Muslim students balance schoolwork, fasting during Ramadan

Each morning, Hayya Khan, 16, awakes feeling energized and ready for the day.

But over the course of the day, her energy levels drop and she takes a long nap after she gets home from Parkland High School.

The difficult but rewarding schedule is thanks to Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim calendar and a holiday that this year runs from May 7 to Tuesday or Wednesday, depending on moon sightings Monday and how families observe the holiday. The holiday commemorates the first revelation of the Quran to Muhammad, and its observance is one of the five pillars of Islam.

Hayya has been participating in the fasting aspect of the holiday ? healthy Muslim adults are required to fast from sunrise to sunset ? since she was 10.

"It's basically very spiritually and emotionally cleansing," Hayya said. "It's a month to literally cleanse yourself completely and get rid of all your sins from the year before and the year that's about to come."

With more than 2,000 Muslim families in the Lehigh Valley, it's a holiday that families and school districts alike have to navigate.

Rizwan Butt, who does outreach for the Muslim Association of the Lehigh Valley, has been working with the Parkland School District for the last decade as a member the district's diversity committee. He's also started working with the Easton Area School District.

He advises districts that some students may struggle during Ramadan with hunger, thirst, headaches, fatigue and a lack of concentration. Reasonable accommodations would be to exempt students from gym and athletic requirements, allow them to go somewhere other than the cafeteria during a lunch period, limit outdoor activities on hot days and provide prayer space during the day.

Unlike in other religions with fasting requirements, Muslims should participate in regular activities over the course of the month, Butt said. Students may request a day off for Eid al-Fitr, the celebration at the end of Ramadan.

"We say, prepare for students to come in sleepy, they may be up late at night," he said. "But this does not mean they can be excused from exams and tests and other things that would be part of the normal routine this month."

Nicole Mehta McGalla, a spokeswoman for the Parkland School District, said that working with Butt has been helpful for the community, especially in the last few years when Ramadan has fallen during the school year.

"Every time we have a cultural awareness meeting, we come away with, 'That's so great,'" she said. "We feel good about the fact we live in a diverse community."

In Parkland, an active Muslim Student Association has made more students aware of Ramadan and the fasting requirement, which doesn't allow food or drink during the day. It also means that students get up at night and early in the morning to eat and pray.

Hayya also makes some modifications to her regular routine. Instead of going to the cafeteria during lunch time, she goes to the library for a study hall.

Mustapha Salau, a Parkland sophomore, still goes to track and soccer practice during the holiday. He said fasting doesn't affect his participation in sports, he just makes sure to stay hydrated and eat carbohydrates and protein when he can.

He'll usually wakes up at 4:30 a.m. to eat four waffles before sunrise, when the fast begins again.

Throughout the month, he thinks about how blessed he is to not eat during the day for one month, when there are so many around the world who go hungry, day and night, for weeks.

"It puts your life in perspective," he said. "I'm also thinking about practicing self-control, practicing how to self-inform, make yourself a better person, both socially in relationships with family, friends and close ones, and religiously," he said.

The holiday also makes him feel connected to Muslims around the world and the Lehigh Valley community.

Sabah Dharamsi, 12, goes to the library at Springhouse Middle School with her Muslim friends while the rest of their classmates go to the cafeteria for lunch. Her first year fasting was difficult, but now she feels more used to it, even if she's often tired.

When she was in fifth grade, one of her non-Muslim friends was shocked to learn that she wasn't allowed to drink water during Ramadan.

But she tells people: It's not as hard as they think.

"There's a lot of other people around the world that don't get to eat for many days, and I just fast for like the daytime," she said.

Her mother, Mubina Dharamsi, wishes there were more accommodations for Muslim students during Ramadan, like online courses or a later start time. She said it's not the fasting that wears on her daughter, but the exhausting sleep schedule. The family gets home from their mosque around 11 p.m., and then wakes up again at 3 a.m. to eat.

She said teachers have become more aware of their Muslim students' needs, offer alternatives to the cafeteria and ask students whether field trips planned for Ramadan need to be rescheduled.

"At least teachers are asking and aware," she said.

She teaches her children that Ramadan isn't just about fasting the body of food and water, but of exercising self-restraint with bad habits like cursing, alcohol and smoking.

"A Muslim person during Ramadan feels, although we're tired because of lack of sleep ... we feel healthier," she said. "After that our body is rejuvenated."




Information from: The Morning Call,