By Laraib Asim
In the teaching kitchen of Kent Hall, about 20 students gathered together April 2 at about 7 p.m. to break their first fast of Ramadan, which is a holy month of fasting followed according to the lunar calendar by Muslims. The preparations for this arrangement allows students to get together to celebrate this month and cook meals.
Muslims fast, which means abstain from food and drinks, from dawn until sunset every day during this month. The purpose of this practice is to learn patience, develop empathy for those suffering without the necessities in life, such as food, that is often taken for granted and develop a closer, personal relationship with God.
In the beginning of April, all the Chief of Diversity Officers throughout the SUNY schools received an email that reminded the officers Ramadan was starting as well as explaining what Ramadan is and how important it is that those fasting during Ramadan be well supported. A few days before Ramadan began, the Office of the Provost sent out an email to all faculty members at SUNY Plattsburgh stating that Muslim student’s requests for flexibility during this religious event be respected.
A meeting was arranged on Zoom March 25 to discuss the preparations for Ramadan during this semester. The conclusion of the meeting led to the first ever Muslim initiative on campus where students gather together in spirit of the Holy month and celebrate Ramadan.
The meeting was arranged by Jacqueline Vogl, the associate vice president of the Global Education Office. Catherine Kelcher, who represented the College Auxiliary Services, Chris Mihalyi, who represented Chartwells, Dr. Richard C. Miller, the interim vice president for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, and three students, Sohayla Erroui, Ebtisam Mohammad, Nadish Wostey and Taiba Azeem, attended the meeting.
Vogl, who had emailed students in the beginning of February, asked if they identified as Muslim and would like to engage in a discussion about their beliefs.
“I was trying to figure out what we, as an institution, that had affiliated officers could do to support the observance of Ramadan [for Muslim students and faculty],” Vogl said.
Erroui and Mohammad, reached out to Vogl prior to the meeting and informed her that they wanted Muslim students to gather together and cook Iftar, the meal taken to break a fast at sunset. The meeting allowed Vogl to facilitate connections for the students to figure out an arrangement for the month of Ramadan. Jim Sherman, the assistant director of Campus Housing and Community Living, offered access to Kent Hall’s first floor kitchen and Moffitt Hall, where the interfaith prayer room is located.
Before Ramadan began, Vogl and her husband personally took three students to Burlington, Vermont to purchase halal meat and spices and other herbs that were inaccessible at Plattsburgh. Halal meat, which means permissible, is consumed by Muslims all year around. It is any meat, except for pork, that has been handled according to the Islamic law.
Ever since the Burlington trip, Clinton Dining Hall readily provides students with any raw ingredients that the students request for every Monday, and for additional meal swipes, they offer any ingredients required in the middle of the week. Any additional assistance is offered by the Community Director of Kent Hall: Zeeshan, a Master’s student and a Graduate Assistant of Campus Housing and Community Living. As this month-long event is not sponsored by any particular student club, the Global Education Office has stepped in to finance this endeavor by themselves and through the Plattsburgh College Foundation fund.
After setting strict health and cleanliness standards, the students were given permission to cook iftar meals catering toward Muslim students, who are willing to indulge in the communal spirit of the holy month, and non-Muslim students, who are interested in experiencing a unique religious experience.
Both Vogl and Michelle St. Onge, the assistant director of GEO, were invited by the students for iftar and were warmly welcomed by all the students.
“I hadn’t really considered what it must be like for a large group of people to be depriving themselves of food and water for an entire day until I was in a room full of people who had done that,” St. Onge said. “When you walk through your day, you don’t really think about what everyone else is going through.”
She was in awe of the personal challenge that Muslims undergo every day throughout the month, that may not be visible to the other person but present nonetheless. She enjoyed meaningful conversations with various students to understand the purpose of fasting, the motivation that drives Muslims and learning the Islamic culture.
“It was just really beautiful to me to see so many people of your generation be so embracing of humbling themselves and practicing a faith,” St. Onge said. “Faith practices weaken from generation to generation [here in the United States].”
She found it rewarding to view people from the younger generation stay strong to their faith. Later that week, she joined students at another iftar with her husband and learned how Muslims pray to experience the Islamic culture herself.
Sohayla Erroui, a Moroccan exchange student at SUNY Plattsburgh, is an active Muslim who had reached out to Vogl since planning for Ramadan began. Her contributions and efforts alongside that of Ebtisam Mohammad, a Ethiopian Muslim in her senior year, was recognized and praised by Vogl.
Erroui and Mohammad have been organizing the day to day efforts of gathering students who know how to cook and work alongside them to ensure that iftar has been prepared almost every day. Erroui in particular, dedicates her time to cook almost every day.
Sabit Muderis Abdulahi, a Muslim business major who was actively involved in the preparation of iftar from the beginning, went with Erroui and Mohammed to Burlington with Vogl to purchase ingredients. They were determined to find a way to form the communal spirit of Ramadan at SUNY Plattsburgh to welcome all international students or domestic, Muslims or non-Muslims.
“Ramadan is a month where family and friends come together to celebrate their faith in God,” Mohammad said. “It is a month of giving and kindness and is the month when the Holy Quran was sent to [Muslims].”
Mohammad is especially grateful for the GEO’s effort and commitment to listen to their voices and to help them find connections which helped bring their plan to reality.
GEO has approached this matter at hand with the perspective of setting up an initiative that can be reinstated every Ramadan from here on. That is why the Muslim Student Association is currently being revived with the efforts of the Muslim students to help organize and arrange future Muslim festivals. This is the implementation of a “process management” strategy that Vogl talked about where the GEO documents any project to ensure that a groundwork has been set for the project to be continued in the future years.