To introduce her classmates to the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Fatima Nelson passed a plate of chabbakia that she had made the night before.
The sticky Moroccan dessert of fried dough flavored with orange blossom water and coated with sesame seeds and honey won smiles Thursday from the men and women in the English as a Second Language class at Gloucester County College.
The Washington Township resident, who married an American and moved to the United States 2 1/2 years ago, spent hours making homemade bread, cheese, pastries and soup to share with the students who come from countries all over the world.
The iftar, or breaking the fast, is the meal shared by families after sundown during Ramadan, which many Muslims will start celebrating today. But Nelson wanted to treat her classmates to the joyous ritual.
"It's a new family," Nelson explained.
Ramadan offers Muslims an opportunity to teach others about their beliefs, both in school and through mosques, according to Afsheen Shamsi, communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations-New Jersey.
"We see that so much more," said Shamsi. "Just about every major mosque hosts an interfaith iftar."
The Islamic Center of South Jersey in Palmyra will host its interfaith iftar on Aug. 29, said Rafey Habib, an English professor at Rutgers-Camden and a member of the mosque.
"It's especially important nowadays because there is so much misunderstanding, I think, of Islam," said Habib, a Cherry Hill resident. "We need to promote a greater mutual understanding between different religions. We need to work together."
At local colleges, Muslim Student Associations and other student clubs often organize Ramadan events. Turkish students organized Burlington County College's first Ramadan dinner last year, said Cathy Briggs, associate dean of student activities and campus programs. About 100 students attended, roughly half of whom were not Muslim.
"That was a really powerful experience for the college to see happen," Briggs said.
Celebrations are one of the most popular ways to teach about other cultures, said Jaclyn Michael, outreach assistant for Harvard University's The Outreach Center, part of its Center for Middle Eastern Studies.
The center publishes a Ramadan curriculum kit, which is available upon request for public schoolteachers nationwide. About 25 kits were ordered last year. Since 9/11, she said, the center has seen understanding of Islam increase.
"It always gets better because people are realizing that Islam isn't just located in the Arab world," Michael said. "More Muslims live outside the Arab world than in any point of time."
CAIR-NJ is encouraging Muslim mothers to visit their children's classes to share their traditions and talk about what Ramadan means to them.
In another outreach effort, CAIR-NJ is working with Muslims Against Hunger to bring 3,000 meals in 30 days to people in need, Shamsi said. During Ramadan, observant Muslims make charitable donations and share with others. Fasting helps Muslims feel empathy for those who don't have anything to eat, she said.
"Even though we may be fasting, we want to be able to give back to society and feed people who haven't had a good meal in a while," said Shamsi. "That is the whole purpose of the month of Ramadan."
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