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People pray during Ramadan at the Chicago Cultural Center in 2019

People pray at the Chicago Cultural Center during the month of Ramadan in 2019. This year’s Ramadan observations are deeply impacted by the violence in Gaza.

Pat Nabong

Ramadan is different this year for Chicagoland Palestinian Americans as humanitarian crisis in Gaza deepens

The Muslim holy month of Ramadan started Sunday, kicking off a period of fasting, good deeds and charity for the religion’s adherents. Many Muslim Palestinian Americans in Chicagoland say the celebrations are more somber this year due to the war and rising hunger in Gaza.

According to the Gazan health ministry, more than 31,000 people have been killed there since October 7 and at least 25 Palestinians, including toddlers, have died of starvation and malnutrition.

Jameeleh Shelo, a Chicagoan and Palestinian American, said she’s more determined than ever to fast. Some of her relatives have been able to leave Gaza for Egypt, but others are still stuck, and Shelo worries about their safety every day.

“Every Palestinian I meet — there’s a fire lit inside of us. We’re embracing our religion, our culture, more than ever before,” Shelo said. “I cannot see any injustice without feeling a burning desire to do something. I feel hungry for justice.”

People in Gaza don’t get to choose whether they have access to food — so though she goes hungry from dusk to dawn, she said she considers her ability to break her fast each night a privilege.

Reset spoke with Shelo and other Chicagoland Palestinian Americans to hear their reflections on Ramadan this year.

Below are some highlights.

Alaa Abusaman grew up in Gaza’s Al-Shati refugee camp before moving to Bolingbrook over a decade ago. Over the past few months, he has lost multiple family members in Gaza.

How are you approaching fasting?

Abusaman: Every time I practice any aspect of Ramadan rituals, I remember people in Gaza. I see myself in them. I see my kids in their kids. Whenever I break fast, I say: what if I (was) breaking my fast in Gaza?

I talked to my sister this morning. She moved from North Gaza to Rafah. And she started to describe... how it's hard for her to make the young kids understand that we don't have food to eat, we can hardly find something to make our breakfast or dinner...

They don't have the luxury of kitchens, they don't have the bathrooms we have, they don't have the normal life we have — everything is lost.

What's that like, hearing that from your sister, being all the way here?

Abusaman: It tears my heart. Especially because I live here in the United States, I feel that our administration is complicit in this crime, sending military assistance to kill my people, kill my family over there. It's emotionally very hard for me to comprehend what's going on.

So we're trying to support them as much as we can, especially emotionally, to stay strong, but sometimes the opposite happens. Because of their resilience, because of their patience, we also get inspired by them and stay emotionally stable throughout this atrocity.

You have lost family members in this war, friends, neighbors. What do you want us to know about them?

Abusaman: Everyone we lost is valuable to me. I don't rank people, whether they're close to me, or far to me, in terms of the blood relationship, because every soul is valuable.

But I want people to know that the 31,000 people who are killed are not numbers. Everyone has a story. My father-in-law, my mother-in-law, they (were) killed in the beginning of this war. The entire family (was) sleeping at night. They were bombed. And some of the family members were killed immediately. But my father-in-law and my mother-in-law, their daughter-in-law and her son survived the bombing, but on their way out, they (were) shot by a sniper, and their bodies remained on the street for 13 days.

Where's that location? It's a few yards from Al-Shifa Hospital. The hospital is literally across the street and they were bleeding until death.

Ahmad Jitan shared his perspective as the director of organizing and advocacy for Chicago’s Inner-City Muslim Action Network. He also has family in the West Bank.

I'm not sure that everyone understands just how small Gaza is — or how close-knit the community is. Can you help paint a picture?

Jitan: The way that Palestinian networks work, even with the divisions that we have between the West Bank and 48(-Palestinians), the diaspora in the United States – (you ask): “What's the family name?” and you can immediately make a connection between Palestinians. So Palestinians, even despite all of the divisions that we have, and the geographic ways that we have been dissected and separated, still find a closeness with each other.

That's the closeness of the hearts. Even when they're trying to cram us together in intentionally unlivable conditions, it's that warmth that keeps us going.

The mood is obviously dark. But what’s the importance of still creating spaces where you can gather and reflect?

Jitan: I think about Ramadan being a time for spiritual elevation, a time for reflection, a time for prayer, time for fasting. But as we know, faith without deeds, faith without works, is dead. And our works aren't just individual works, but the collective action that we can take. And you can't take meaningful collective action without actually building relationships, without sharing stories.

Part of what's happening now, in the midst of this genocide, is people are finally curious to hear the Palestinian story… We don't stay in that hopeless place, in that fearful place. That's not the point of sharing those stories — to stay in that trauma and, and to stay in that pain — but to heal through that trauma, through understanding that shared pain, and then being able to engage in a shared struggle.

Chicagoan Jameleeh Shelo grew up near Bridgeview, the city's “Little Palestine” neighborhood. She wrote a children’s book, “Laith the Lion Goes to Palestine” to give her kids a positive representation of their culture.

What is the atmosphere like this year?

Shelo: I have this knot of dread in my stomach at all times. So it's not that I don't want to celebrate and I don't want to have joy. It's that it feels like the joy has been stolen…

But do I find it to be a passionate Ramadan? Yeah… And I’m training my children to be the type of people that want to stop injustice.

Muslims here in the US are gathering in mosques right now for the holy month. Meanwhile, we've seen images of folks in Gaza, praying among and on top of rubble of their destroyed homes and their destroyed places of worship. How does that sit with you?

Shelo: In Arabic, we have this word — tawakkul which means that you just have faith in God, no matter what. That God's plan is always a good plan. You have a belief in the overall goodness of not just God, but of humanity of the people around you.

One of the things you can find comforting is that… other people who see those images, who are not Muslim, who are not Arab… still understand that this is wrong.

What do you want to see changed?

Shelo: I'd love a ceasefire. The United States needs to tell Israel to allow all aid to enter, and they need to build humanitarian corridors. So those people who need the aid can get the aid.

We need to put conditions on any aid that is sent to Israel, if not stop the aid altogether. Also, I think we need to abide by the Geneva Conventions, we need to abide by the rules of the (International Court of Justice).

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You can listen to the full conversation above.

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