This is Tracy Charles's first Ramadan, a holy month of dawn-to-dusk fasting and good deeds, and it hasn't been easy.

She only converted to Islam last August, walking into the Hamilton Mountain Mosque with little experience with the religion. So she has no history of skipping multiple meals or pushing through sweltering temperatures without having a glass of water.

"I was so worried about going without food or water," she said during a multi-faith event at the mosque on Monday. "But every time you get the hunger pain, you think about why you are doing this. It makes you very aware."

Awareness is the goal for Charles, a former Catholic who learned about Islam from a friend last May. When she was growing up in St. Catharines, her family didn't go to church much, and she wasn't religious as an adult either.

That began to change in January 2011, when her husband Rick died of brain cancer. For 18 months, she had been absorbed with taking care of him. With him gone, she was in emotional turmoil.

So she traveled, heading to Morocco to visit a friend. She made a new Muslim friend there, and the friend advised her to read the Qur'an.

'It just hits you in the heart'

When Charles came home, she found chapters on the Internet, printing them off one by one and reading them in the backyard of her Mountain home. She found the text to be readable and relatable.

"As many times as I have tried to read the Bible in my life, I could never get through it," she said.

With the Qur'an, "something just clicked," she said. "It just hits you in the heart."

Charles, 47, first walked into the mosque last summer. She wasn't wearing a hijab — a Muslim headscarf — and "stuck out like a sore thumb." But people approached her, she said, and they welcomed her.

Charles hasn't told many people about her conversion. A couple of family members aren't happy about it — influenced, Charles believes, by the negative portrayals of Muslims in the media.

But Charles is determined. She was a long-time pack-a-day smoker and has now quit. She doesn't drink or eat pork anymore. She has also stopped gossiping, which she admits is "brutal" to attempt in an office environment.

Emotional month

Ramadan has brought unexpected hardship. Her mother died July 10 from c. difficile after being hospitalized with pneumonia. She was 84.

Charles's voice breaks when she talks about it. But her newfound religion has helped, she said.

"It helps me not to do the hysterical screaming and crying and head banging," she said. "It definitely keeps you calmer."

She plans to stick with Islam. She is learning more prayers and living by the five pillars, and has adjusted to the fasting. She's doing good deeds for Ramadan too. Most recently, she said, "I cut my neighbour's grass."

"It can be overwhelming, so what I do is take it a little bit at a time," she said. "I'm not going to become the best Muslim overnight. I've learned so much in the past year and I have so much more to learn, but it's addicting. The more I learn, the more I want to learn."

The mosque held Monday's multi-faith event as Muslims there broke the fast for the day. About 50 guests attended.

Number of Muslims has doubled

The number of Muslims in Hamilton is increasing. In 2001, Statistics Canada data shows 11,335 Muslims in Hamilton, of which 5,905 were male and 5,430 were female.

Data from 2011 shows 22,520 Muslims in Hamilton, of which 11,645 were male and 10,875 were female.

"From month to month, we see the number of people growing," said Ali Ghouse, spokesperson for the Muslim Association of Hamilton.

"A lot of them are born to Canadian parents. There are some who are immigrants, but most of them are kids who were born here and go to school here."

Ramadan is 30 days, running from July 9 to Aug. 7.