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'I still feel close to home': First-year Muslim students navigate Ramadan at UNC

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Chef Sarah Jimenez serves salad to a student during Ramadan in Chapel Hill, N.C. on Monday, April 3, 2023. The Muslim Student Organization provides food for those breaking their fast after dusk.

The UNC Muslim Students Association works year-round to support the social and religious life of Muslim students at the University. During Ramadan, which occurs from the evening of March 10 to April 9 this year, MSA focuses its efforts on a critical task — helping first-year students feel at home while observing the month of fasting, community and reflection away from home.

“When I came here, Monday or Sunday, my mom was very worried,” first-year computer science major Ahmad Akkila said. “She was like, make sure you get enough to eat, make sure you're around other Muslims so you can break your fast.”

Muslims around the world abstain from eating and drinking from sunrise to sunset during Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, and focus on prayer and the study of the Quran.

The observance of Ramadan is one of the Five Pillars of Islam and lasts from one sighting of the new crescent moon to the next. At the end of Ramadan, Muslims celebrate Eid al-Fitr, the Festival of Breaking the Fast.

Suhur, a morning meal, occurs each day before the sun rises; iftar, the evening fast-breaking meal, occurs once the sun sets.

Iftar is meant to be celebrated with one’s family and friends, but many Muslim students at UNC — especially first-years who have to live on campus — are not able to observe every evening with their loved ones. To help these students in their community feel at home, MSA hosts nightly iftars open to any student who wants to break their fast in the company of like-minded classmates.

“Anyone can break his fast on his own time, but it's not the same,” MSA Outreach Chair Sultan Kiradoh said. “If anyone has ever experienced Ramadan alone, like going to college or moving somewhere where your family's not there, it's really depressing. It doesn't feel like Ramadan. I'm sure anyone would agree — definitely the big part of Ramadan is to come together.”

Kiradoh attended Durham Technical Community College in the past, where Muslim students lacked a dedicated prayer room or a space for iftar and night prayers. He said he remembers being blown away by the vibrant Muslim community at UNC and the positive experience of Ramadan on campus.

First-year health science engineering major Arwa Sattar said she misses her mother’s home-cooked meals but enjoys attending campus iftars with her friends at UNC.

“There's a lot of Muslim people that I haven't met before, and just seeing them and the community coming together has been really nice,” Sattar said.

Ali White, a first-year biology major, said because he can commute to see his family near UNC, he often visits them off campus to break his fast, so Ramadan feels almost the same as it did before he came to college.

He still faces challenges during the month as a full-time college student — to observe suhur and iftar on a regular schedule, he has to start his day early and go to bed late.

“I feel like I'm pretty busy throughout the day,” White said. “I'm always doing something, so even though it's hard to manage everything — I'm not sleeping as much — the days are going by pretty quickly.”

As many Muslim first-year students navigate their first Ramadan away from home, frequent community events aim to make the transition to life at the University easier and more social. MSA provides a full spreadsheet of its upcoming iftar meals on its website’s Ramadan page, including events with food provided by the Tasty Halal food truck and the Carolina Union Activities Board.

“I don't feel far away from my family, in a sense, because I built relationships over my year here, and I feel like people here are literally my family, you know what I mean?” Akkila said. “Obviously, I call my mom every day, but I still feel close to home even when I'm here.”

Students who need accommodations during Ramadan, such as a different exam date or an excused early absence for evening prayers, can request assistance from the University. The UNC Equal Opportunity and Compliance request form and the University Approved Absence form are available online for those whose academic work may conflict with their religious observance.

@dailytarheel | university@dailytarheel.com

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