Religious Diversity in the Safe House: Ramadan

This Wednesday marks the beginning of Ramadan, the Islamic month of repentance, the most holy month in Muslim tradition. As many of Heshima Kenya’s participants observe Ramadan, we have been spending a lot of time preparing for how things will change with our schedules and programming. Through these discussions I have learned how difficult – and yet how important – it is to create a place of peace, safety, and respect for religious diversity, especially in Heshima Kenya’s Safe House. The girls who live in the Safe House come from a wide range of backgrounds. They are not only from different countries (such as Somalia, Ethiopia, DR Congo, and Rwanda) but from different religions, tribes, and families. On the other hand, they are all refugees and have very similar histories of violence and trauma. One always hopes that these girls can set aside their differences in recognition of their common pasts and current situations, yet in the face of practical concerns this is unfortunately not always the case.

For example, during the month of Ramadan, the girls who are observing must fast for a straight 13 hours throughout the day. They are able to eat but only after sundown and before dawn. Traditionally, the meal they eat after sundown is a feast of samosas, dates, juice, and rice. For all of the girls who live in the Safe House and mostly eat rice and beans, this is seen as a really special treat. So is it fair to only give these foods to the girls who observe Ramadan?

On the other hand, in a house where the girls are responsible for their own cooking, is it fair to the Muslim girls to have to cook samosas (since they are the only ones who know how to make them) for everyone, when they are the ones who have been fasting all day?

It may seem like a small and trivial matter, but this is a real issue that has been disputed and discussed over and over again by both the girls and the entire staff. If our goal is to create a place of peace, we can’t give something to one girl that we don’t provide for the entire group. We also can’t make divisions along religious lines. Therefore, we have to explain to the girls that while their religious observance and cultural customs are honored and valued, we also have to honor and value the community that we are trying to build at Heshima Kenya. It’s a fine balance that we are constantly trying to maintain.

Fatuma, the GEP coordinator at Heshima Kenya, explained to me that Ramadan is the time when you focus on being the best possible version of yourself. I hope that during Ramadan, despite our religious or cultural differences, we can all work towards being the best possible version of ourselves, to treat each other with respect and dignity.  True Heshima.