Muslim Dad jokes, interactive storytelling, activities, game shows and movie nights are all part of a re-imagined Ramadan in the US where the pandemic has changed the nature of the holy month.
“It's a big change. One day you’re in school normally, and the next day recess is gone,” said Mohamed Armouche, 10.
Armouche, a Muslim-American, is trying, like countless other children, to navigate a harsh new reality brought on by a ravaging global pandemic.
“I really miss praying Friday prayers with my friends during Ramadan,” said Armouche.
The world’s 1.8 billion Muslims ushered in the holy month of Ramadan amidst an isolating pandemic, indiscriminate in its reach. If there’s a time of year that most embodies the closeness at the heart of Islam, it’s Ramadan. What is typically a communal holiday, the coronavirus-era version of Ramadan has had to adjust to safety protocols and measures and, in some ways, forced communities to find creative ways to nurture the spirit of this special month.
Amin Aaser, father of two, drives his 2013 Nissan Altima every day, sometimes multiple times a day between his home in Maple Grove, Minnesota and his office.
“I love my job, I pinch myself everyday to make sure I’m not dreaming,” he says. Aaser is co-founder of Noor Kids, an Islamic character-building program for children.*
Founded in 2012, the organisation began with a vision to build character and inspire Muslim kids to be proud of their faith. After experiencing bullying because of his faith at the onset of 9/11, Aaser, a Muslim-American, was determined to find a solution for the future generation of Muslim youth.
Ramadan has been busy for Noor Kids. Dubbed the “Muslim Mr. Rogers,” Aaser’s nightly routine consists of putting on his bright blue Noor Kids hoodie, sitting in front of his computer and hosting Noor Kids Digital Ramadan Camp for Kids.
The program is filled with Muslim Dad jokes, interactive storytelling, activities, game shows and movie nights. Aaser’s fun-loving demeanor, comedic spirit and electrifying energy has managed to capture the minds and hearts of thousands of Muslim kids around the world.
“My favorite part of the Camp is the Kahoot game shows” says Mohamed Armouche who participated in the Ramadan Camp for two years in a row. “Last year I got 4th place, my dad didn’t beat me!”
In the first six days of Ramadan, 65,000 Muslim families in over 25 countires enrolled in the program.
“It’s becoming our tradition,” said Hadi Armouche, Mohamed’s father. “Everyday before we break our fast, we watch the Ramadan Camp. Especially during Covid, it’s a way for us to connect to the larger Muslim community”
“It speaks to how important this type of programming is,” says Shaykh Omar Suleiman of the appeal of Noor Kids’ programming. Suleiman serves as a formal advisor for Noor Kids and his children are also users of the platform. “I think what Noor Kids has done is creatively help young Muslim children reconcile their faith with real life situations today.”
Shaykh Omar Suleiman, founder of Yaqeen Institute, has become a global household name, particularly amongst Muslim youth. A social media celebrity, he speaks to his three million followers everyday throughout the month of Ramadan through a series of videos exploring the Quran and Prophet Muhammad.
“This Ramadan is lonely for many people but it doesn’t have to be,” says Suleiman. “The restrictions on gatherings and absence of communal activities is an opportunity to look inward and connect with the spirituality of this sacred month. And for my children, the Ramadan Camp helped lift some of that Covid isolation.”
The World Health Organization released a statement urging observers of Ramadan to remain vigilant. “We must not let our short-term desire to spend time with others put more people at risk,” said Dr Ahmed Al Mandhari, WHO’s Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean. “Let us all pledge to keep a safe distance, so that we can celebrate the many happy occasions to come, and Ramadan together next year.”
According to the WHO, there have been over 156 million confirmed cases of Covid-19 and over three million deaths. The very real effects of this worldwide pandemic are being felt in households everywhere, with families desperate to return to some type of normalcy.
“I won't shy away from the fact that I’m exhausted,” said Saira Sufi, mother to 8-year old Zakariyah based in Sterling, Virginia. “In a normal Ramadan, I would make sure [my son] is around other Muslim kids in an in-person camp. But this year it’s different.”
Sufi, like many other Muslim American parents, was looking for a way to create a sense of excitement for her son during what would have been an otherwise lonely Ramadan season.
“I was concerned about the isolation,” said Sufi. “So when the Camp came out, it was perfect. What Noor Kids has done with all of the interactions and stories and guests - it very much fills that void of being part of a community.”
Community is a vital component of the Muslim holy month. Iftar, the nightly communal meals that are typically marked by festive feasts, large family gatherings preceding congregational prayers, are now, for most Muslims, a pre-Covid chronicle. Moreover, children have also had to transform their realities. Some schools are now fully online, after-school activities and sports, cancelled.
“It's been hard,” said Zakariyah, 8, who attends school online. “I don't get to go to many iftars and I miss recess.”
As Ramadan winds down making way for Eid, the holiday marking the end of the month-long fast, families and organisations like Noor Kids will have to reimagine, yet again, a pandemic-style version of an otherwise festive season.
“At a time when so many kids feel trapped at home with real feelings of anxiety due to Covid, we are bringing them together,” said Aaser. “Not only is the Ramadan Camp light-hearted fun, but we are discussing rich concepts like patience, grit, resilience and growth mindset to equip kids with the tools they need to thrive - during normal times and during a pandemic.”
(Full disclosure: the writer works part-time for Noor Kids)