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Lights in the darkness: Preserving Ramadan's spirit in the shadow of conflict

Palestinians in Rafah, despite displacement and hardship, celebrating Ramadan. Photo: Grayscale/CARE

Palestinians in Rafah, despite displacement and hardship, celebrating Ramadan. Photo: Grayscale/CARE

As the month of Ramadan begins around the world, there is no escaping the stark contrast between the spirit of the holy month and the reality of life in Gaza, Yemen, the West Bank, Sudan, Syria, and other conflict zones.

The essence of Ramadan — sharing, sacrifice, and community — is deeply intertwined with the efforts of CARE staff who work to alleviate the suffering of those affected by conflict and crisis in the Middle East, North Africa, and beyond.

Below are five voices of CARE staff members embedded in the heart of the crises across the Muslim world. They’re sharing their stories of joy, resilience, and the struggle to maintain the spirit of Ramadan, even during the worst of times.

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A season of peace

Razan CARE West Bank/Gaza: I love Ramadan. It’s my favorite month of the year because it’s not only a physical act of fasting, but it’s very spiritual.

Shakir CARE Sudan: Ramadan is a season of peace, inner peace for us. Time to step back, reflect, and feel the suffering of others.

Salah CARE Yemen, (originally from Syria): Ramadan is a blessing month, and it brings the community closer. People are more resilient during the month. There’s more solidarity, there’s more unity.

Shakir: We fast from dawn to sunset. We don’t eat, we don’t drink.

Razan: Not even water.

Shakir: We come closer to the suffering of those deprived from having access to food and drinks. It’s time for reflection. It’s time for family gathering, for friends.

Razan: I know it may seem a bit hard — and it is, to be honest — but it’s not meant to be only a physical act of not eating or drinking. During this period, we take it as more of a spiritual journey during which we remind ourselves of self-control, of empathy, of feeling with other people, especially the poor and hungry people.

Salah: It’s a choice, right? Not to eat or drink during the month for religious practices, usually it’s not because you don’t have access to the food and to the water, but there’s many people who don’t have access. Fasting is not an option for them, right?

Bushra CARE Yemen: It’s kind of purifying my soul and body and enjoying that spiritual atmosphere that is around Ramadan. Because it’s a combination for me. It’s a combination of work, dedication, and hard work.

Breaking the daily fast

People in Gaza gather with their families to break the fast at the end of the day and decorate their homes and streets with lights. Photo: CARE/Grayscale

Razan: During Ramadan, we have two main meals. The first one, we call Suhoor, food that we take before dawn. And then Iftar. It’s that magical moment when the sun sets and all families, they gather at their tables, sharing food and gratitude.

Hiba CARE West Bank/Gaza: We gather with our families to break the fast at the end of the day, the streets decorated with lights.

Razan: What I love about is how the whole family, we all gather on one table, and we share food, gratitude, and we all face the same challenges during the day with the thirst and hunger, and it makes you feel like you’re one.

Shakir: In most of the countries observing Ramadan, you’ll hardly find someone breaking the fast at the end of the day alone. We usually do that with our small family, with extended family, with friends, with colleagues.

Salah: I’m from Syria, Aleppo. The last time I was there was ten years ago. So, the memory of the place, the memory of having family, the memory of breaking fast with your family, with the people that around you, it’s — of course — I would say it’s much stronger now.

Even as I’m telling you this, I have the taste in my mouth.

Shakir: In Sudan, we break the fast outside homes, in the streets, in public areas, in gardens. You take your food, drinks, and go outside with your neighbors, with your friends, gathering together to share this lovely moment. And then you eat.

Hala, a displaced woman living in a northwest Syria camp, serves the Iftar meal with three of her five granddaughters. Photo: Shafak/CARE

Razan: After long fasting hours from dawn to sunset, the body becomes dehydrated. We’re hungry; we need fuel.

Shakir: At the beginning, usually we add dates. We add two, three dates to break one’s fast.

Razan: Because dates, it gives you an energy. It’s an instant source of energy. So it’s recommended to break your fast by having a cup of water and a piece of date.

Bushra: We have the dates, the juice, the soup, the sambusa [fried spring rolls, originally from Somalia] or kebab and shafoot [Yemeni bread-based appetizer dish], kabsa, [which is] rice with meat or with chicken, and of course, bread.

Shakir: We have bread. Some people eat something we call rugag. It is kind of biscuits made of flour, with milk. You add milk to that, you drink it. And again, you drink some juice. Some other people drink tea, with milk.

For this Iftar meal, Taghrid, a Syrian refugee living in Nabaa, outside Beirut, borrowed rice from her neighbor and bought juice on credit from the shop in their neighborhood. Photo: Milad Ayoub/CARE

Shakir: We have a traditional drink called Helamor. We make it out of sorghum. We make the sorghum fermented, then we cook it like porridge or aceda [a form of porridge], and then keep it dry. It has a very strong smell and pleasant taste.

