VCU students observe Ramadan despite new dining, COVID-19 limits

VCU student Daioa Al-Kaaby works a table delivering meals from local Richmond restaurant Kokonut Grill to other VCU students during Ramadan. Student Ameenah Habib picks up her order from the tabling event. Photo by Enza Marcy

Sahara Sriraman, Contributing Writer

Steaming samosas with a spicy filling, community prayers and close gatherings with loved ones are common elements observed during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. 

The COVID-19 pandemic and limited on-campus dining hours have made it difficult for VCU students to observe the month normally.

“I think it’s different for a lot of people; we all have different types of families or like different types of friends as well,” Fatima Malik, a junior political science major, said. “But, I think this year it’s been more boring and lonely.”

Ramadan is the holy month of fasting, prayer and reflection observed by Muslims, lasting from mid-April to mid-May this year. Muslims who observe fast every day for this month from sunrise to sunset. The meals eaten during the month are suhoor, eaten before fasting begins at dawn, and iftar, eaten after sunset to break the fast.

Malik said this is the first time she’ll be spending the entirety of Ramadan on campus. She said it’ll be difficult not being surrounded by other people who are also fasting. 

Malik is living in her own apartment, praying and preparing her morning suhoor and evening iftar meals alone. However, she said during her freshman year, when she was required to have a meal plan, she did not find places on campus that were open for her suhoor meal, which is typically eaten around 3 a.m. 

She said she thinks VCU could be doing more to accommodate their Muslim students, like designating a place where students can go to start and break their fast.

She said this year has been lonely because she’s unable to meet with friends or attend meetings with VCU’s Muslim Student Association due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She’s unable to do traditional activities like going to mosques to pray and restaurants to break her fasts.

“I’m out of touch with a lot of other Muslims, like we don’t have shared experiences like that anymore,” Malik said. 

Malik said she would like professors to be more accommodating for students who are fasting because it can be draining. In her experience, professors haven’t made an effort to ease the workload with assignments, especially during finals week.

“Professors are kind of asking for a lot, like I have four papers to do and it’s kind of hard to do all that while I’m fasting because my head’s just not there,” Malik said.

Junior health, physical education and exercise sciences student Sameeha Khalil has observed Ramadan every year at VCU. She said she has difficulty as well keeping up with school during Ramadan because of her various responsibilities.

“Fasting throughout the day can be hard to study while not being able to eat,” Khalil said. “Like, you can get tired easily or not be able to concentrate.”

Khalil said that she’s not aware of any accommodations in general made by VCU for Ramadan. The university has a prayer room in the University Student Commons, which Khalil said she’s utilized in the past for taraweeh, nightly communal prayers performed after the last daily prayer, Isha.

Anna Obermiller, a VCU spokesperson, said VCUDine extended hours for three locations last week and will continue to extend Shake Smart’s hours until May 5. Shake Smart is located in Shafer Court Dining Center.

She said to-go meals are offered at all VCUDine locations that can be “heated at students’ convenience.” Good Uncle, a food delivery service that drops high-quality food off to students who order on campus, is available at Market 810, Avo Kitchen and the P.O.D. Market.

Hours of operation for all VCU dining locations are updated as they change, along with special resources for each location, Obermiller said. No locations are currently open past 11 p.m.

Obermiller did not state whether VCUDine has made modifications to accommodate students observing Ramadan.

VCU’s Muslim Student Association provide iftar meals for students who are fasting during the month of Ramadan. Photo by Enza Marcy

Khalil said she’s been able to observe Ramadan thanks to the MSA, which provides iftar meals for students. Khalil said she’s never broken her fast at any of VCU’s dining locations.

Ismail Shahzada, secretary of MSA at VCU, said he is in charge of the group’s daily efforts to distribute iftar to Muslim students. 

He said all students observing get a daily email with a form where they can place their name to receive a prepackaged iftar from restaurants such as Noorani Kabab House and Kokonut Grill. The group is able to distribute just 20 meals every evening outside the commons using its own funding.

“If there wasn’t COVID, I’m pretty sure we would be more busy and there would be way more students coming,” Shahzada said.

Shahzada said because of the organization’s limited funding, it can provide students with only iftar and not suhoor.

Sophomore biology student Yumna Rahman said she wishes VCU would set up a special meal plan for students observing Ramadan that provides them with meals around their schedules. She said she believes VCU doesn’t provide students with pre-fasting meals because they’re so early; this is especially difficult for freshmen with meal plans.

If students have an exam scheduled while they’re fasting, Rahman said, VCU should allow them to take it earlier or later in the day when they’re not fasting and have more of an ability to concentrate.

“That would be really great if VCU could actively enforce some kind of policy that makes it more accommodating,” Rahman said. “Right now, there’s really nothing they’re doing, it’s just we’re working around it ourselves.”

She said she doesn’t think she’ll have time to do all her five daily prayers because of school. This year, though, has been easier for her to pray in her dorm.

Rahman said she has learned to become more mindful of how she spends her time while observing Ramadan. Although she might feel inclined to take a nap because of how drained she feels from fasting, she has to keep up with classes.

“I either have productive hours where I can get everything done or I have times in the day when I’m totally drained and it’s physically not possible to be productive then,” Rahman said.

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