Ramadan: Refugee Family Adapts Old Customs to New Home

August 17, 2010

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Safa Kassim, who prefers not to have her face photographed, helps prepare the evening meal after a day of fasting. (WBEZ/Odette Yousef)
The Muslim holy month of Ramadan is underway. For thirty days, Muslims abstain from food and drink from sunrise to sunset. It's also often a time of deepening connections—with faith, family, and tradition. That's a challenge for those who are starting new lives in the U.S. We look at one Iraqi family of refugees this month, as they try to keep their customs in a new country.

“In 2004 we had our last Ramadan with my dad,” says Safa Kassim. It was in Baghdad, and she was 13 years old. “I actually went with him for grocery shopping the first day of Ramadan in the morning,” she continues, “and I was just holding his hand because... I told him like, I really don't feel comfortable in this country because it's not safe.”

Safa and her dad had gone out to get food for the big breaking of the fast in the evening. Friends and family were coming to share the meal, called "Iftar," at their home. “Suddenly we heard something going on, so we started running and walking very fast,” Kassim recalls. “And we got our grocery then and we came home. I was happy because of my dad was with me. But (at) the same time, I didn't feel that I'm safe there.”

Not long after that, Safa, her mother, and two siblings fled to Syria, where life was more secure. Her dad, a professor, remained in Iraq. He visited them in Damascus several times, but they never again celebrated Ramadan together. “Ramadan 2006 in Iraq, he was trying to invite his friend for iftar,” Safa says. “And in his way from the university to his friend house, to pick him up from there, he got kidnapped, and then he was killed.”

The rest of the family remained in Syria for another three years. Then they came to Chicago as refugees.

Just inside the entrance of their comfortable, three-bedroom apartment on the North Side, a few fading photographs hang beside the door. Safa as a young girl with bangs here. Safa and her siblings posing stiffly in front of a house there. Her mother with a stylish short haircut, beaming into the camera with her young family around her.

These days, everyone in the family, except the youngest, holds down a job. Safa, now 20, is a youth coordinator at a local human services agency. It's 5:30 in the afternoon, and she and her mom are exhausted.

Still, they quietly start pulling things out of kitchen cabinets to begin cooking. “I'm OK,” she says. “Tired after the get off from job, as in every day. Because you know working every day eight hours, it's hard. Especially with the kids.”

The difference is, today is the first day of fasting for Ramadan. Safa says the first day is always the hardest. “Today the iftar (is) going to be… the sunset going to be like 8pm,” she says. “So we still have a few hours."

Safa's mother, Ghada, fires up the gas stove and sets up three pots. “I start cooking soup, and this t'shreeb – meat,” she says. Lentil soup, goat meat stew, and rice with tomato sauce. Ghada says they've been able to find everything in Chicago they used to cook in Iraq. Tonight's dishes are all traditional. But as she's adopted a new home, Ghada says she's adopted new dishes, as well. “Especially the Mexican food,” she notes. “Meat and green pepper, like this… what's it's name?” She looks over to her daughter for the word. “Taco? Yeah, like this.”

At the table, Safa chops vegetables for a cucumber salad. It's a modest meal. Back home in Iraq, they would be cooking for five times as many people. Their house would be filled with cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents. Some might bring platters of food to share, and people would stay feasting and talking until after midnight, before going home and resuming the fast the next day.

Ghada says that's what she really misses. “In my country it's nice because many (relatives), like father, mother, sister, sister-in-law, brother-in-law, mother-in-law, father-in-law. It's nice,” she says. “But here I feel no one beside me. Like, just friends.”

The Kassims are slowly building a community for themselves here. And like generations of newcomers before them, they are finding that religion can help them do that. “Like last year, especially the weekend, I invite many of my friends to have the iftar with me,” recalls Safa. “And not all of them are Muslim, not all of them are from my country, not all of them speak Arabic. But they help me a lot.”

Safa says that others have helped her, too. Like last year when she worked at a food market, and there were nights during Ramadan that she was scheduled for the evening shift. That meant she couldn't break her fast at the appointed time. A few elderly customers would stop in and slip her a bag of date-filled cookies as she worked the cash register. Safa proudly calls them her friends.

Tonight Safa plans to nap for half an hour, then privately read a few pages of the Koran before the family heads to an Iraqi friend's home to break the fast together. She says she loves and looks forward to Ramadan. That's something that hasn't changed, no matter where she lives.