She is still only 14, but Maryam Daya will fast this Ramadan for the sixth time.
“What encouraged me to fast was seeing happy faces around me in Ramadan,” says Maryam, a South African. “People who fasted seemed happy, so I asked my mum if I could fast and she supported me.”
The Grade 8 pupil at Raffles World Academy in Dubai is aware that her home country has some of the poorest communities in the world, such as the slums in the township of Soweto.
Maryam says this motivates her to make an extra effort to share her food with those less fortunate, and fasting for Ramadan brings other benefits.
“You learn patience. The shared feeling of not eating all day brings families and friends together. We pray together. It’s a month filled with laughter.
“It is a month where we get to revive our soul and nourish it with extra worship.”
Maryam’s main goal in fasting, as in any act of worship, is to please Allah and seek His pleasure and forgiveness.
This year she has organised a special schedule to give her as much time as possible for worship.
“I will make sure to recite more Quran, pray the optional prayers, watch Islamic programmes and stay away from anything time-wasting,” she says, adding that she feels like a new person after Ramadan.
“I don’t feel sad or happy when Ramadan ends, but Ramadan atmosphere is different.”
While children below the age of puberty are not required to fast during Ramadan, many choose to join their parents.
Amal Loring, an Emirati who converted to Islam in 2007 before marrying, had no problems when it came to explaining the uniqueness of the Holy Month to Shams, her only daughter.
She had already seen her mother bowing and prostrating herself in prayer, and was curious to know more about the religion.
“I saw my mother praying in her bedroom and I noticed she was doing it at peace,” says Shams, 12. “I wanted to feel like the way my mother did one day.”
At the age of 6 she converted to Islam, changed her name from Kathryn and began to investigate her new faith.
Like many converts, Shams was bombarded with questions about Islam from her peers, but “I answered all of their inquiries and they were very accepting”.
With Ramadan only a few days away, Shams is preparing herself psychologically, physically and spiritually to greet the month.
“When I tried fasting it was difficult at the start,” she says. “You crave food and water. Everything around the house relates to food.
“You see the cats having breakfast and you wish you were having it. You see a television programme about food and you crave it. After a few hours, you forget about it.”
To take her mind away from food, she busies herself weaving a cross-stitch carpet.
“When I am working on the carpet, I am caught up where the weave goes, so less time to think about food,” Shams says.
“Every minute feels like an hour when you are about to break the fast. You get a sense of relief when you eat.
“People in poor countries, irrespective of their religious background, are always hungry and they don’t get to break their fast. I have an expectation of finding food in the evening.”
There are many compensations. For Shams, one of the joys of Ramadan is seeing happy faces and the community coming together.
The month of forgiveness also helps her be even more grateful for all the blessings Allah has bestowed on her family.
She notices that not everyone comprehends the true meaning of fasting. “Some people stay awake at night and they sleep the whole day. That’s not right. People should continue with their daily practice in Ramadan.”
While she will be praying more, going to the mosque and reciting the Quran, Shams also likes to go ice skating during Ramadan.
“My aim this year is to finish reciting the Quran,” she says.
Islamic teaching makes it clear that it is the responsibility of parents to guide their children’s upbringing.
Maitha Al Alawi, 12, has a positive influence on her siblings, who try to emulate her actions to win praise from their parents.
“Being the eldest child, she is a role model,” says Umm Sultan, her mother.
Maitha says the first couple of days of Ramadan are when she adjusts to fasting.
The most difficult part about fasting is handling the thirst, she says. “It’s summer and even though I am indoors, thirst starts to set in.”
Maitha’s strategy to combat thirst is to have a proper predawn meal. “I make sure to have healthy food and drink more water.”
Part of a big family where eating together is routine, breaking the fast with loved ones makes her fast more pleasurable.
“Ramadan is special. We are all together and the environment is peaceful,” she says.
Maitha’s mother, an Arabic teacher, speaks highly of her daughter’s faith.
“I am grateful that my daughter is not a blind follower. Before starting to fast she asked many questions about Islam,” says Umm Sultan.
Maitha first tried fasting on some days when she was just 9, and soon after said she was ready to fast for the entire month.
“I have seven children and Maitha is very reliable and a beacon,” says her mother proudly.
In Abdullah Al Romaithi’s home, it is a family tradition to encourage children to start fasting from the age of 7.
Abdullah was 6 when he decided to fast last Ramadan but ended his fasting earlier than the others.
“When I grow up, I will fast from sunrise to sunset like everyone,” he says.
Like many people waiting to welcome Ramadan, the Grade 1 pupil is excited.
Ramadan is a “month of togetherness”. The best parts, Abdullah says, are watching TV, praying and eating together, and visiting family.
Attending prayers in the mosque and reciting more from the Quran are part of Abdullah’s plans this year.
“Abood started fasting on his own last year,” says his sister Hamda, 26, using Abdullah’s nickname.
“We told him not to because it was during the school days, but he persisted. He says fasting will make him stronger.”