Talha Rafique picks up her take-out box of suhoor from a dining hall on the University of Southern California campus. “My friends and I are looking forward to Ramadan,” he says.

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This Ramadan is Talha Rafique’s first away from home. He says one of the things he misses the most is his mother’s food for suhoor, the sunrise meal that begins each day’s fast.

“I was pretty much going to eat eggs every morning,” the University of Southern California sophomore says. Then USC announced a new Ramadan initiative: Students can now pick up boxes to take away from a canteen for the morning meal.

“It’s super useful, especially for students on a meal plan, because we’re already paying anyway,” says Rafique.

As Muslim students across the country have started fasting for Ramadan, colleges have stepped up efforts to make them feel more included. USC, Loyola University of Chicago, Utah State University, Northeastern University and Emerson College are among the schools that launched new initiatives this year.

Shafiqa Ahmadi of USC’s Center for Education, Identity, and Social Justice studies students’ sense of belonging on college campuses and teaches workshops on how colleges can be more inclusive.

“We have administrators, faculty, and staff who are listening now, she says. “Obviously there is a push for DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion] and belonging and importance.”

This year also marks the first time in over a decade that Ramadan fell squarely within the traditional school year, and that the school year was not disrupted by the pandemic.

Schools take it upon themselves to make Ramadan changes

In previous years, USC students could bring extra food from their evening meal home for sahur.

This year, with increased demand, the university began offering take-out boxes for the south, containing a breakfast entree, fruit, yogurt and juice, instead of dinner the night before.

“Honestly, there’s never really been a debate about whether or not we should offer something,” says Lindsey Pine, registered dietitian for USC Dining Halls. “We just knew it was something that had to be done.”

“I think if you see it like it’s going to be really hard not to eat or drink all day, then it will be,” Rafique says of the Ramadan fast. “But if you see this as an opportunity to practice control and self-discipline, then you’ll be fine.” This Ramada, he enjoyed USC’s suhoor to-go boxes filled with a breakfast dish, fruit, yogurt and juice.

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She says USC plans to continue offering annual Ramadan accommodations as long as dining halls are open and Muslim students are on the school meal plan.

Northeast University also offers Ramadan breakfast baskets, as well as a shuttle service to a nearby mosque for evening prayers and iftar, or fast-breaking meals, twice a week. . And Utah State University is offering free hot, halal lunches twice a week, in addition to the take-out boxes they’ve offered in previous years. At Emerson College, a dining hall has a halal station offering food for iftar as well as take-out bags for suhoor. This year also marks the first time the school has had a Muslim chaplain on staff.

Omer Mozaffar, the Muslim chaplain at Loyola University Chicago, a Jesuit Catholic school, has worked with the university to organize meals for students in residence halls and to host iftars, some of which are reportedly sponsored by the school.

“We actually started doing prep two years ago,” says Mozaffar. “Then COVID hit.”

This year marks the first time Loyola students have fasted on campus since the pandemic began. Boxes of dates, usually eaten to break the fast, are stacked in Mozaffar’s office. He says it is a gift from the university to be distributed to Muslim students.

Omer Mozaffar, a Muslim chaplain at Loyola University Chicago, holds boxes of dates in his office.  Dates are usually eaten to break the fast during Ramadan.

Omer Mozaffar, a Muslim chaplain at Loyola University Chicago, holds boxes of dates in his office. Dates are usually eaten to break the fast during Ramadan.

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“The university has always been very open and welcoming on issues related to Islam,” he explains. “The dean of students is ready to send a note to the faculty to let them know that fasting will take place and Eid prayers [marking the end of Ramadan] will take place later.”

HBCUs have been doing it for years

Muslim inclusion efforts aren’t completely new on American college campuses — especially not at HBCUs.

“Many Muslim students who attend historically black colleges and universities tend to feel better supported and more engaged than their counterparts at predominantly white institutions,” says Darnell Cole of the Center for Education, Identity and Justice. USC Social.

Cole studies race and its impact on student experiences, including the experiences of Muslim students at HBCUs — students who Cole says aren’t always black.

Sanaa Haamen heads the Muslim Student Association at Howard University, which has been offering meals in the dining hall for suhoor and iftar since 2017. She has observed a trend among Palestinian and Bengali students who transferred to Howard from predominantly white institutions: They told him they felt more included at Howard.

“They came to Howard, and they were like, ‘Oh, everyone is so welcoming. They want to be your friends, they want to network, they just want to hang out and do stuff,'” she said.

At other schools, students lead the charge

For years, Muslim student associations have been working for better inclusion on campus.

“The MSAs are designed to support Muslim students in their practice on college campuses. And Ramadan is, I think, a central part of that,” says Bushra Bangee of the Western Muslim Student Association, which oversees the MSA on the west coast.

More recently, these efforts have extended to Greek life. Zara Khan is a chapter vice president of Muslim sorority Mu Delta Alpha at the University of Texas at Austin.

Her sorority has hosted spirituality nights during Ramadan, a practice they began virtually in 2021 to help foster a community spirit around the holy month.

Rafique usually eats sahoor, the sunrise meal that begins each day's fast, around 4:50 a.m.

Rafique usually eats sahoor, the sunrise meal that begins each day’s fast, around 4:50 a.m. “We literally eat when it’s dark. We have to stop when we see the first light coming up,” he says.

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“We would get together and discuss a relevant topic related to Ramadan, something about fasting or charity work or the essentials of things that you are supposed to improve in Ramadan,” she explains.

Khan’s sorority is also partnering with the nation’s premier Muslim fraternity, Alpha Lambda Mu, to host an iftar at the UT Austin student-run mosque.

Why colleges are starting to do it now

Bangee attributes the surge in campus inclusion efforts to events over the past two years, including the response to the murder of George Floyd and the national conversation on racial justice.

“As far as administration supporting students, you know, with the past year around BLM, I think that’s really opened the door for conversations around DEI in general,” she says.

Sociologist Eman Abdelhadi studies the Muslim-American experience at the University of Chicago. She attributes the rise in Muslim inclusion efforts to multiple factors, including Muslim rights organizations that formed after 9/11 and what she calls the “Trump effect.”

“He made targeting Muslims such a huge part of his campaign,” she explains. “And that has, in some ways, elevated their standing within a liberal coalition of anti-Trumpers.”

Omer Mozaffar speaks to students at the Loyola University Chicago Campus Mosque.

Omer Mozaffar speaks to students at the Loyola University Chicago Campus Mosque.

Olivia Obineme for NPR

USC’s Shafiqa Ahmadi credits Muslim women who wear headscarves with championing change on college campuses.

“It’s a symbol that automatically identifies them as Muslims, and they often face prejudice and hatred,” she explains.

Ahmadi says these women took over to push to belong on college campuses, and it made a difference.

Something different for every suhoor

Back at USC, Talha Rafique has been through several suhoor boxes since the start of Ramadan. The take-out box menu includes frittatas, bagels and cream cheese, as well as French toast.

“I get a bit of diversity with what I eat,” he says.

It’s not quite the same as his mother’s home cooking, but it’s better than the daily eggs he had planned.

Yousra Farzan is a multimedia journalist, whose work has appeared in Teen Vogue, KCET and Gulf News. She is also a graduate student at the University of Southern California, where she is an editor at Annenberg Media and a culture editor at Ampersand LA.

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