During the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which we're in the middle of right now, it's traditional to break the fast in mosques and homes. In fact, you're supposed to be in congregation with others.
"It's almost like the Christmas for Muslims," jokes Omar Salha. "When you have on Christmas day everyone gathered with family members—it just doesn't seem right that during Ramadan you're breaking fast alone."
When Salha was a graduate student in his native London, he felt especially bad for his classmates who were far from home, and left on their own during Ramadan. So with a handful of donated cookies and chips (or "biscuits" and "crisps" if you're feeling British), Salha started what he called Open Iftar. Students from many different countries sat down in a park, and broke bread together.
While the event was initially started for students, many far from their homes in Muslim-majority countries, it quickly expanded — incorporating people of different faiths, or no faith at all, or those who just happened to be passing by. Since that first event in 2011, Salha has worked with groups launching Open Iftars around the world, hosting tens of thousands of people—from Turkey to Canada, the U.K. to Zambia. He has also extended it to a larger organization, the Ramadan Tent Project, which does charitable events throughout the year.
Although the Open Iftar format varies — every night versus a few days, a set location or a roaming one — the participating cities all follow the same basic template. The event is held outdoors (weather permitting), and is open to all. Often there are guest speakers and evening prayers, and then everyone —Muslim and non-Muslim alike —breaks bread together.
The first Open Iftar in the United States was held last year in Portland, Oregon. And this year, the event was especially charged, coming less than 24 hours after two people were killed standing up to anti-Muslim violence. Over 600 people turned out for the Open Iftar at a local community center, sitting on folding chairs and on the ground, indoors and out. Many had never really sat down with their Muslim neighbors before, but felt compelled to show up and show support.
"I didn't know should I dress differently, should I take my shoes off when I walk in the door—you know, all those things that go through your mind when you've never been to a mosque before," admitted Laurie King, who drove a half hour to attend the event. "I just found that you come as you are, and you're welcome."
And the welcome was a warm one. Although the Open Iftar volunteers had been fasting for nearly 18 hours, they were all concerned with making sure their guests had enough to eat, dishing out donated trays of curried chicken and cinnamon-spiked rice (and a stack of pizzas for the kids), and donated squares of home-made baklava. Over the meal, Muslims and non-Muslims moved beyond political rhetoric and religious divides, and got to know each other. Which Open Iftar founder Omar Salha says is the true point of Ramadan.
"These are interesting habits which are conducted over the course of the month which allow us to come closer to our community," said Salha. "And becoming closer to our community means we are becoming closer to God as well."
The month of Ramadan lasts another two weeks. But Salha hopes this closeness and sense of community — not just among Muslims, but among all neighbors — will last much longer.