won’t be there is a sister, who is married with her own family.

“It’s the first Ramadan I’ve celebrated with my whole family in a long time,” Ibrahim said. “I couldn’t imagine having to stay home and do this by myself.”

Among the traditions she will try to maintain is making pre-dawn pancake runs, but she’ll bring her brothers rather than meet friends in Denver. They call them “IHOB runs,” substituting the ‘P’ in IHOP because the letter’s sound doesn’t exist in the Arabic alphabet.

“It’s without a doubt that one of the most precious components of Ramadan is being together and celebrating together,” she said.

Ibrahim, who is an activist in Denver’s Muslim community, will help organize charitable events from afar.

Aside from fasting, praying and reading the Quran, giving is an essential part of Ramadan. Mosques will miss the contributions, but Colorado’s Muslim community is rallying to help others. The Mosaic Foundation has a relief fund for taxi drivers, restaurant workers and others who lost jobs during the pandemic, and its members are cooking meals to deliver to police officers and other front line workers. The Southeast Aurora Islamic Center is pairing with Crescent View Academy to provide to-go iftar on weekends for the community.

Muhammet and Canan Saricelik came to the United States in 2016 after she earned a scholarship from the Turkish education ministry. Shortly after they arrived, the young couple and their families got caught up in a coup, and the Sariceliks decided it was unsafe to return home. They now live and work in Aurora where she is a math teacher and he is a business manager in the schools.

This year, they will keep their iftar simple with soups and salads, rather than eating bigger meals with friends. They’ll dip into their bank accounts to contribute to those who need more than them.

Last year, Canan Saricelik was shopping with a friend before Ramadan when the friend’s 7-year-old son remarked that they’d bought too much food for people who would be fasting. She is taking the child’s observation to heart in 2020.

“This year we set aside our money for people in need. We didn’t do all that crazy shopping,” Canan Saricelik said. “We are shut in. We decided to live simple.”

Her husband added, “This will be an exercise in self-restraint, really. At this time, we don’t interact with other people.”

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