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Fasting for Ramadan can feel isolating. This group brings Muslims in Kansas City together

Three women wearing hijabs place paper plates of cheese pizza slices on a table where children are reaching for them.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Children enjoyed cheese pizza for iftar at the Islamic Center of Johnson County on the first night of Ramadan.

For many Kansas City Muslims, Ramadan represents a time to reflect on the things they are thankful for through prayer and fasting. It also brings communal fast-breaking banquets and prayer sessions. Community members are able to reconnect and reinforce one another’s faith, especially where many around them do not share it.

On March 23, members of Kansas City’s Muslim community gathered at the Islamic Center of Johnson County to celebrate the first day of Ramadan.

Ramadan is considered the most holy month in the Islamic calendar.

“It’s probably one of our busiest times of the year,” says ICJC board member Shahzad Zafar. “If you're thinking of an annual cycle, for us it centers around Ramadan. It's like we end Ramadan and then we kind of start a cycle building up to the next one.”

Due to its yearly cycle being 10 to 11 days shorter than the Gregorian calendar, the time of year that Ramadan starts and ends changes every year over a 33 year cycle.

The holy month is a time of significant reflection for many Muslims, commemorating when the first parts of the Quran were said to be revealed to the Muslim prophet Muhammad.

It is commonly known to those outside Islam as the month when many Muslims participate in extended periods of fasting, often lasting more than 13 hours.

Yellow and green fabric is draped on a wall. Across it are strung golden, shiny balloons spelling "RAMADAN." In the foreground are mostly children and women wearing hijabs.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Celebrants at the Islamic Center of Johnson County settle in for their iftar celebration on the first day of Ramadan.

While these fasts are the main form of participation in Ramadan, Zafar and many others who were gathered at the ICJC on the first night say there’s more to the month than how you practice it.

“There’s a lot of community, a lot of celebration happens at the same time as well,” Zafar says.
On that first night, the ICJC hosted the first of several community fast-breaking meals, known as iftars, in its banquet hall.

The weekly meals are meant to offer Muslim residents a chance to meet new friends and reconnect with old ones over their shared faith.

Sofia Khan, chair of the ICJC’s Interfaith Committee, says these social gatherings make many Muslims look forward to Ramadan.

“When Ramadan starts, we all start getting very enthusiastic and excited and start congratulating each other,” says Khan. “It’s happiness that just comes all the way from inside because of the fact that we'll get to see each other so much.”

While the ICJC will only hold community iftar meals on Thursdays, Khan suspects they will be asked to host private events nearly every day until Ramadan ends April 20.

A large room is full of people walking around and sitting at round tables covered in white tablecloths. The women are wearing hijabs and there are children sitting among them. Many small flags of Islamic countries hang from the ceiling in the background.
KCUR 89.3
Families gather inside the community room at the Islamic Center of Johnson County to observe iftar on the first night of Ramadan.

She hopes that both the public and private iftar events will draw more Muslim residents to the center so they can build lasting relationships within the community.

“We introduce them to each other so that when they leave from here, they will have probably made 10 or 15 more friends,” Khan says. “That is the goal of the open community iftar, especially for young families who don't know a whole lot of people.”

So far, turnout is promising. The banquet hall, which center staff say holds around 450 people, was full throughout the night.

Manahil Murtaza, a 15-year old-high school student, has been coming to the center's community iftars for most of her life. This year was her first time volunteering.

She spent the evening handing out pizza to the many young children who attended the iftar.

“It's very cool because you can see how many people you get to feed after they fast for the whole day,” says Murtaza. ”It's very rewarding.”

Men gather in rows inside a large room where they are bowing their heads and facing an ornate wall centerpiece.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Men at the Islamic Center of Johnson County gather for prayer during Maghrib.

Many say the reward of sharing time and breaking bread with family and friends is worth every day they spend fasting — though it’s not easy.

“You have to practice your religion more intentionally”

Muslims represent a little more than 1% of the U.S. population, meaning many are the sole practitioner of their faith at school or work.

Zain Zaydi is the manager of a kabab restaurant in Lenexa, Kansas. For him and some of his Muslim coworkers, this is their first year working in a restaurant during Ramadan.

“Fasting’s gonna be a challenge for us,” says Zaydi. “But that's what it’s supposed to be. We fast to remember the people in our religion and what they sacrificed for the religion. That's the least that we can do.”

A large room is full of people walking around and sitting at round tables covered in white tablecloths. The women are wearing hijabs and there are children sitting among them. Many small flags of Islamic countries hang from the ceiling.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Ramadan celebrants at the Islamic Center of Johnson County filter into the community room to prepare for iftar on the first day of Ramadan.

For Muslims born in the U.S., these challenges are simply a part of Ramadan. For those who came from abroad, it can be strange to live in a place that doesn’t observe the holy month.

Zafar, the ICJC board member, came to the US after growing up in Pakistan.

“In most Muslim majority countries, the religion is all around you,” says Zafar. “You go to work, you go to school, everybody's fasting. The schedules shift a little bit to accommodate people who are fasting. Here in the US we have to be more intentional about it.”
Zafar likened the schedule changes which occur around Ramadan in Muslim-majority countries to those seen in the U.S. during holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Zafar says these differences can lead to opportunities to reinforce his faith.

“You have to practice your religion more intentionally,” he says. “It’s important to understand what Islam is, how it is different from other religions, respecting other religions, learning about those religions, but also being confident in what you are practicing.”

Zafar says he hopes he’s been able to pass this lesson onto his 11-year-old daughter, Ayra.

A closeup of a woman's hands show her holding a disposable bowl containing medjool dates in one hand and red grapes in another.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
In Islam, it is tradition to break each fast during Ramadan with a date. Medjool dates and grapes were available during iftar on the first day of Ramadan at the Islamic Center of Johnson County.

She’s one of the few Muslim students who attend her elementary school in the Blue Valley School District. She admits that’s sometimes difficult.

“No matter where you are, there's someone eating,” she says. “Luckily, they're really considerate at my school.”

During lunch, Ayra and the other Muslim students sit in the school’s office and read, make crafts or just talk. Sometimes they even take naps.

When she’s away from school, she says the friends she’s made through the ICJC help the most.

“[If I’m struggling] I'll call my friends that are fasting,” she says. “We'll talk for a long time and we'll completely forget we're fasting.”

They’re also helping Ayra create a presentation that explains what Ramadan is and why Muslims fast. She hopes to give the presentation to some of her non-Muslim classmates at school before Ramadan ends.

Like Ayra and her friends, many of those within Kansas City’s Muslim community lean on one another during Ramadan.

“It's a month of giving and thinking about people who do not have enough,” says Zafar. “The real purpose of fasting is to think about the people you need to help.”

The Islamic Center of Johnson County is holding community iftars every Thursday through April 13. More information is available on their website.

As KCUR’s Community Engagement Producer, I help welcome our audiences into the newsroom, and bring our journalism out into the communities we serve. Many people feel overlooked or misperceived by the media, and KCUR needs to do everything we can to cover and empower the diverse communities that make up the Kansas City metro — especially the ones who don’t know us in the first place. My work takes the form of reporting stories, holding community events, and bringing what I’ve learned back to Up To Date and the rest of KCUR.

What should KCUR be talking about? Who should we be talking to? Let me know. You can email me at zjperez@kcur.org or message me on Twitter at @zach_pepez.

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