Ramadan shrouded in grief for U.S. Muslims amid Gaza deaths, devastation

Students talk about the Israel-Gaza conflict at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Miss. MUST CREDIT: Andrea Morales for The Washington Post.

YORBA LINDA, Calif. – In this suburban Orange County city, a mosque is saving money otherwise spent on Ramadan meals to raise $50,000 for starving Gazans. In metro Detroit, an Arab-majority city canceled its holy month festivals. In Houston, some Muslims are debating whether to adorn their homes in the usual decorations, and families in the Northeast are reconsidering their traditional dinner gatherings. No one is in a celebratory mood.

This year, Ramadan – typically a time of joy and reflection – is unfolding solemnly in Muslim communities across America, as Israel’s relentless bombardment of Gaza has driven the territory to the brink of famine and killed more than 31,000, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. While the war is playing out thousands of miles away, its presence is visceral in U.S. mosques during this most sacred month, as members await news from besieged family members and scroll through images of devastation on social media.

“This Ramadan is not like before,” said Sara Farsakh, a Palestinian American who was born in Gaza and lives with her family in Orange County. “In my home, Palestine is on our minds constantly, and it’s difficult to celebrate anything. What’s happening in Palestine, the West Bank and Gaza is a complete nightmare.”

Instead of filling the table with cherished Palestinian dishes like musakhan and knafeh, Farsakh is spending weekends at protests and feverishly working to get her aunts, uncles and cousins, who are trapped in Gaza, to safety.

“To me, this is nonstop stress and anxiety,” she said. “We’re not functioning like normal, our minds are somewhere else.”

As the conflict drags well into its fifth month, American Muslims say they are feeling a mix of emotions: They are grieving the constant violence that has reduced so much of Gaza to rubble and created a humanitarian catastrophe. And they are furious with U.S. leaders, who throughout the war have supplied Israel with military aid. At the same time, many have been heartened by the immense displays of solidarity in pro-Palestinian demonstrations across the country, though they are still wary of Islamophobia and discrimination, which spiked after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel that prompted the warfare.

This has made Ramadan in the United States a complicated time, pocked with painful reminders of the suffering overseas: the families that have been torn apart and cannot gather for the holiday, the destroyed mosques that will never again host daily prayers and, during a holy month when the thought of sustenance is ever-present, all the Gazans who cannot find food to break their fast.

At the Islamic Center of Yorba Linda, a former Christian church about 40 miles southeast of Los Angeles, mosque leaders say the war spurred them to pick “gratitude” as their Ramadan theme.

Rescue workers search the rubble left by a strike in Khan Younis, in the Gaza Strip, on Oct. 21, 2023. MUST CREDIT: Loay Ayyoub for The Washington Post.

“The people in Gaza are showing us resilience,” said Firoze Musthafa, the center’s director of programming. “They are stripped of all securities in their life, and all they have is their faith. That is showing us the power of the faith, and for that we are grateful to them.”

On a recent night, hundreds of worshipers crowded into the mosque for evening prayer, a portion of which is always dedicated to the people of Gaza. Afterward, many gathered outside, sipping tea and catching up. Ahmed Soboh, the center’s religious director, said the mood felt subdued compared with other years. And it’s not just an abstract emotional weight they carry, he said.

“We see it,” said Soboh, who is from the West Bank. “We get videos every day showing people dying – fathers carrying the dead bodies of their kids, children crying next to dead bodies of their mothers. Babies dying in incubators. We see all of that.”

Like other mosques, the Islamic Center of Yorba Linda stepped up its security after Oct. 7, but Soboh said there have been no major incidents. Now more than ever, the community is hungry for a spiritual boost, he said, and some nights during Ramadan more than 1,000 people pray at the center. They are channeling their grief into charity, cutting back on food to raise money for Gaza and donating to the nonprofits that set up outside the mosque each day.

In suburban Detroit, home to one of the largest Arab American and Muslim populations in the country, this year’s Ramadan looks nothing like past years’. Dearborn’s annual Suhoor Festival, which usually attracts up to 15,000 people from across the continent on weekend nights, has been canceled. The event’s founder, Hassan Chami, said its merry atmosphere just didn’t feel right this year.

“I don’t want to bear the responsibility of hosting such a fun festival,” he said. “A lot of people are starving and dying in Gaza.”

Likewise, the city scrapped its own Ramadan Nights celebration, out of respect for the many residents grieving the bloodshed in Gaza, Dearborn Mayor Abdullah H. Hammoud said.