You put water on it, and you leave it for two, three hours. Then you put ice and some sugar and you drink it.

The smell of cooking this traditional drink; usually we used to start to smell it like two months, 45 days before Ramadan.

Salah: In Syria, there’s this famous dish called Ful Medames, which is beans. And they usually take some time. Like, your body takes some time to digest those beans, so you could stay feeling full for more time. But they make you a bit thirsty.

Community, even when favorite foods are missing

In a displacement camp in northern Idlib, Syra, Suha* helps her mother in cooking their Iftar. Photo: SRD/CARE

Bushra: I hear from lots of people how difficult it is when they break fasting; they miss having these special foods during the Iftar and during the dinner time. Not everybody can afford it.

Shakir: I used to receive Helamor from my family back in the village. My mother-in-law used to cook it for my small family. And I used to also receive that from colleagues, but, sadly, in the past two months and now [after] we started Ramadan, I haven’t smelled that strong smell coming from houses here in Kassala. And this is not just the case for me. Colleagues in other places, in Sudan, they say that they are missing this strong smell, too.

Bushra: The good thing that we observe in Ramadan is the support that is being provided by the entire community to each other. They invite people together so they can enjoy the Iftar time together. And it’s very common that they take Iftar to the mosques where they can break fasting, especially for the people who are not able to afford, or they don’t have that kind of special food.

Razan: I try to share as much as I can. It’s either food, clothes, money. I try to help as much as I can.

Bushra: In every community, you can find this group of people who are bringing food from their houses — whatever food is [available], even if it’s very simple, they would bring it to the masjid [mosque] to break fasting together.

You would see, like, during the Maghrib [evening prayer] time, everybody is carrying a small dish in his hand and going to the masjid.

Fasting to remember the hungry

Lara, mother of six children, prays for the children who are starving and those who have lost their parents since Oct. 7. "I want my children to feel safe and happy during this Ramadan," she says. Photo: CARE

Salah: I’m from a big city, but still within that city, at neighborhood level, you see there’s a unique set-up also at the same time. There’s a lot of traffic right before calling for prayer, like at the sunset, for breaking the fast.

The culture in Aleppo is people usually, in general, they wake up a bit late and sleep late. So, it’s a very night-life kind of life. I can’t explain it. And for Ramadan, that increased significantly. Like, people in streets, real late hours, very safe, everyone having a good time.

Bushra: I remember that when we were children, we used to break our fasting, and then we go to play in the street like crazy the whole time. We would just vanish.

That was the most special time for me during the year. We eat together and we gather. It’s very special. Very special time and special memories that are unforgettable.

In this 2019 image, a Palestinian boy in Gaza carries a light, traditionally used for decoration during Ramadan. Photo: Yousef Ruzzi/CARE

Salah: People just enjoy meeting each other, talking about their day, about the food they have, about the plan for the food for the next day. Cafes, restaurants, all those are busy. They’re so alive.

I keep trying to explain that to people. You hear the street is alive. You hear that it’s a totally different experience than another time during the year. You feel that.

Forget about people — the street itself, the buildings, cars. Like those things that you don’t need to notice. You hear that they are loud and alive during the month. In a good way.

Shakir: As a child, especially when the moon was out, I remember we used to go out play with friends and relatives — traditional games, like running with one leg while holding your other leg with your hand. If you can imagine what I mean — you step, move one of your legs up, hold it with your right hand and stand on one leg. And then we compete to jump with one leg for like 100 meters.

Razan: I remember when I was a little kid — you know, how Ramadan changes from year to year — so, let’s say around 20 years ago, Ramadan was during summer, and it was very, very hot and I was dying out of thirst. I kept telling my mom that I need to have some water and break my fast. I think I was 10 years old.

But she kept telling me stories of how people around the world, some of them, they’re starving, and they are hungry, and they stay days without any food or water.

My mom kept encouraging me that I can do it, and we only have a few hours left to the sunset.

Ramadan is only one month and we only fast for probably like between 14, 16 hours a day. But there are really people around the world who are suffering out of poverty, hunger, thirst, harsh conditions. And we need to feel this with them. Not only during Ramadan; we can do it during Ramadan, and we should do it during all times of the year.

And ever since that moment, I realized that I do have the strength and the patience to fast, no matter what. And I realized how, actually, I realized the concept of fasting and why we’re doing this.

A Syrian woman in dark clothing cooks over an open fire in a displacement camp
A displaced Syrian woman fries bread for Iftar during Ramadan. Photo: CARE

Shakir: Yesterday, I went to the market, and there weren’t many people there buying things. Usually, before Ramadan, a week or something, you find markets very crowded with people, women in their colorful dresses, preparing for Ramadan.

