Finals and fasting: This year, Ramadan has added challenges for young Muslims in the suburbs
May is usually the hardest month for high school students. Back-to-back finals, advanced placement tests and end-of-year assignments make it seem like there is no time for anything else.
For Muslims this year, May is also the holy month of Ramadan. It may seem overwhelming to take finals while fasting from food and drink during the day, but many teenagers are finding ways to balance their faith and academics during this crunch time.
High school sophomore Faisal Siddiqui from Elgin not only is fasting from dawn to dusk, but he also, along with high school senior Raafay Rasheed of Schaumburg and a few more teens, leads dozens of people in optional "Taraweeh" prayers each night at the Islamic Center of Kane County in St. Charles.
Mosques like the ICKC are buzzing during Ramadan nights. The elderly sit on chairs to pray while worshippers who are able stand, bow and prostrate in synchrony behind the imam, or leader.
The young people munch on doughnuts during breaks, children are sprawled on the carpet with their coloring books and stickers, and everyone is chugging on water bottles to stay hydrated for the following day's fast.
Many mosques have beefed up security this Ramadan due to the attacks on houses of worship around the world. It is a huge expense to bear for these institutions that run on community funding, but they believe it is worth it if it provides worshippers with some relief.
Most Muslim children start fasting the entire month of Ramadan when they are around 12 years old. Even though today's teenagers have had a few years of practice of not eating or drinking anything during daylight hours, this is the first year that Ramadan is coinciding with finals.
"Ramadan's cyclical nature means it will come in all seasons during their lifetime," said Maliha Siddiqui, Faisal's mom. "If they take Ramadan 'off' this year from their mosque commitment due to finals, next year it will be college, then work deadlines, then infants keeping them up at night.
"My husband and I hope that if they get into a habit of not making excuses while they are young, hopefully, it will stick with them when life gets even busier."
Faisal and the teens with him have the additional responsibility of leading others in the the extra night prayers during Ramadan, and not just attending them, because they are a "Haafiz." That term indicates that they have memorized the entire Holy Quran. They do not need to refer to a book while reciting it in prayer.
They planned ahead by meeting with their teacher during spring break, and each student was assigned sections so they all knew what chapters to revise before Ramadan began.
Faisal Siddiqui likes to take a nap after school so he is energized for the evening. Raafay Rasheed, on the other hand, prefers to get his homework done during that time. On top of all this, he is also busy applying for scholarships and completing paperwork for college. He plans on attending Loyola University in the fall.
Last year during Ramadan he was working at Legoland as well but knew he couldn't factor that in this year.
"I'm very grateful to my mother that she doesn't expect me to do any extra chores this month and also drives me to and from the mosque each night, so I can either revise my Quran or take a power nap," Rasheed said.
His family drives about 40 minutes each way to the St. Charles mosque. Most nights they do not get home before midnight.
"I'm surviving on around four hours of sleep right now. Hopefully I'll be able to make it up in the summer," Rasheed said.
Faisal says it is an honor to be able to lead people much older than him in prayer. It took him and his peers around three years to memorize the Quran, and Ramadan is an excellent time to revise it so that they do not forget.
"The only thing I miss is not having enough time to hang out with friends, even though I see some of them at the mosque. There just aren't enough hours in the day," he said.
Those feelings are shared by Muslim young people throughout the suburbs. Mesha Fakhruddin spends around 20 hours each week at the Islamic Center of Naperville during Ramadan.
As the youth council coordinator, she works with middle school, high school and college students and young professionals to provide social spaces where participants can have meaningful friendships and spiritual growth, and give back to the community.
A freshman at College of DuPage, she too is a "Haafiza," having memorized the Quran in its entirety.
"Ramadan is the most exciting time of the year," she said. "This month, we have 19 youth programs with a common theme of connection. Our events are tailored around connection with God, connection with the Quran and connection with the community."
The participants also hold fundraisers for hunger prevention programs and regularly volunteer at Hesed House, a large homeless shelter in Aurora.
Fakhruddin feels she is able to oversee only so many activities and manage school at the same time because her whole family is involved at the mosque.
Her father is the principal of the Sunday School and her mother is active in the women's group.
Most of her closest friends also help out in the Youth Council, so it doesn't always feel like work, she says.
The mentors don't just manage the programs by whim.
They regularly meet with the imam of the mosque and study books together so they know how to effectively engage the youths.
Fakhruddin says sometimes her family does feel that this volunteer position is a huge commitment, but she believes this is the ideal time to give back and the skills she has learned in this capacity are truly worth it.
"I might not have as much time to volunteer once I start my integrated health studies or post-graduate work. You're only young for so long. I intend to make these years count."
• Kiran Ansari is a writer and entrepreneur. She lives in Elgin with her family.