‘Home away from home’: Muslim frosh discover community during Ramadan

Published April 1, 2024, 11:41 p.m., last updated April 1, 2024, 11:42 p.m.

Crescent-shaped lights illuminated the perimeter of the Lake House overlooking Lake Lagunita, accompanying the scent of food and loud conversation that filled the air on March 10, the first night of Ramadan.

As the sun set, a call to prayer calmed the buzz of laughter, beckoning the crowd to join the congregation. Breaking their fasts with a date and water, Stanford students, faculty and members from the surrounding community lined up for prayer, side by side.

This scene unfolds every night during the month of Ramadan, a month considered the holiest in Islam between March 10 and April 9. During Ramadan, Muslims across the world strive to demonstrate higher levels of worship, fasting from sunrise to sunset and engaging in late night prayers special to Ramadan. 

In addition to worship, the hallmark of the night is iftar, the breaking-fast meal. Stanford’s Muslim Student Union (MSU) hosts daily public iftars, where the community pours out in the hundreds.

While people wrap up prayer and begin to queue for their meals each night, Ameera Eshtewi ’27 documents each moment as a public relations Intern for the MSU. Equipped with a phone and microphone in hand, she asks people: “What does Ramadan mean to you?”

Some ponder, taken aback by the question. While an assortment of answers emerges, ranging from spirituality to self-reflection, many say “community.”

'Home away from home': Muslim frosh discover community during Ramadan

Attendees enjoy food and community during public iftar meals. (Photo courtesy of Ameera Eshtewi)

A home away from home

For many Muslim students, this Ramadan marks their first one away from home, including Eshtewi. 

As the month crept closer, it was definitely hard,” Eshtewi said. “At home the sense of Ramadan is, you’re breaking your fast together, you’re having your favorite foods, you’re being reminded about God [and] virtues together.”

Lina Hilal ’27 also spoke about feeling a loss of community during Ramadan on campus, where it can feel like “more of an isolated practice” at Stanford compared to the predominantly Muslim community she grew up with back home in Illinois.

“A huge part of my experience during Ramadan came from a religious standpoint, but also from a community standpoint,” Hilal said. “Everything was so communal. However, here, everyone’s left to their own choices, their own devices.”

The new environment also comes with social challenges, as Hilal notes that the exposure of a new community is “a bit overwhelming.” While attending the MSU-wide open iftars, she appreciates smaller gatherings like the frosh iftar hosted by the Markaz Resource Center.

“It was just a frosh environment, where we were all experiencing our first Ramadan away from home,” Hilal said. “I felt a lot more comfortable in knowing that everyone was … almost grieving that loss of that strong sense of community and comfortability during Ramadan.”

By attending more events, Eshtewi finds the Muslim community at Stanford critical to her observance and appreciation of Ramadan. “Whether we’re breaking our fasts together [or] we’re praying long nights together, being able to understand each other and create our little home away from home has been very nice,” Eshtewi said.

'Home away from home': Muslim frosh discover community during Ramadan

Stuffed dates by the MSU are available to break fast prior to the Iftar meal. (Photo: FAIZA ASHAR/The Stanford Daily)

Growing community

Reminiscing about his first Ramadan, senior and MSU co-president Mahmoud Hamdi ’24 recounted the initial unease he felt, especially amid COVID protocols during which fewer people were on campus and social distancing was required.

“It was definitely a change of pace… I didn’t know what to expect,” Hamdi said. “But now it’s my fourth Ramadan here, and now this,” he said, motioning to his surroundings of the Lake House. “[It] is like my family, my community here.”

Amina Darwish, the associate dean for Religious & Spiritual Life and Advisor for Muslim Life has observed the community transform since her time at Stanford.

“Pre-pandemic we were like, ‘Okay, our iftars are like 70-80 [people], if it gets really big, it goes up to 100,’” Darwish said. Then “we watched 200 people trickle into the courtyard and then you can see panic on my face, like people are fasting and we don’t have enough food,” she said.