Hiba: This year, there are few Ramadan decorations in Ramallah, with no one looking forward to celebrating a month of peace when our brothers and sisters in Gaza are dying of war and hunger.

Shakir: Usually the day before Ramadan, the first day of Ramadan, I would receive calls, messages from friends, from relatives, from others. But it is not the case this year. It is almost midday today. Nobody called me up to now saying Ramadan Mubarak: congratulations for Ramadan. This is not the normal way.

Razan: This year, Ramadan, to me, especially at my personal level, also, from what I see in the West Bank also, it’s not like any other year. No celebrations, no lights, no decorations.

Shakir: For me, I moved to a new state, new neighbors. I left behind all of my relatives, most of my friends, and large portion of my colleagues. So, frankly, when yesterday Ramadan was announced, usually we welcome that with joy, with happiness. I was sad. I was depressed. Even my wife noticed that.

I was just missing my large family, missing my friends, missing my colleagues in Khartoum.

Razan: Even when I drink a cup of water, I would have this feeling of guilt, of helplessness.

Bushra: There is a mix of bitterness and happiness.

Razan: People in Gaza now are suffering. They’ve been fasting indefinitely due to starvation. Not because they have to fast, because it’s Ramadan. They can barely find clean water to drink, or hardly find any kind of bread or edible food to eat — especially those little kids and children.

It breaks my heart whenever I see a hungry child, or displaced pregnant women.

I ask myself every day, this question since Ramadan started — how can they do it?

And I’m really wondering, those little kids I see on TV and the reporters would ask them, are you fasting? And they would say, yes.

This Palestinian family residing in the ruins of the Jabalia refugee camp is struggling to survive, having been displaced multiple times throughout the conflict. Photo: Greyscale Media/CARE

Bushra: For Ramadan, we have kind of special food, special meals, and it needs, of course, extra expenses. And because of the crisis, people have lost their income due to what’s going on. Especially for teachers and for very vulnerable groups in the community, they cannot enjoy and afford all these expenses and live as they used to.

Shakir: All things we used to buy for Ramadan, the prices went high. Usually, we celebrate Ramadan by buying some special kinds of food, buying some drinks, especially the herbal drinks, the traditional ones, and buy some utensils for serving food, for serving drinks. This is not happening now, because people don’t have money.

Bushra: There were more than 500,000 people living in this city. It is totally emptied now. All these people in this city have been displaced. People have lost their houses, their income resources, their assets— everything.

Every year the prices are getting higher and higher. And that reflects the difficulties of the people to live but to also continue affording the expenses during Ramadan.

Hiba: People in Gaza have had to flee four, five, or more times. Their homes are piles of rubble, their livelihoods shattered, leaving them with little to call their own, let alone to share with others.

Razan: Despite all these harsh conditions they’re going through, they really are suffering.

They can barely have a cup of clean water and still they’re fasting.

One of them said, I’m fasting because, either way, I don’t have any food to eat. So, might as well, I will fast.

They teach me resilience. They teach me patience. They teach me strength.

Hopes for a future peace

A young woman in northern Gaza tends to a display of Ramadan lanterns. Photo: Yousef Ruzzi /CARE

Hiba: At the end of the month, for Eid, we give each other presents to show our appreciation and love. Like 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide, this period of unity, togetherness, and gratitude holds a special place in my heart.

Bushra: My hope is for now and for next year is this situation ends entirely, and the peace comes, and we enjoy the spirit of Ramadan without fear.

Hiba: My heartfelt wish for this Ramadan is for the spirit of empathy and generosity to transcend boundaries.

Bushra: Seeing what’s happening in other places is really killing. We can’t enjoy things, even if we are in peace. We know how fasting goes and the spiritual traditions we have during this holy time. Seeing that others are suffering prevents us from enjoying. It affects everyone.

Shakir: I’m praying to go back home, take my kids back home.

Salah: My first hope goes to the country I’m serving right now, to Yemen. I really hope by next Ramadan we are advancing on peace talks.

Shakir: We need to restore our life, to be able to go back to our jobs. The majority of factories, farms, many buildings, they were destroyed and affected by war. So, we will need a huge effort to restore our life. I strongly pray for peace in Sudan, to be back, and to be back soon.

Razan: And I hope by the end of this Ramadan and Ramadan next year that people of Gaza will be free, living in liberty and peace.

Hiba: Our prayers will be for the people of Gaza, for they know they are not forgotten, our donations will be to help them survive, our decorations will be candles we light for the more than 30,000 who have been killed so far.

Razan: I have hope for Ramadan this year. I still have hope for this year that somehow, by a miracle, that this war would come to an end before the end of Ramadan, and that all displaced people would go home, find new homes or return to their homes, that they’ll be able to gather on their tables and have a decent meal.

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