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Story Publication logo July 3, 2016

Many Muslim Refugees Spend Ramadan Inside Migrant Camps


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The Syrian refugee crisis is changing both refugee communities and their host countries.

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A boy stands near area used for prayer during Ramadan at Ellinkó refugee camp. Image by Jeanne Carstensen. Greece, 2016.


We're now halfway through the month of Ramadan when observant Muslims fast from dawn to sunset. At this time last year, I spoke with a young man named Abdel Hamid. He was traveling from Syria to Europe. When I met him, he was sitting in a park in Belgrade, Serbia.


ABDEL HAMID: Every year with our family in Ramadan.

SHAPIRO: But not this year.

HAMID: But now I am here.

SHAPIRO: That must be very difficult.

HAMID: It's very difficult.

SHAPIRO: This Ramadan once again hundreds of thousands of people from Syria and other Middle Eastern countries are observing the holiday in refugee camps.

Journalist Jeanne Carstensen is in Athens. She's been talking with refugees about the challenges of marking Ramadan in the middle of migration crisis. Welcome to the program.


SHAPIRO: What's the biggest complaint or challenge that you hear from refugees you talk with?

CARSTENSEN: The heat is the first thing people talk about. It's very, very warm here, and the camps are very crude. And that's rough for a long fast. As you know, it's about a 19-hour fast, so it's the heat, number one, and the lack of dates, number two.

SHAPIRO: Dates? Tell me about that.

CARSTENSEN: Well, dates are a very popular Ramadan food. And when I asked people what they miss - doesn't matter if they're from Afghanistan or Syria - they miss dates. I think dates are sweet. They're nutritious, and people like to break the fast with that kind of a food.

SHAPIRO: You know, I understand that there are scenarios in which people are not obligated to fast, and one of those is when people are traveling. And so do you find people choosing not to fast this year because as migrants they're in the middle of a long journey?

CARSTENSEN: Yeah. It's just too much for some people, and also you have to remember there are parents with children. And so it's very difficult to take care of your kids in a camp and also be able to fast yourself. Now, many people do do that, but there are some that are opting not to. I spoke to a man at Horais (ph) camp here who told me he really wanted to fast, but he just wasn't well enough to do so.

SHAPIRO: The Iftar feasts after sunset are a big part of Ramadan celebrations in Muslim countries. Do you find that happening in the refugee camps?

CARSTENSEN: Yes. They're doing the best they can, but I think mostly people just get their meal. And the meal is offered at the right time, at sundown. But it's not really - the food is not different for the most part from what they usually get.

But people who have a little bit of money, they might buy some special food or they might lay out the food in a special manner. But from what I've observed for the most part, people are quietly eating and observing Iftar, but it's not a big festive occasion for most people.

SHAPIRO: What do you hear from the people who run the camps during this month?

CARSTENSEN: Well, they're doing their best. It's quite difficult to get out this food to people in the best circumstances. You know, the weather is getting hotter. And even if it weren't Ramadan, that would be a big challenge. So I think in the camps, Ramadan isn't exactly the major concern. The concern is just making sure people are well and that they're getting enough to eat. And that's even harder to do during Ramadan when people are fasting all day.

SHAPIRO: Is there a unique challenge if you have relief workers working something like a 9 to 5 schedule and people fasting during Ramadan who might prefer to sleep during the day and function at night?

CARSTENSEN: Yeah. I think sometimes that that is a factor. Today I saw some Doctors Without Borders. They're going to be doing a vaccination program starting next week. And some people weren't available to talk simply because they were shut away in their tents sleeping.

SHAPIRO: Jeanne Carstensen is a reporter covering the refugee crisis in Greece with support from the Pulitzer Center. Thank you.

CARSTENSEN: Thank you.



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