Within the logistical challenges, she stressed the importance of having meals and programming that would reflect the community. “When the students see themselves represented in the food, that’s part of what makes it feel like home,” Darwish said. 

Ranging from Pakistani cuisine to Somali dishes and Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches, the iftars feature a new menu every night in order to display the “diversity of the Muslim community,” Hamdi said.

For Hashem Albezreh ’27, the exposure to the new community and its commonalities was eye-opening. “Fasting stays the same, praying tarawih [Ramadan-specific night prayers] stays the same,” Albezreh said. “That’s pretty cool, how no matter what community you go to, it’s very similar communal practices.”

'Home away from home': Muslim frosh discover community during Ramadan

Muslim attendees pray Maghrib, the sunset-time prayer at the Lake House. (Photo courtesy of Ameera Eshtewi)

Balancing Stanford and Ramadan

While homesickness and increased time commitments to spirituality like additional prayers strains many Muslim students during Ramadan, there is the added responsibility of Stanford’s academic rigor.

Enrolled in 20 units, Eshtewi acknowledged the struggle of “maximizing spirituality” and maintaining the academic expectations of a college student.

“How am I balancing that? I don’t know,” Eshtewi said. “I’m walking on a tightrope.”

Hilal shared this frustration, finding that many professors do not take the initiative to reach out to their students who may be struggling with Ramadan and academics.

“I don’t think they fully understand what happens during this month,” Hilal said. “I haven’t had any professors reach out to me and ask whether I could use extra support.”

Darwish wants people to understand that the routine of fasting, waking up for suhoor, the pre-dawn meal, and staying up late at night take a large toll on students observing Ramadan.

“I don’t think people realize… [the] brain fog and sleep deprivation” that comes with fasting, Darwish said. “[People are] like, ‘Oh, you didn’t have coffee?’ And I’m like, ‘No, I woke up at 5:30 in the morning, I ate, and I tried to sleep again.’”

In attempt to meet the needs of its Muslim students, R&DE offers suhoor bags that students can pick up from 5 to 9 p.m. at either Arrillaga or Lakeside dining halls. A variety of pre-packaged food is available, but many students, including Hamdi, while appreciative of the efforts, find them “a little lackluster.” 

“It’s kind of just a fridge in the back … but it’s not a hearty meal,” Hamdi said, describing the frozen burritos, sandwiches, and yogurt available. He wishes for more warm meals and in-person options, seeing that some other universities “have a separate mini dining area … insulated bags … or a 24-hour dining hall.”

During his time at Stanford, Hamdi has seen little change to this despite previously seeking more from administration. Meanwhile, Eshtewi finds that the suhoor bags haven’t been “quite accommodating” to her allergies, relying on herself to keep her dorm packed.

“Suhoor is truly important,” Eshtewi said. “It’s before you’re starting your fast, so you need to be filled with nutrients so you’d last throughout the day.”

Darwish said that the bags are an “iterative process,” and R&DE meets with a group of Muslims every year, changing the content based on feedback.

Initially, Hilal also found the options unaccommodating to her dietary restrictions, voicing her concerns in the context of Ramadan to R&DE. She said that a representative from Arrillaga Dining reached out to her to address her needs.

“It doesn’t just come down to dietary restrictions. They’ve even gone the extra step into considering whether I enjoy eating certain foods or not,” Hilal said. “I really appreciate the level of effort and care that’s been put into that.”

Despite the challenges that come with observing Ramadan at school, students expressed that the reward of belonging and spirituality is worth it.

“It’s useful to understand that this isn’t a month where you just starve yourself for no reason. There’s deeper meanings behind it,” Hilal said. “A lot of it helps build spirituality, yes, but there’s also … a deeper understanding of yourself and your community, and that type of connection that’s built throughout 30 days of fasting together.”

Faiza Ashar is a freshman from Baltimore interested in journalism, technology, and how both topics impact global affairs. She loves everything matcha and could make a playlist of any emotion. Contact Faiza Ashar at news 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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