Eid is being celebrated by Muslims across the world today to mark the end of Ramadan, a month of dawn-to-dusk fasting, prayer and reflection. This year during Ramadan,¬†UNRWA¬†USA¬†started an online conversation through the hashtag #ramadanacrossborders to bring attention to the many families spending this time apart. In particular those families living in Gaza, separated from their loved ones living abroad. The campaign also sought to bring food donations to these families, and matched every dollar donated eventually exceeding their goal. Driving this campaign was the personal story of a UNRWA USA team member, Muslim American Lena Badr Abdelhamid who observed the holy month with her immediate family in the States but far from her grandparents and cousins in Gaza. Adding momentum to the campaign Lena shared her personal reflections, family recipes, and recorded Skype conversations with her cousins, while others from Jordan to Michigan shared their own meals and experiences over Twitter and Instagram. We caught up with Lena at the end of Ramadan to ask her more about Ramadan Across Borders and staying connected against all odds.
How is Ramadan traditionally spent in your family?
Ramadan is a time of gathering for our family. We invite all of our friends and family over to break fast with us each evening. My mother is always cooking up a storm and making everyone’s favorite foods. Beyond gathering and breaking fast, we pray together and spend time reflecting on who we are and what we could be doing to better our communities. Charity is a very important aspect of Ramadan, especially for my family.
My favorite dish is made with love by my¬†Teta, (Arabic for grandmother) – it is a Palestinian dish called¬†maqlooba.¬†Maqlooba¬†is¬†a
What are some memories you have of spending Ramadan with family growing up?
My fondest memories of Ramadan, growing up, involved seeing my grandmother and my mother cooking lavish iftar dinners where we invited friends and family to break fast with us. Whenever my grandmother was visiting us here in the States, everyone would come excited to greet her and taste her incredible food.¬†It also involved a lot prayer and reflection. My grandparents taught us what we know about religion, taught us how to recite¬†Quran.¬†My family always put a huge emphasis on charity to those less fortunate, instilling in us the true meaning of Ramadan. Ramadan reminds me of the countless blessings I have in my life.
How are things different now?
Things are different now because I feel like my family is losing hope that we may ever be able to spend Ramadan in Gaza with my grandparents again. As they get older and the world becomes a more complicated place, it seems very out of reach to be able to have them simply visit for Ramadan, the holiest time of year.
During Ramadan we speak to my family in Gaza every day, sometimes twice a day. We’re always on Skype with them during dinner time, sharing stories of the sermons we’ve heard during prayer time, generally trying to fill the void of their presence as much as possible.
What has the response to Ramadan Across Borders been like?
The response to Ramadan Across Borders has been diverse and yet very similar to my own experience. Many who responded to the hashtag campaign have told us their stories of being separated from their loved ones for holidays, and how they have overcome those obstacles to make the best of their celebrations. They’ve told us how they fill the void of family through different methods of communication – phone, social media, Whatsapp, Skype.
My favorite images shared through the hashtag are ones that came from families in Gaza who gathered with their neighbors for potluck style iftars. It really resonated to me that their community, like mine, still found the strength to gather to break fast and make the best of this holy month – all while remaining very thankful for all they have.
I also really loved the images shared from Palestine that involved Christians who would wake their Muslim neighbors for¬†suhoor, the morning meal before fasting begins, and the ones who would pass out water and dates to those who won’t make it home in time to break their fast. That’s the Gaza I remember, and it was very heartwarming to see.
Waking up for suhoor (for those playing at home, this is the meal you have just before dawn when fasting) is not the easiest when you have a little one. I haven't been getting up the last couple of days cause my boy has kept me up so often that the thought of getting up again seems ?? I don't usually have a big meal when I do. Just something simple like these Lebanese sweet breads called ka'ik (or we often call Ba'at). They don't last long at my place. My girls love them. The first thing they said when I bought some home the other day was, 'Yum these remind me of Tata (their Grandma).' And as soon as they could eat 'em they were gone! I so feel like some right now ? Lebanese bakery here I come ? Anyhow, yay for Friday! And yay to a long weekend! ?????? #30daysofRamadan #Ramadanacrossborders
What would you like the world to know about your family and families like yours living in Gaza?
I want people to realize that because of the 10 year illegal Israeli blockade, my family is unable to leave Gaza, and I am unable to visit them. I haven’t seen my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins for almost fifteen years. Gaza is a very difficult place to live. There isn’t clean water, unemployment is around 40%, almost 100% of the youth suffers from some type of PTSD or psychological trauma, the number of people relying on UNRWA for food aid has skyrocketed – by the year’s end the Agency will feed one million Palestine refugees – these same people are still healing from the wounds of the 2014 military assault. To say that life is very difficult for those in Gaza, is an understatement, and for us who are separated from our loved ones in Gaza, it’s equally as challenging.
My immediate hope is to one day be able to be reunited with family. For them to see how much I’ve grown, to meet my husband, for me to one day be able to celebrate in person with my¬†teta¬†Fatima, my¬†sido¬†Younes and all my loved ones in Gaza.
My ultimate hope is that one day UNRWA won’t be needed anymore. My hope is that one day the people of Gaza will have freedom of movement, the ability to find and secure jobs, to go to school, to be able to get the healthcare they need without restrictions, to live in peace. The people of Gaza are strong, resilient, and if allowed, I think they would thrive and surprise the world with their tenacity.