By Michelle Michael
For Somalis, living in the United States comes with its own set of challenges, especially during the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast from dawn to sunset.
Unlike in Somalia, Islam is not a widely practiced religion in the United States. As of 2017, only 1.1% of the total U.S. population considered themselves Muslims, according to a recent Pew Research Center study.
“Here, (we) are a small community and we celebrate it a little differently,” said Hassan Omar, president of the Somali Community Association of Ohio.
On Tuesday, Muslims across the world will celebrate Eid-al-fitr, the festival marking the end of Ramadan, one of the five pillars of Islam that requires Muslims to fast for 30 days.
“It’s like Christmas when you compare it to American lifestyle,” said Omar, who was joined with about 15 Somali elders last Thursday in the Somali community center on Columbus’ Northeast Side, a regular meeting place for this native east-African community. The group of elders meet most weekday evenings to discuss issues that affect the community and share information to help each other.
Yet, culturally, fasting during Ramadan can be challenging for Somalis in the United States, Omar said. For example, kids cannot stay home from school because it is not a recognized holiday here.
Another challenge is the temptation that surrounds Muslims who are fasting, the elders said through Omar, who translated for the group. In Somalia, eating in public during Ramadan is prohibited. Restaurants flip their hours to reflect the fasting period and only open after sunset to serve those after they break their daily fast. But in the U.S., sit-down restaurants, fast food drive-thrus and other dining options abound — Ramadan or not.
In central Ohio, most Somali restaurants in town are closed during Ramadan. Some open in the evening as they prepare to break fast.
Other challenges aren’t religious, but cultural, Omar said.
In Somalia, Eid is celebrated with a night full of traditional folklore dancing, music and other performances with thousands gathered. In central Ohio, people are more apt to mark Eid with smaller gatherings of family and friends in homes and in late- night outings.
With about 40,000 living in central Ohio, Columbus has the second largest Somali population in the United States after the Twin Cities in Minnesota.
Despite the many challenges, the determination to grow spiritually and follow Allah exceeds all temptations, the elders agreed.
“It is a time to give, pray and focus on God,” Bashir Alin, another community leader in the room, said. “We believe that God will bless us.”
Omar said the Quran teaches tolerance, coexistence and generosity.
The community is grateful for Americans — not just in Columbus, but nationwide —for their generosity in welcoming Somalis and giving them opportunities that would have otherwise been inaccessible, the elders said.
When U.S. military forces found Abdi Dini, one of the elders in the room, in Somalia in 1992, he was sick, starving and on the verge of death.
“Today, his kids have graduated college, he’s driving and has a better life,” Omar said, recalling the life of his fellow community leader.
The 1992 famine killed hundreds of thousands of people in Somalia and Dini would have been a part of that number if not for the 30,000 U.S. troops that saved more than 2 million people, Omar said.
The survivors of the famine in Somalia were given all sorts of opportunities when they came to the United States. “To educate the kids, to get a better life, peace and security,” Omar said translating for a few of the men in the group. “And that’s the image the Somali community has of America.”
A grateful Dini added, “God bless America.”