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The trials of Ramadan away from home

Because the holy month of Ramadan is accompanied by a number of traditions and activities that Muslims have become accustomed to over the years, observing Ramadan away from home can be a difficult endeavor.

Many Ramadan traditions depend on family and friends for support, and without them, home sickness can hit just a little bit harder than usual. Nevertheless, the strength and spirituality of the holy month can provide support, giving the observer an opportunity to explore Ramadan's traditions in a different culture and bond with others who are fasting as well.

"The most difficult situation is when you are living with few Arabs or Muslims around and you have to explain many times what Ramadan means to Muslims," says Suzan Hassan, an Egyptian dentist living in the United States.

Hassan complains that she often has to explain why she cannot accept an invitation to have lunch or a drink with a neighbor or friend during fasting hours. She believes that the unique way in which Muslims fast – no eating or drinking from dawn until sunset – makes Ramadan so difficult for foreigners to comprehend.

Working hours in Egypt are often shortened during Ramadan to make the fast easier, but such luxuries are not to be found in non-Muslim countries. And restaurants and cafes in Muslim countries offer fasters eating possibilities throughout the night, whereas in non-Muslim countries most eateries close their doors by 9 pm.

Sara Aloui, a Moroccan student living in the US, feels homesick during Ramadan, despite having an abundance of Arab friends.

"From time to time, we go together to eat out in Moroccan restaurants here in New York. It's a nice reminder of the atmosphere of Ramadan in Morocco," Aloui says.

A Muslim living abroad observing Ramadan can find solace in mosques, because beyond praying, mosques abroad serve as meeting points, iftar eating spots, and places to organize Ramadan-related activities. But despite support structure such as these, Jihad Jabrane, another Moroccan student living in the US, still misses Ramadan in Morocco.

"Of course, Ramadan in the US does not include the family gatherings we are used to in our home countries as Muslims. Perhaps that is the hardest thing about being away from home," Jabrane says.

During Ramadan, iftar and sohour gather friends, neighbors and extended relatives together for delicious and well-deserved meals. This tradition of eating together is what Ismail Chaib, an Algerian intern living in Germany, misses the most.

Chaib says that in Europe, mosques do an excellent job of bringing Muslims of different nationalities together for iftar, which can decrease feelings of homesickness.

"I'm also very happy with the support of my non-Muslim friends, who go out of their way to make me feel comfortable during the month. Ramadan is all about sharing," Chaib says. 

Chaib also misses hanging out with friends late at night during Ramadan, something he cannot do in Germany the way he did in Algeria.

Thana Farooq, a Yemeni student living in the US, shares Chaib's yearning for nights out during Ramadan. "In Yemen," she explains, "Ramadan nights are crazy and fun."

Farooq speaks fondly of Yemen's quiet Ramadan mornings and silence in the streets at iftar time, humored by the stark contrast between these serene moments and Yemen's usual chaos.

Farooq and Jabrane also find it much easier to conduct the taraweeh prayer  (extra prayers conducted at night during Ramadan) and recite the Quran at the mosques in their home countries, where everyone else is engaging in the same activities.  

"Of course, we pray taraweeh here as well, but I end up doing it by myself," Jabrane says.

Farooq also misses exchanging delicious dishes of Yemeni food with neighbors, a tradition in Yemen during Ramadan.

"Ramadan without loved ones is hard to bear," she adds, "but the spirituality, peace and joy that comes from fasting and praying gets me through."

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