US schools help Muslim pupils observe Ramadan and Eid

Muslim children in American schools face challenges when it comes to fasting and taking a day off for the holiday

Sumaya Hamadmad with family members and supporters outside a school board meeting in Columbus, Ohio, where Muslim pupils asked for Eid Al Fitr to be made an official school holiday. Photo: Sumaya Hamadmad
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For years, Muslim pupils in the Hilliard school district outside Columbus, Ohio, found themselves having to decide between missing schoolwork or being absent from family celebrations on Eid Al Fitr.

Salma Khawam, a high school senior, was one.

“In the past, I had to do a lot of schoolwork to catch up,” she said.

But she and several other Muslim pupils started speaking up, attending school board meetings month after month, reminding the board of their request for a day off.

“Students get two weeks off for Christmas so I was like, why can’t we have one day off for Eid?” she said.

In July, however, the Hilliard Schools Board of Education voted to make Eid Al Fitr an official school holiday for all pupils and staff, becoming the first district in the state to do so.

“I felt amazing,” said Salma. “I feel like my friends and I accomplished something. I don’t have to feel the stress of school on Eid.

“I feel like I did something for the people younger than me to enjoy [in the future].”

For school administrators, the move made a lot of sense.

“Logistically, close to 20 per cent of our students were absent this year on the holiday, which disrupts the learning process for all of our students,” Nadia Long, the board's president, said at the time.

“This is just another reason it makes sense to have the day off.”

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And Hilliard is not alone. A growing number of US schools are moving to make Eid Al Fitr an official holiday, as well as help pupils fasting for Ramadan.

In San Francisco, a district of 121 schools and about 50,000 students, Eid Al Fitr and Eid Al Adha have been declared official holidays.

The district had previously recognised Juneteenth, Christmas Day, Lunar New Year and other holidays, and Muslim pupils had pushed for the change at school board meetings last year.

School systems in New Jersey and three Florida counties now recognise Eid Al Fitr as a holiday, giving all pupils a day off.

For Salma’s mother, Sumaya Hamadmad, a research scientist at Ohio State University who is originally from Jordan, the change has been a long time coming.

“Back in 2006, Eid was always around Christmas time, so the teachers were always welcoming about talking about the Eid holiday,” she said.

But by 2012, as the Islamic calendar moved forward in the year and Eid fell outside regular school holiday time, it was more difficult to convince teachers to accommodate Muslim pupils whose families wanted a day off to celebrate, Ms Hamadmad said.

Then there were the day-to-day challenges.

During Ramadan, pupils taking part in night prayers go to sleep late and wake up early, leading to them being drowsy or falling asleep in class.

“Most of the teachers are accommodating and understanding but you have to let them know what’s going on in the kid’s life,” Ms Hamadmad said.

“The onus was always on the parent to tell the teacher we’re taking the day off [for Eid]. I would always speak to the teacher to let them know my kids were fasting and to ask that they be excused from the lunch table and [allowed] go to the library.”

Conversations with the principal and parent-teacher organisations led to a greater awareness of the diverse cultural backgrounds of the pupils attending Hilliard schools, she added.

“It’s definitely a huge transformation for all of the kids. My daughter told me how this year her teacher told her ‘Ramadan Mubarak'. I cannot really explain how joyful that is. Just being recognised [is wonderful].”

But while some Muslim communities have enjoyed success, others have not.

While the US Department of Education says prayer during non-instructional time is constitutionally protected for all pupils, state-level departments in places such as Louisiana have refused to issue guidance to schools on the issue, meaning pupils and parents often have to ask for changes.

“There are a lot of schools that are not providing guidance about the law [and] the need for them to accommodate religious expression,” said Maha Elgenaidi, founder and executive director of the Islamic Networks Group, a non-profit that provides information and speakers for educators and other professionals about Muslim life.

She said promoting a better understanding of Ramadan, Eid and why this time of year is important to Muslims could help pupils be further assimilated in classrooms.

“It would be good if students were allowed to share the experience of fasting with the rest of the class,” she said.

One of the challenges facing Muslim pupils and their families is that for those who have fled conflict or an authoritarian regime, speaking up to authority figures about having their children accommodated at school has not always been a priority, Ms Hamadmad said.

“If you have a family who struggle with a language barrier, it’s really hard for them to speak and tell the teacher what’s going on in the kids’ lives, and the kids might be too shy to speak to their teacher about it,” she explained.

Salma said attempts by Muslim pupils at a neighbouring school district to have Eid Al Fitr designated an official school holiday have not yet succeeded.

However, she knows that change takes time.

She recalled feeling left out when fellow pupils would get to enjoy a two-week holiday for Christmas and how, when they would return to school in January, they would talk about the gifts they received.

When she received her own presents for Eid Al Fitr, she said she felt others did not really care or understand.

But now it is different.

“It’s reassuring to see that just one day off allowed people gain more knowledge about our religion,” she said.

“I love that my school is very inclusive of us. I’m really grateful.”

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