TUKWILA — As the sun cast a soft glow over a mostly boarded-up mosque on a recent Thursday evening, Muslims observing Ramadan arrived to break their over 15-hour fast.
Through a classroom window that had been converted into a drive-thru at the Abu-Bakr Islamic Center, volunteers distributed food to people traveling by foot or car. A woman wearing a pale green hijab and a face mask walked out of the parking lot carrying a bag filled with traditional Somali dishes such as meat-filled pastries called sambusas, pancakes, and dates. The food was free and the only question patrons were asked by volunteers was “how many?”
Ramadan, a holy month for Muslims that commemorates the first revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad, is observed by fasting between sunrise and sunset, praying, and giving back to the community, said Issa Hassan, Youth and Family Resource Center director.
In previous years, congregants at the mosque took turns supplying iftar, the nightly meal served at the end of fast. The meals were similar to a family reunion drawn out late into the night, with members meeting people they hadn’t seen in a year; some congregants would even stay until fasting began the next morning. But the holiday is not the same under social distancing orders.
“I don’t feel like it’s even Ramadan. Once I break the fast, I stay alone instead of meeting people,” Hassan said. “I feel like it’s empty.”
Still, in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, local mosques, Muslim community groups, and business owners have used technology and ingenuity to adapt Ramadan observances to the state’s shelter-in-place orders. Throughout the Puget Sound region, virtual prayers, free food distribution and rental assistance have helped the area’s Muslim community stay afloat and continue to worship while giving back to residents at large.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations Washington chapter estimates between 100,000 to 125,000 Muslims live in the state. The vast majority are located in the King County area, said the chapter’s executive director, Masih Fouladi.
The East African community and small mosques particularly have felt the financial impacts of the pandemic. Ramadan is when many Muslims with a certain amount of wealth fulfill the Islamic requirement of donating to charity. Local Muslim community groups and mosques raise up to 80% of their operation costs during the holy month, said Fouladi. But due to social distancing, the closure of mosques that served as fundraising centers has led to a decline in donations.
Many Abu-Bakr Islamic Center members work in the service industry or drive for rideshare services and have lost work, said the mosque’s Secretary of the Board of Trustees, Mohammed Jama. Calls from congregants concerned about housing instability have increased, he said. The center has partnered with conservation nonprofit Forterra to allow four front-line workers who want to protect their family from potential coronavirus exposure to stay for free in a former motel across the street from the mosque, Jama added.
It’s difficult to know the economic impact of the pandemic on the local East African community, said Working Washington spokesman Sage Wilson, since the state’s Employment Security Department does not specify the country of origin in unemployment rates. He believes unemployment benefits remain inaccessible to many people in need: “Because the application is only available in English and Spanish and everyone else has to call in to access interpretation, the barriers are extremely inequitable.”
Fasting and food
Ahmed Mahed’s Tukwila apartment was the final food delivery for Youth and Family Resource Center before sunset. The Seattle-based nonprofit delivers iftar to elders and immunocompromised people at their homes after the Abu-Bakr Islamic Center’s drive-thru closes each evening.
“We need help because people aren’t working,” Mahed said in the parking lot of his apartment. He wore a face mask and a traditional Somali wrap that brushed against his ankles. Previously a furniture assembler in a Kent warehouse, Mahed said he lost his job when the pandemic struck. It’s too risky to go to the mosque to pick up food since some of his household members are elderly, so the food delivery helps them alleviate some of the economic hardship they’re facing, he said.
Before the pandemic, Youth and Family Resource Center served food from SeaTac Market Catering to children in after-school programs at the Abu-Bakr Islamic Center. But last month, the nonprofit pivoted to serving iftar when they saw a need for additional resources within the primarily East African community. Monetary and food donations from community members have supported the mosque’s nightly iftar that is open to the public, said Hassan.
“We wanted to show people what Islam is all about: It’s about giving and caring,” Hassan said in the mosque’s parking lot as cars lined up behind him. The day before, 300 people had come for iftar, he said.
Similarly inspired by the spirit of generosity during Ramadan, Sharif Grocery & Halal Manager Amina Salad donated 3,000 pounds of rice and 600 containers of dates to her customers in the first two weeks of the holiday. In Somali culture, she explained, rice is eaten before fasting begins at sunrise and dates are used to break it at sunset. At the beginning of the pandemic in March, Salad also gave customers a total of 2,400 pounds of rice.
On a recent Monday evening, a steady stream of customers entered the Somali-owned store nestled between Ethiopian restaurants in Seattle’s Columbia City. The store offers specialty items customarily not found in the area’s other shops, such as freezers full of goat meat, and an assortment of dates in Arabic packaging.
“Before they would go to the mosque and a hot meal was ready for them, but now there’s none of that,” said Salad.
While local mosques have been closed for two months, Muslims throughout the region are continuing to find community during the holy month through virtual prayers and Quran studies with imams and scholars from around the world.
Ahmadiyya Muslim Community’s Seattle area-chapter, based in Monroe, Snohomish County, has held studies of the Quran with a local imam during a nightly Zoom call, which draws upward of 70 people, said spokesman Alam Ali. On a weekly basis, the chapter holds virtual classes about the core of their faith and their messiah, he said.
“Our community is affected, but fortunately people are resilient,” Ali said. He credits the group’s national volunteering efforts, such as youth delivering groceries to elders, to the continued sense of a strong community.
Ali said he has noticed families have bonded over a renewed commitment to their faith during the pandemic.
“We have become closer as a family in practicing our religion, practicing our prayers, and getting together every night,” said Ali about his family of five. The convenience of the virtual calls have also drawn more people to pray and study the Quran than would have joined in person at the mosque, he added.
As the largest Islamic center in Washington, serving more than 5,500 families, the Redmond-based Muslim Association of Puget Sound (MAPS) has invested in humanitarian services for members and the wider community. In the first months of the pandemic, MAPS spent more than $150,000 to cover groceries, rental assistance and utility bills, said the organization’s Executive Director of American Muslim Empowerment Network, Aneelah Afzali. Additionally, MAPS has launched telehealth and virtual legal clinics for its members.
In light of the state’s eviction moratorium, MAPS has pivoted its focus to offering free iftar meals from local businesses such as Café Bollywood and Burger N Gyros to upward of 150 people in the center’s parking lot. As the staff fast during Ramadan, they also serve lunches twice a week to people experiencing homelessness and service providers.
MAPS has offered its services to members and the community at large through private donations and a $25,000 grant from the Seattle Foundation’s COVID-19 Response Fund. The organization also recently received a grant from the local Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for 33,000 pounds of nonperishable food such as flour, lentils and oil, which helped it distribute more than 2,000 boxes of food to anyone in need last month.
Classes, lectures and prayers have moved to online platforms, where nightly livestreamed feeds show a few men kneeling in prayer and spaced 6 feet apart in the once-full mosque.
Nickhath Sheriff, the founder and CEO of MAPS’ humanitarian program Muslim Community Resource Center, said she feels blessed to have a peaceful time with her family of six instead of being overwhelmed with the hustle and bustle of life. For Ramadan, her three children ages 17 to 26 came home to Sammamish, where they take turns cooking and pray together every night. But it’s not the same. Sheriff misses exchanging iftar food with her friends and praying with her community.
Sheriff’s family has held a large Eid al-Fitr — the festival that concludes Ramadan — with 300 people at her lakeview home for many years. She would fill the home with lights, and dozens of men would pray on the lawn while the women did so in the house.
“It will not be the same this year. We will be having the decorations and I will be cooking festive dishes, but we will be missing our friends and community,” said Sheriff. “They will be in our hearts and prayers.”