Suburban Muslims begin a somber Ramadan with prayers for peace in Gaza, calls for cease-fire and more aid

Faithful begin observing Islamic holy month Monday amid growing fears over rising anti-Muslim hate crimes in U.S.

Each year, Alaa Abusaman eagerly awaits the start of Ramadan to gather with his loved ones, spending hours communicating with family members back home in Gaza through phone calls, video chats and text messages.

Muslims worldwide collectively begin observing the Islamic holy month of fasting, prayer and charity starting Monday or Tuesday.

Yet, festivities are much subdued this year in Abusaman’s Bolingbrook home, as well as the households of other suburban Muslims watching in horror the mounting casualties from the Gaza conflict.

Abusaman has lost 10 family members to Israeli bombardment of northern Gaza. His wife, Hoda, lost her parents and many more relatives killed by airstrikes or sniper fire.

“It was very horrific,” said Abusaman, 40. “You can find hundreds of (similar) stories for families of Gaza.”

Alaa Abusaman of Bolingbrook has lost 10 family members in the Gaza conflict. Courtesy of Alaa Abusaman

Israel’s bombardment and ground assaults have wreaked a high death toll with more than 30,800 Palestinians killed, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. Israel largely shut off entry of food, water, medicine and other supplies after launching its assault on Gaza following Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel, in which militants killed some 1,200 people and took about 250 hostage, The Associated Press reports.

Hunger is most acute in northern Gaza, which has been isolated by Israeli forces and has suffered long cutoffs of food supplies, AP reports.

Abusaman’s parents, in their early 60s, and adult siblings and their children have had to flee from one place to another at least six times since the conflict began and still are sheltering in northern Gaza. His uncle, who also was displaced several times, succumbed to hunger and died of kidney failure just days ago because he couldn’t access medical treatment, Abusaman said.

“There are so many layers of sorrow and sadness,” Abusaman said. “It’s not easy, but we have been through this for five months now.”

Abusaman, who has four children, said what has helped his family cope is reflecting on the Quran and focusing on elevating their spiritual practices.

“We know that the people we lost we cannot get them back, but we can make prayer for them, make charity on behalf of them, dedicating good works to their lives,” he said.

Alaa Abusaman's parents, pictured here, and siblings in northern Gaza have been hiding from Israeli bombardment since the conflict began in October. They have been displaced six times already, he said. Courtesy of Alaa Abusaman

Fasting and famine

As Muslims begin a 30-day period of fasting, abstaining from food, drink and sensual pleasures from predawn until sunset, appeals for aid to feed the growing multitude of internally displaced Palestinians without access to food and water flood mailboxes and inboxes.

This comes amid food insecurity gripping millions in sub-Saharan Africa, Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere, according to the Global Alliance for Food Security.

“There is a huge difference between Ramadan fasting prescribed for healthy individuals and forced starvation and dehydration happening to civilians, particularly children and women in Gaza,” said Vaseem Iftekhar of Hawthorn Woods, founder of the Northern Illinois American Muslim Alliance political action committee. “Many of these people are ... on the verge of potential famine in the area.”

Vaseem Iftekhar

Iftekhar said the mood among Muslims this Ramadan is “one of sadness and grief.”

“We will pray for immediate cease-fire and long-lasting, just solution in the Middle East conflict,” he said. “It is in the interest of all countries and should be the highest priority for our policymakers.”

“There is no uncertainty in fasting,” he added. “You are fasting hoping at the end of the day you will have a satisfactory meal. There is a great deal of uncertainty in Gaza about when they are going to be able to get the necessary amenities, including food and shelter.”

Rise in hate

This catastrophe half a world away has had ripple effects in the suburbs. The most shocking was the stabbing death of 6-year-old Palestinian-American boy, Wadea Al-Fayoume, in Plainfield Township in the wake of the Israel-Hamas conflict.

Wadea was stabbed 26 times and his mother, Hanan Shaheen, was stabbed at least a dozen times. Their landlord Joseph Czuba, 71, is accused of targeting the two because of their Muslim faith.

Muslim, Arab, Palestinian and South Asian communities are experiencing a heightened sense of insecurity and instability at their community centers, religious schools, mosques and other places of worship, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Federal agencies held a virtual community briefing Friday to address those concerns and the rise in hate crimes.

The emotional toll of the Israel-Gaza war has been traumatizing to the mental well-being of community members, said Abdullah Mitchell, executive director of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago.

“Our government, its inaction and complicity in what is happening only further amplifies that emotional harm,” Mitchell said.

Abdullah Mitchell

The council serves more 400,000 Muslim Americans in the greater Chicago region through its more than 70 member organizations, including mosques, Islamic schools and community groups. Its focus this Ramadan is on strengthening relationships with faith partners and allies to build a broader coalition of people supporting peace and a cease-fire. Two interfaith iftars — fast-breaking evening meals — are planned for Wednesday at Islamic Foundation North in Libertyville and March 20 at The Mecca Center in Willowbrook.

“Being a better neighbor is (about) how do we respect the sanctity of the lives of all people,” Mitchell said. “This is not a political issue. This is a humanitarian issue.”

Finding solace in prayer, charity

Many Muslims decorate their homes for Ramadan, invite friends and family over for iftar, and spend money on gifts for Eid al-Fitr, the feast day following the month of fasting. Mosques often host daily or weekly community iftars.

But this year, many suburban Islamic centers, including Masjid Al-Jumu'ah in Bolingbrook, have scaled back iftar plans in favor of sending money to support Gazans.

Saud Gazanfer of Bolingbrook with his wife Dr. Subuhi Humera, and daughters Safa, 11, Rahma, 7, and Marwa, 3, will be observing a somber Ramadan this year amid the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has killed thousands of civilians. Courtesy of Saud Gazanfer

“We are keeping it very low key this year,” said Saud Gazanfer, part of the mosque security team at Masjid Al-Jumu'ah in Bolingbrook.

Gazanfer added his family also is planning for a muted celebration and focusing more on alms giving.

Gazanfer, 43, said his three daughters — 11, 7 and 3 years old — have been affected profoundly by unrelenting news of civilian deaths. His 7-year-old, Rahma, proposed “we shouldn’t be buying all these lighting and decorations.”

“They are mentally very disturbed,” he said. “The mood is very, very grim. They don't know how they can help.”

Though charity groups encourage sending money, it seems ineffective at times when the aid is not reaching Palestinians, Gazanfer said.

“Ramadan is time of reflection, prayer and about community basically,” Gazanfer said. “Values of charity and brotherhood are more vital at this time.”

Palestinian crowds struggle to buy bread from a bakery in Rafah, Gaza strip, on Feb. 18. International aid agencies say Gaza is suffering from shortages of food, medicine and other basic supplies as a result of the war between Israel and Hamas. AP Photo/Fatima Shbair
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