Haya Tourkou’s son and daughter at the Vennesla Islamic Cultural Center in Norway after decorating it for Ramadan, 3/4/2022 (Haya Tourkou)
PARIS — Noureddine Mukheiber’s first Ramadan in France is drawing to a close and he is preparing for an Eid al-Fitr holiday unlike all those that came before, “far from gathering friends and the joy of the holidays” in Syria and, more recently, Turkey.
Six months ago, Mukheiber, 34, came to France with his wife and two children. They were moved to temporary housing in Épinal, in the country’s east, to live there until asylum procedures are completed. Being hundreds of kilometers away from my friends in this country, he told Syria Direct, made the Ramadan month of fasting more difficult, and sapped the joy of Eid. “I won’t visit anyone, and I don’t expect a visit from anyone.”
Ever since he was displaced from Moadamiyet al-Sham, a town southwest of Damascus, in 2016, Mukheiber has been unable to “come together with family” for iftar, the evening meal breaking the holy month’s day-long fasts. Later, while living in Turkey, the presence of friends and the atmosphere of Ramadan and Eid there, as well as “online contact with my father and mother” was enough to comfort him.
Syrians are spread across Europe, which hosts more than one million Syrian refugees, 59 percent of whom live in Germany. There are also longstanding Arab Muslim communities. But this does not replace the atmosphere and joys of Ramadan and Eids spent in Syria. Families try to create a special atmosphere and connect with their heritage, but Ramadan and Eid rituals remain “cold,” said Haya Tourkou, a Syrian refugee from the western Reef Dimashq town of Qudsayya who has been living in Kristiansand, in southern Norway, since 2017.
An atmosphere confined to the home
Tourkou, 28, a married mother of two, works at a kindergarten in southern Norway, and lives her life amid Norwegian society. But every Ramadan, feelings of alienation come over her. Outside the home, “there are no manifestations of Ramadan, like those we were used to in our country,” she said. And while she has faced no harassment, “being in the workplace with friends who don’t know about your fast and what is special about this month for you as a Muslim makes you sense the lack of collective support,” she said.
She remembers the joy of Ramadan and Eid in Syria, and the “family tables.” In an attempt to make up for this atmosphere, “we go overboard decorating the house, hoping to compensate for the absence of family and create a Ramadan atmosphere,” she said. But everything she creates far from home “is not equal to the presence of family.”
Tourkou has started to prepare for Eid al-Fitr, which falls at the beginning of May this year, by “decorating the house and making Eid maamoul,” crumbly, date-filled cookies. She is also overseeing community initiatives for Eid, including “renting a hall with toys for the children, and preparing a menu of food and sweets to celebrate.” Tourkou leads the administration of her city’s mosque, alongside her husband and three others.
But for Mukheiber, the Ramadan atmosphere this year was limited to “some pictures and imsakiyat [schedules with prayer and fasting times] hanging in Arab and Turkish shops.” Other than that, “I haven’t felt any Ramadan atmosphere,” he said. Although he and his family have Arab neighbors in their building, it is “hard to get involved in community activities before you are more engaged in the host community.”
For Syrians, Ramadan and Eid are intertwined with certain foods and sweets, “such as naeem [crispy bread with date or grape molasses], maarouk [sweet bread stuffed with dates] and erk sous [a dark, bittersweet drink made from licorice root],” Tourkou said, which are hard to find in Europe, especially in Norway “since the number of Syrians is lower than in Germany and France.” She prepares some foods at home to evoke the Ramadan atmosphere, making use of “raw materials from Arab and Turkish shops.” But it is not like “the feeling of buying them from Damascus markets,” she said the enjoyment of food linked to the place.
In contrast to Tourkou and Mukheiber’s experiences, Ahmad Jalas, 30, a refugee living in Germany since 2017, has been fortunate in his home’s location near “Arab Street,” as Sonnenallee Street in Berlin’s southeastern Neukölln district is known. “It lessened the harshness of absence,” he said, comparing the street to “a piece of Damascus, where Syrian shops offer delicious Damascene foods and sweets.”
Jalas, who is originally from the city of al-Qusayr, southwest of Homs city, has tried to adapt to a life in exile. As Eid al-Fitr approaches, he has started planning “to organize youth activities, trips and visits for Syrian families on the days of Eid.”
Adapting to place
When Ramadan began, feelings of alienation flared up within Mukheiber, as if he had arrived in France only days before. Stretches of empty time and waiting, except for some routine procedures related to asylum documents, made it worse. “On such occasions, we feel more psychological pressure than at any other time,” he said.
Remembering the first Ramadan he spent in Germany, Jalas said it was “one of the hardest feelings,” as he was new to the place. “I had no friends, and wasn’t able to form relationships with people from the host country because of the language barrier,” he said.
Tourkou felt the same. “Our first Ramadan in Norway was very difficult, and our activities were limited to those inside the home,” she said. But as years went by, and as the language barrier was broken, “we got to know many Muslim families here” and participated in activities with them on such occasions.
This year’s Ramadan has been special for Tourkou “in terms of the community initiatives,” she said. “Most religious centers in Norway organized group iftars two or three times this month, which added a wonderful atmosphere.” In recent years, holding such iftars was impossible “due to the COVID-19 closures and iftar being late, as the Maghrib call to prayer was at ten o’clock at night,” she said.
Tourkou has gone from benefiting from Ramadan initiatives to helping organize them. This year, she helped “organize group iftar meetings for Syrian and Norwegian women.” The general climate in Norway has helped Tourkou adapt, especially during Ramadan and Eid. The Norwegian government readily funds Ramadan activities, she said. “Norwegian society treats Muslim community events with familiarity, and each year Norwegian television covers the activities of the first days of Eid al-Fitr.”
The television program Good Morning Norway hosts Muslim personalities “to prepare food on screen, and they showed a picture of me with my family in one of the program’s episodes,” she said.
In addition to that, “there is a mosque in every municipality in Norway, and each mosque has its own initiatives and celebrations,” Tourkou said. But the biggest Eid celebrations this year are in the capital Oslo, where an “Eid for All” celebration is to be held on May 2 in City Hall Square, with the Norwegian Prime Minister and Oslo’s Deputy Mayor scheduled to speak.
Mukheiber is still struggling to acclimate to his new life in France, but he is working to create an environment in which his five-year-old son Dani can feel the atmosphere of Ramadan and the joy of Eid. This year, Dani made “the house decorations himself.”
This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.