In COVID-19's shadow, migrants find solace in Ramadan prayers and online iftars

by Jack Graham and Beh Lih Yi | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 15 April 2021 14:27 GMT

Muslims wearing face masks as precaution against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), attend Ramadan Tarawih prayers at Sultan Mosque in Singapore, April 13, 2021. REUTERS/Edgar Su

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Around the world, many mosques are getting creative during the holy month to help Muslim migrants forge community ties despite the pandemic's restrictions

* Communities get creative to mark second pandemic Ramadan

* Many Muslim migrants face isolation during lockdowns

* Community support vital to fight loneliness

By Jack Graham and Beh Lih Yi

TORONTO/KUALA LUMPUR, April 15 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Sharbano pictures the Islamic holy month of Ramadan back home in Oman, she remembers precious time with her large family, children running between houses, and neighbours delivering the iftar evening meal to each other and to the mosque.

Now seeking asylum in Canada, the 37-year-old lives with her two brothers in Pickering, a city in southern Ontario, and is observing the month of dawn-to-dusk fasting that began this week under lockdown for a second year.

"We are thirsty - not to eat or drink - but to meet people, to talk to them, to get into the community and to gather with people," said Sharbano, who arrived in Canada in late 2019 and asked not to give her full name.

"But this pandemic has stopped everything."

For many Muslim newcomers in Canada, local mosques help them make friends and integrate into the community. So as a third wave of COVID-19 cases sweeps Canada, lockdown curbs are taking an especially heavy toll on recently arrived migrants.

"Instead of being able to start knowing their new community, and start building their networks to find jobs, they faced a situation where they had to stay home in lockdown," said Mirna El Sabbagh, a manager at COSTI Immigrant Services in Ontario.

But to mark Ramadan, many mosques are getting creative to help Muslim migrants like Sharbano forge community ties despite the pandemic's restrictions - from organizing socially distanced prayers and online events to delivering meals.

Many mosques have struggled to decide whether to hold socially distanced prayers in line with government guidelines or shut completely to lower the risk to worshippers, said Shaza Fadel, assistant professor at the University of Toronto's Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

"They've buried people who've died from COVID, but they also understand that there are people in their communities who need their support," said Fazel, a member of the Canadian Muslim COVID-19 Task Force, which has issued Ramadan safety advice.

Umair Khan, the Imam of the largest mosque in British Columbia, the Baitur Rahman Mosque, participates in a virtual Iftar dinner during the holy fasting month of Ramadan amid coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions in Delta, British Columbia, Canada April 25, 2020. REUTERS/Jesse Winter


'SENSE OF PEACE'

As the coronavirus crisis deepened during last year's holy month, many iftar get-togethers where friends and family break the fast had to be suspended, but Ramadan customs have resumed this year in many places.

In Muslim-majority Malaysia, a century-old tradition of handing out a savoury rice porridge at a mosque in the capital, Kuala Lumpur, returned this year, with migrants and other poor city residents among those benefitting.

"It's a tradition that brings the community closer after a long, hard year of COVID-19," said Mohalim Isman, a manager at the Kampung Baru Jamek Mosque, which gives out 3,000 packets of the bubur lambuk porridge each day for people to take home.

In neighbouring Singapore, thousands of Bangladeshi Muslims are among a vast population of mainly South Asian migrant workers who live in dormitories where their movements are severely restricted, leading many to feel cut off and isolated.

The city-state has reported more than 60,000 COVID-19 cases - the vast majority in the cramped accommodation housing more than 300,000 of the low-wage workers, where a spate of suicides and attempted suicides were reported last year.

A government decision to allow congregational prayers in the dormitories during Ramadan has offered some respite for Muslim migrant workers, who for the most part can only travel between their accommodation and workplace a year on.

"The prayers in the dormitories give people a chance to gather at least, to pray together and to find a sense of peace," Rubel, a Bangladeshi construction worker, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

The 30-year-old, who asked to give only his first name, said he is only allowed to move between his living quarters and the building site where he works.

"I feel so isolated. I still can't go out freely even though I have taken more than 15 COVID-19 tests since last year and the results were all negative," he added.

Under government guidelines, up to 200 workers are allowed to attend the evening communal prayers known as Tarawih - a main part of the religious observance of the month-long fasting - in each dorm with social distancing measures in place.

The Manpower Ministry said the step aimed to "cater to the Muslim migrant workers' needs in observing Ramadan".

Muslims wearing protective masks shop for food before Iftar (breaking fast) at a Ramadan bazaar, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia April 15, 2021. REUTERS/Lim Huey Teng

'SHARE AND DEBRIEF'

Besides socially distanced prayers and home deliveries, many Muslims will be using technology this Ramadan - meeting online for the iftar meal.

In Vancouver, on Canada's west coast, a new national project called Digital Iftars has been created to tackle lockdown loneliness during the holy month - bringing together groups of between six and 10 people online.

"They want to share and debrief how their days are going, reflections that they've had, specific things that they're grateful for," said Aslam Bulbulia, community engagement coordinator for the Centre for Comparative Muslim Studies at Simon Fraser University.

With a small grant from the federal government, Bulbulia and his small team have set up a website where Muslims can find a toolkit for hosting or attending an iftar, and those who are alone can sign up to join one.

"There are real needs that a mosque provides for, so not having those needs met definitely leaves a gap," he said.

Migrant workers pray in their dormitory during the holy month of Ramadan, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Singapore May 8, 2020. Picture taken May 8, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su

In Ontario, Sharbano plans to attend another set of digital events called Virtual Iftar Nights, an online community arts festival organised by the nonprofit MABELLEarts, which used to hold iftars in a local park in a Toronto suburb.

She has also joined online crafts workshops and regularly takes part in virtual gatherings to learn from senior Arab women in the region through the Arab Community Centre of Toronto.

A few months ago, despite the lockdown, she met a Muslim from Jordan who shares many of her community's cultural practices and lives close-by in Pickering.

Drawing on Ramadan memories from her homeland, she said she planned to make candies for her friend's children, the wrappers decorated with Arabic words related to the holy month.

"There are people to help, people to support. I'm more comfortable now than last year," she said. "I'm not alone."

Related stories:

'The saddest Eid' - coronavirus cuts lifeline for Indonesian migrant families

Ontario to enter third COVID-19 lockdown as cases, hospital rates rise

Singapore grapples with coronavirus in migrant workers' dormitories

(Reporting by Jack Graham in Toronto and Beh Lih Yi @behlihyi in Kuala Lumpur; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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