“The choice to cancel Ramadan Nights was a community decision that allows us to refocus our attention on our loved ones here and overseas,” said Hammoud, a Muslim son of Lebanese immigrants.

At the Islamic Center of Detroit, a mosque in a neighborhood of modest brick homes on the city’s far-west side, Imran Salha has been leading prayers and giving talks about Gaza for months. During Ramadan, he has increased their frequency – and the community is responding. Typically, prayer attendance tapers off as the holy month goes on, he said, but this year the mosque has been packed every night.

“We are worshiping at a higher level of intensity,” said Salha, 33, whose parents are from the West Bank. “People are saying, ‘Before I used to fast because my parents fasted. Now I’m fasting because I want God to answer our prayers. I’m fasting because of the people in Gaza.’”

Hani Salem was one of about 100 people who attended prayer at the mosque on a recent afternoon.

“We don’t feel joy,” said Salem, a Palestinian who has lived in the United States for four decades. “Even when we eat, we think of people who are dying from lack of food. Every day we hear a story.”

In Michigan, perhaps more than anywhere else, President Biden is feeling the political fallout of his support of Israel, even if he has grown more critical as the violence in Gaza has continued. Although Biden won last month’s Democratic primary in the key swing state, more than 100,000 people cast ballots for “uncommitted,” a protest vote meant to sway the president’s stance on the war. Salem said he doesn’t think he can bear voting for Biden, and, unless something changes, probably won’t participate in the November general election.

In Houston, where a conservative helps lead the city’s largest Islamic organization, the backlash to U.S. support of Israel has been bipartisan.

“We understand that what happened Oct. 7 was wrong,” Roger Yelton, executive director of the Islamic Society of Greater Houston, said of the Hamas attack in southern Israel that killed 1,200. “Being a Republican, I get all that. But I’ve learned a lot in this.”

Yelton, 69, was raised Methodist but converted to Islam in his 20s and spent decades working from Muslim-majority countries as an oil field manager. He lives north of Houston, in one of his state’s most conservative counties, but unlike many Republicans, he does not favor U.S. military aid for Israel. His son-in-law, who is Egyptian, has lost family to the fighting in Gaza, and like the thousands who attend the Islamic Society of Greater Houston’s mosques during Ramadan, Yelton is praying for a cease-fire.

“As we go through the month, it’s going to be filled with prayers asking God to have mercy, to stop the violence and the pain,” Yelton said. He is hearing one prayer in particular all the time these days: “Give good news to those who patiently endure,” it goes, in part.

“If one of us is hurting, then so are we,” he said.

Rubina Zaman, a dentist in suburban Houston, said she and her friends have felt guilty about decorating their homes during the holy month.

“You go on with your life, but it’s in every prayer that you make,” she said. “When I break my fast, I’m praying for them.”

Zaman’s friend is throwing a baby shower during Ramadan, she said, and instead of presents, she asked for donations to help Palestinians.

“People are trying to do the most they can to help,” Zaman said.

For Husein Yatabarry, a 31-year-old Bronx native, helping means focusing on his local Muslim community. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the immense scale of tragedy in Gaza, he said, so he has sought to support New York’s growing population of recent Muslim immigrants.

Yatabarry, executive director of the nonprofit Muslim Community Network, has been delivering bottles of water and hot meals to mosques, and he has been meeting with local leaders to urge them to speak out in support of Muslims in the city.

“Ramadan is a month of really reflecting and really understanding that everything that you have in life is a blessing,” Yatabarry said. “So for me, that’s looking at every little thing that you take for granted.”

At her home in Providence, R.I., this week, Danya Reda was sorting through a huge pile of cilantro, preparing to host 20 family members and friends for iftar, the evening meal at which people break their fast. It’s a treasured annual tradition, but she wasn’t sure she should keep it up this year.

“Nobody feels like celebrating, and Ramadan always has a festive character to it,” she said.

Reda, a professor at University of Massachusetts School of Law, has also been busy organizing. She led a successful campaign to push her teachers union to call for a cease-fire, and she was active in the effort to persuade Massachusetts voters to mark “No preference” in this month’s Democratic primary.

In the end, she decided to go ahead with the family gathering. Reda wants her children to understand the importance of embracing life no matter the challenges they face, an example Gazans continue to set, she said. And for her, Ramadan has always reinforced the bond among Muslims around the world, all celebrating the holy month. It is a vital connection to maintain.

“In times of difficulty,” Reda said, “it’s even more important that we come together.”



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here