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From the staff: Learning about Ramadan

September 23, 2009

Kimberly Hope Athay is the Volunteer Coordinator with IRIS. Kim is in charge of working with volunteers and short-term host families for various programs.  Kim also works with the YES program. Prior to IRIS, Kim worked on a medical houseboat on the Amazon River in Peru and led a group to Rwanda to build a house for orphans of the 1994 war and genocide.

During the Muslim holy month of Ramadan (Aug. 22-Sept. 19), Kim fasted each Tuesday in honor of the Muslim students from Nigeria and Tanzania who are studying in Iowa through the U.S. State Department’s Youth Exchange and Study Program.

Growing up in a Protestant Christian home, I wasn’t very familiar with the idea of fasting. The kind of fasting I understood was the kind some of my friends did Lent each year before Easter — giving up soda or chocolate or swearing (thumbs up, high school students!).
Once when I was younger, I “fasted” for one day so God would let me have a horse: I skipped lunch. As you can imagine, I didn’t get a horse.
This year, I was asked by one of the YES7 students, Farida, to fast for Ramadan. Needless to say, I balked at the idea.

During the month of Ramadan, Muslims around the world fast — truly fast — by abstaining from eating or drinking anything from sun up to sun down. Generally speaking, that means nothing enters the body from around 6:30 a.m. until 8:00 p.m. here in Iowa. And you can’t complain about it.
I negotiated — and not very well. I suggested that I would fast one day each week during Ramadan. She reluctantly agreed. And I reluctantly began fasting a few days later.

My day of fasting
The day started way too early. I was up at 6:22 — eight minutes to get to the kitchen, make some breakfast and eat. I succeeded just as the sun crept over the horizon.

Going back to sleep at that point seemed frivolous, so I stayed awake. Within ten minutes, I was already thirsty. By the time I rolled into work at IRIS around 9 a.m., I was hungry and tired and verging on crankiness. But I sucked it up and kept going — I was only fasting one day that week, while millions around the world had already been fasting for a week and had three weeks to go.
Thankfully, some of my colleagues at IRIS decided to join in on the “fun.” We joked about what we would eat later to break the fast, about how many hours were left until the sun went down and about what the food our other coworkers were eating smelled like.

Throughout the day, I’d go through bouts of sleepiness, hunger and thirst. But I stayed quiet about it. Well, I tried. I wasn’t always so successful… But at least I didn’t eat or drink anything!
I thought it would get better when I got home — at least I wasn’t working. But I was wrong. I sat down and just wanted to sleep. And eat. And drink.

There was nothing to consume my attention but my stomach. I fell asleep, waking up just in time to roll out of my apartment in time to meet a friend for dinner.

I’d asked her the day before if we could move our meeting time to 7:30, which is kind of late for dinner. She agreed, graciously, and we met at The Cafe in Ames — which I highly recommend! (That is, unless you are fasting and you still have a half an hour left and their service is insanely speedy and the food shows up with 15 minutes to spare and it looks and smells delicious and the person you are with is enjoying her food but you have to keep waiting. Then I’d suggest a dinner at the local dump.)
When I was finally allowed to eat, it was delicious. And the water (followed by coffee) was so satisfying. I felt so thankful to have food in my mouth and stomach and energy in my system. It didn’t cross my mind at the time, but that’s the point.
The next few times I saw Tuesday approaching, I’d start to get grumbly and sad. I didn’t want to fast! But did it anyway — I’d made a promise, after all. I was amazed each time that I had the will power to make it through and that all our Muslim YES students were able to do it each day for the entire month.

What fasting helped me learn…
All of our students are amazing, regardless of their country, religion or cultural background. But right now, I have a new-found awe for our Muslim students. They show up in a new land, living with a new family and staring a brand new way of life — and then they have to add daily fasting to it!

They had to abstain from lunchtime socializing in their schools, and they couldn’t start fall sports (because it wouldn’t be safe). They couldn’t invite friends over for dinner, and many of them missed out on the family bonding aspect of eating supper together. Plus, school here is much harder, and they were much more tired than the students around them.

But they persevered. Each time I would ask any of them how Ramadan was going, they’d happily tell me that it was just fine! And they’d say, “How is fasting going for you? Are you learning anything from it? Happy Ramadan, Kim!”
I did learn a lot from my couple days of Ramadan. I felt the stomach of a hungry child; the thirst of a parched worker in a dry desert. I was exhausted and frustrated but could do nothing about my situation. I also learned more about perseverance, about inner strength and purpose.

On the last day that I fasted, I fasted with a purpose: each time I wanted to mutter something about being hungry, I prayed for one of my friends who was struggling with something. Each time I wanted to run to the fountain and drink, I’d ask God for guidance. Every time I wanted to complain, I’d thank God for blessing me with everything I have.

I am thankful for each of you who are hosting a student and for those of you who persevered through Ramadan with your Muslim students.  And students, I’m thankful for each and every one of you.
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