'I Created an Online Iftar Community to Help Muslims Connect During Ramadan'

My family and I moved to Minneapolis-Saint Paul, Minnesota earlier in 2020, and I had been looking forward to spending Ramadan in a different community, one where I'd observe the holy month with both my family and new faces.

Ramadan is the month in which able-bodied Muslims observe fasting from sunrise to sunset—abstaining from all food and beverages. I currently live with my immediate family, but I was looking forward to spending the month for the first time in a while with extended family here in Minneapolis.

When it was clear that it would be impossible to practice the usual traditions of attending nightly prayers at the mosque and breaking fast with others due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, I began to wonder in what ways I and other Muslims would shift our normal routines.

About a week out from the first day of fasting, I was chatting with my friend Shayna who had recently observed Easter from home. She was explaining how she had had a deeply spiritual experience, physically alone, like millions of other Christians in the country.

I had also watched Jewish friends post about Passover Seders using Zoom the previous Wednesday, so the idea of being able to still have some sense of normalcy didn't seem too far fetched when it came to finding a way to maintain community during Ramadan.

I am a computer programmer, so after that call I quickly put together a test site. I wanted to see how others would respond to a platform that would bring people together to have Iftar, the meal one has at sunset to break their fast.

Ramadan, Muslims, holy month, fasting, Iftar
Fadumo Osman, the 24-year-old programmer who created Remote Iftar to connect Muslims during Ramadan. NICK THIESEN

Participants would be invited to a video call and matched in correspondence to their time zones so they would roughly eat at the same time and have a casual conversation around the highs and lows of their day as well as share any advice. I tweeted the link to what is now Remote Iftar the next morning and it spread from there.

Initially, I built Remote Iftar from my personal experiences over the years where I had spent Ramadan away from my usual community whether it be due to work or school.

During these months it was fairly easy to find a local mosque or community Iftar where I could have a meal and make new friends. This sense of belonging and feeling a part of something bigger than oneself was and is a key part of one's experience. I quickly felt connected and grateful to be welcomed so effortlessly.

So in addition to the incredible virtual religious lectures and holy text readings that are being put on by community organizations and scholars, I wanted to hold space for those who also wanted to have the social aspect of breaking bread and having intimate conversations to the extent that we can.

Pretty quickly, the link spread to other platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp, and Remote Iftar has grown to nearly 500 signups in 12 time zones with website visits from 40 different countries!

Logistically, participants have a range of video platforms to choose from and I wanted to ensure that those attending these virtual video calls would be provided a safe environment. One platform that is being widely used is Zoom and with the rise of "Zoom-bombings" I put up safeguards so that no-one with ill intentions would have easy access to login information.

Ramadan, Muslims, holy month, fasting, Iftar
Fadumo Osman, who created Remote Iftar to connect Muslims during the holy month of Ramadan. This year Ramadan is being observed in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. FADUMO OSMAN

When signing up for a virtual Iftar, participants first fill out a form on the website, if they chose Zoom as their platform of choice, they are then sent an email with a ZmURL event page—an event hosting site with built-in privacy measures—as well as the contact information for their host for the evening.

Hosts are volunteers based in different time zones that then confirm attendees identities before the call information is shared. These hosts also have the ability to turn off that persons' camera and audio and then remove them from the call. So far, this method has thankfully kept all calls secure so there has been no need to remove anyone.

The feedback I've had from those who have joined the calls has been heartwarming and striking. Attendees have ranged from those who had recently converted to Islam and are spending their first Ramadan in isolation to those who usually spend this time with family and friends, but for one reason or another are alone. Yet conversations have flowed easily due to a collective experience.

Ramadan, Muslims, holy month, fasting, Iftar
Fadumo Osman (top centre) observes Iftar with friends and family using a programme she created, Remote Iftar. FADUMO OSMAN

Moving virtually has also allowed for conversations around accessibility to come to the forefront. Though many are experiencing their first isolated Ramadan, those who haven't had the chance to participate in these community gatherings for years have been able to point out what they've been enduring.

From parents raising young children to those who are differently-abled, the elderly, and Muslims who just haven't found their physical community yet, I have realized that normalizing digital spaces before the pandemic would've enabled many who have been left in the shadows to be included.

As we enter the last 10, most sacred, days of Ramadan, I hope that even when it becomes safe to start observing the month in-person, we don't go "back to normal" and instead learn from this unprecedented experience and shift our approach to how we view community gatherings.

Lastly, I'm so glad that an idea that came out of a casual catch up with a friend has turned into a community in which others could find a home during such a sacred time.

It's convinced me that we all have a lot more power over our situations than we realize, and I hope it inspires others to create their own unique ways of bringing people together safely.

Fadumo Osman, a programmer and founder of Remote Iftar.

The view's expressed in this article are the writer's own.