Drive-thru iftar meals 'a ray of hope' for Muslims isolated because of COVID-19 during Ramadan

With public health orders limiting gatherings in Manitoba to slow the spread of COVID-19, finding a way to observe Ramadan traditions this year was a challenge for Winnipeg’s Muslim community — but not one they couldn’t overcome.

Isolation during holy month difficult for community used to gathering together, organizer says

A volunteer passes a pre-packaged meal through a car window as part of a drive-thru iftar — the evening meal Muslims eat when they break their fast at sunset — to observe Ramadan during COVID-19 at Winnipeg's Grand Mosque on Waverley Street. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Winnipeg's Muslim community is doing things a little differently this Ramadan.

Standing outside the city's Grand Mosque on Friday evening, Masroor Khan said up to 400 people usually gather inside every night during the holy month for iftar — the evening meal Muslims eat when they break their fast at sunset — provided by the mosque.

But with public health orders limiting gatherings in Manitoba and mandating the closure of all non-essential businesses to slow the spread of COVID-19, finding a way to observe Ramadan traditions this year was a challenge for Winnipeg's Muslim community.

But not one they couldn't overcome, said Khan, the president of the Canada Pakistan Trade and Cultural Association of Manitoba.

"We cannot get together, we cannot talk and sit and eat together, but we can definitely serve in some form or another," he said.

A volunteer wears a mask and gloves to bring meals to people at a drive-thru at Winnipeg's Grand Mosque on Friday. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

"It's very saddening," for the community not to be able to gather, he said, which is why organizations knew they had to come up with a plan to observe the holy month while respecting public health rules. 

"You're trying to somehow mitigate that kind of sadness, and offset that kind of negative impact on people. We want them to be optimistic. We want our organization to be a ray of hope for them."

So every night from 7 to 8 p.m., two booths will be set up in the mosque's parking lot to give out iftar meals.

Khan said organizers are expecting between 200 and 300 people every night, and worked with the city to make sure they had the proper permits to feed people.

"We wanted to do everything right," he said.

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The mosque has a commercial kitchen inside, so the meals get put in warmers until volunteers need to bring them out to people's cars, Khan said.

The food changes daily, with a menu ranging from butter chicken to different Syrian dishes to pizza.

A table was set up in the parking lot outside Winnipeg's Grand Mosque on Friday, where volunteers gave out iftar meals. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

He said putting in the extra work to make the drive-thru iftar happen was a reminder of what the holy month is about.

"Everyone is working full-time, so basically Ramadan is a test of their steadfastness and patience, because they follow their normal routine, but they don't eat or drink anything," he said.

"It feels very satisfying, soul-fulfilling."

Fewer distractions with physical distancing

For Ruheen Aziz, coming for the mosque's drive-thru iftar on Friday night was also a chance to help people struggling right now.

"We thought we'd get in the car today and pick up about six iftars for people in the area who we know can't drive," said Aziz, who is the treasurer for the Manitoba Islamic Association's board of directors.

"It's all about helping the community, just in the area. You don't have to be Muslim, but the whole idea is to just be able to help the community."

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She said observing Ramadan during COVID-19 has been difficult, but the restrictions during the pandemic have also eliminated a lot of the distractions that usually pop up around this time.

"This allows us to pay a little bit more attention to the fact that we're fasting, and maybe spend a little bit more time in the activities that are religious," she said. 

"Otherwise, you're running from work to children's activities, and right now we're able to maybe isolate a little bit better."

Osama Usman said observing Ramadan during the pandemic can be especially challenging for international students like him, who might feel particularly isolated without family in Canada.

"The mosques are closed, so we are staying home all day," Usman said through his car window outside the mosque on Friday.

"We're just praying for some better days in the future, and I hope that everything gets better."