Even young children can join in Ramadan fasting, but they need to pace themselves, Muslims say
'They really want to be part of the whole feeling and be part of doing everything'
As Muslims across P.E.I. celebrate the holy month of Ramadan, it may come as a surprise to some outside the faith that many children partake to varying degrees in the ritual of fasting during daylight hours this month — which can mean no food or drink for 12 hours or longer.
Ramadan began April 1 and will end May 1 with the celebration of Eid al-Fitr, which is a three-day religious holiday. Children who have not gone through puberty are not required to fast, and neither are Muslims who are menstruating, pregnant or sick.
At their home in Charlottetown, Rasha Elbehery and her husband, Ahmed Elmoslemany, are fasting, along with their 20-year-old son, Mahmoud, daughter Menna, 17, and 11-year-old Mostafa. The couple also have a three-year old, Maria.
"They choose to do it, we don't force them" to fast, Elbehery said of the children. In fact, she said Menna wanted to start partially fasting when she was just five years old and Mostafa when he was six.
"I keep telling him you don't have to do it," Elbehery said of Mostafa, who because of his age is not required to fast but does.
Elbehery makes sure the kids get a hearty breakfast before sunup and a big meal at sundown, so she is not worried about them fasting during the day — although she always has food prepared if they need it.
"I'm proud of them. They started at a very young age and they really did it," she said.
The family decorated their home for Ramadan, and they go to the mosque in Charlottetown to pray every evening.
"We call it month of joy," Elbehery said.
'It just feels special'
Mostafa is in Grade 6 at Spring Park Elementary School, where during the month of Ramadan he fasts all day.
"It just feels special — I don't really know how to explain it," he said. When he was younger, he said he wanted to fast to be like his older siblings, but now it's different.
The first day of fasting is the hardest, then it gets easier, Mostafa said. He reads to distract himself from hunger and thirst.
Menna, his older sister, said Ramadan is a good month to reflect on one's relationship to Islam and to empathize with people who don't have enough to eat or drink. As a child, she was competitive with her older brother and by Grade 2 was fully fasting daily during Ramadan.
"Now, it's like more of a religious thing, it's not just a competition," Menna said. She takes time to read the Qur'an and strengthen her relationship with God — not to mention making and eating special Ramadan treats for the family's evening meal. Fasting is now part of her routine and is not hard, she said.
Number of children fasting grows every year
Jo-Ann Esseghaier, a Grade 4 teacher at Spring Park school, says she is impressed the students in her classroom and at the school are joyful when Ramadan arrives. She estimates there are up to 50 Muslim children fasting to some degree, and that number is growing every year.
"They're not looking at it like, 'Oh heavens, we don't get to eat very much,' but it's like, 'This is a very special time of year,'" she said.
Ramadan is supposed to be a time for self-reflection — becoming a better person, controlling negative emotions such as impatience or anger, and doing charity and good deeds.
Because she wears a hijab, the students know Esseghaier is Muslim, and they look to her to help them celebrate Ramadan. There's even a countdown to Eid on the wall in the hallway near her classroom. She said Ramadan is a time of great community at the school.
"Everybody is wishing everybody a happy Ramadan, Ramadan Mubarak," she said. "They're very pleased that other people are fasting and are aware of what is going on.
"It creates a stronger bond between everybody, and you feel like there's other people on your team that can support you and know what you're feeling."
'Families have different ways of doing it'
Even children in Grade 1 will be aware that their older brothers and sisters are fasting and want to be part of it, Esseghaier said.
Her own children are all adults, but she remembers them "training" to fast when they were in elementary school.
Younger children, for example, might wake before dawn with their family for breakfast, then skip snacks or abstain from eating lunch, perhaps having a snack when they get home from school, then joining their families to break their fast at sundown.
Some students tell her they are fasting, but not on days when they have gym class. Others say they're not eating solid food but allowing themselves to drink liquids. Parents often pack a lunch or snacks, just in case.
"Many families have different ways of doing it. And what a lot of teachers find is the children themselves bring it on and they really want to be part of the whole feeling and be part of doing everything," Esseghaier said.
Students at Spring Park who are fasting are invited to gather in the school's mutipurpose room over lunch period so they don't have to be near classmates who are eating. Teachers set up games, including chess, and print out Ramadan colouring pages.
The children come from different countries, including Somalia, Egypt, Morocco, Syria, Ivory Coast, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Canada, Esseghaier said, so fasting is another way of bringing the children together.
'Not everybody is ready'
Amirah Oyesegun, 21, who will become a registered dietitian in P.E.I. this week, grew up in Nigeria, where their father is a doctor and they had several older sisters.
With help from their family, Oyesegun started partial fasting at age nine and was fully fasting by 11.
"I didn't want to be left out — everyone else was fasting," they explain. "Ramadan is the absolute best time of the year, because there is such a strong sense of community during that time."
At the age of nine, Oyesegun would wake and have breakfast with family before dawn, then fast for five hours until lunchtime. They gradually increased that time over the next couple of years until they were spiritually ready to fully fast.
Oyesegun said the right age to start fasting depends on the child — each is different.
"Everyone develops differently," they said. "Islamic doctrine is, like, around the time puberty hits, and so usually say, like, 11, 12, but not everybody is ready at that time.
"It depends very much on the child and what they feel that they're capable of. I don't think there's a specific age."
Oyesegun said if children who are fasting get a headache or feel dizzy, it's OK to drink water. Children should listen to their bodies and be honest with themselves if they need a snack or water for energy.
"My parents would often ask me: 'Are you able to do it?'" they said. Her parents told Oyesegun that if they felt weak or their stomach hurt, they should eat, because physical health is just as important as spiritual health.
"God cares more about your well-being as a person than just fasting."