Prom, finals and fasting: Life at the end of high school for Muslim students

Ramadan falls entirely within the school year across Hamilton this year, and many teens are learning how to juggle homework, dinner, prayers and sleep in under seven short hours a day.

Ramadan this year runs right into finals week, and many Hamilton teens are juggling busy days with fasting

Graduating Westdale Secondary School students Gachi Issa and Sabreina Dahab, 17, are barely sleeping and eating, but excited to be finishing out their school careers in the month of Ramadan. (Mahnoor Yawar/CBC )

There are few things more momentous than your last month of high school. Getting ready for prom, having brunch with your fellow graduates, making memories over coffees and junk food off campus, and even indulging in the occasional senior skip days.

For scores of Muslim students graduating this month across Hamilton this year, this is also Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting. Which rules out the possibility of many of those indulgences, while they focus on their spirituality and abstain from eating and drinking during daylight hours.

And despite the fatigue and hunger they must feel, with the added pressure of finals looming, many say they don't mind it at all.

'To be honest, I feel like I've been more productive during Ramadan than I usually am.'- Sabreina Dahab, 17, who graduates from Westdale Secondary School in a few weeks

"I think it's such a beautiful closing to our lives at school, even though it is hard," says Gachi Issa, 17, a grade 12 student at Westdale Secondary School.

"I think being in such a spiritual month at the end… I'm always excited for Ramadan, and even more so right now."

For the first time in over a decade, the entire Islamic month of fasting falls within the school year. Its culmination, the festival of Eid-ul-Fitr, is expected to fall right in the middle of finals, on June 25 or June 26, which makes things harder on students when they barely have energy to study.

But they are determined to make it through.

"If Ramadan had just been in the summer again, I'd just be doing nothing all day, sitting at home all the time," says Issa's friend and classmate Sabreina Dahab, 17.

"To be honest, I feel like I've been more productive during Ramadan than I usually am."

Which is remarkable, because they're learning to balance eating, sleeping, doing their homework, and finishing their prayers within less than seven hours between sundown and sunrise. Both Issa and Dahab admit they're barely getting five hours of sleep these days.

Some of their friends, like classmate Amaar, boast they're getting away with as little as two hours a night.

Longer days, shorter nights

The Westdale kids aren't alone. Iftar, the breaking of the fast, doesn't happen until around 9:00 p.m., and the days are only getting longer. The sun rises again around 3:45 a.m., which is the signal to stop eating.

At least they get to sleep in a little because there's no breakfast.

The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board has been preparing for this situation over the last few years, consulting with local imams on how best to balance the students' belief with the required school work during finals period.

"We work with staff and students and their families," said HWDSB superintendent Sharon Stephanian. "We have extensive discussions about how students may need religious accommodations."

'Remember that it's okay to be vulnerable and to be tired (in Ramadan).'- Gachi Issa, 17

She says the board has been working with schools to implement various measures to accommodate religious beliefs.

School's systems can be programmed to not penalize absences due to religion, or allow students to take final exams on a different day if they coincide with holidays.  Schools can also provide spaces for students to pray through the day.

"There are some global things we provide. But it's also really important that our administrators engage with the students and their families individually to find out what it is that they need, and what we can put in place."

Stephanian says parents and students often don't even realize what can be done for them, especially in terms of rescheduling exams. The school board works with local mosques to provide the reassurance in their communities that their religious beliefs can be accommodated.

Prom, finals and graduation

For graduating students, schools are going out of their way to make sure Muslim students get as much of the senior experience as possible.

"We pulled prom and the special graduates' breakfast earlier this year so it would happen before Ramadan and students could participate," said Michelle Visca, principal of Westdale school. "We'll do it even earlier next year – prom in April!"

We pulled prom and the special graduates' breakfast earlier this year so students could participate.- Michelle Visca, principal at Westdale Secondary School

Finals present a tricky time to be unfocused or distracted, but for the most part, students say they find teachers sympathetic and willing to cut them some slack.

"We have talked to the teachers ahead of time, in terms of flexibility for individual students as they request," said Visca, adding that accommodations were being offered in terms of taking exams earlier if they coincide with Eid, or even substituting them with grades earned through the year.

"I think my focus is deterred more because I'm tired, not because I'm hungry... especially while I'm reading," said Issa, who will be graduating a few days after Ramadan ends. "I hope the teachers understand it's just hard to write an essay lately."

She says fasting has really changed her approach to school and when she gets her best study hours in—something she thinks will help out when she starts university in the fall.

Advice for future fasting graduates

Both Issa and Dahab, who are headed to McMaster in the fall, have little advice for the many future high school students ahead who will fast through their school days, saying they're still figuring it out too.

"Take advantage of this month, to grow spiritually, to grow as a person. Be more involved with the community," says Dahab.

"It's hard, being productive during Ramadan. But it's a testament to your strength when you accomplish something," says Issa. "But at the same time, remember that it's okay to be vulnerable and to be tired."

Issa has some practical advice, too. "For classes that rely heavily on discussions: use a lot of Chapstick."