Originally published by the Detroit Free Press.
It’s nearing sunset and dozens of freshmen are gathering in Dearborn High School’s cafeteria.
It is a school night and most of the teens probably have looming geometry tests or essays due or chapters of “Animal Farm” to read, but they’re dedicating a couple of hours to break their fast together — because when it’s your first meal since sunrise, everything — including homework — can wait.
The iftar, which is the sunset meal that marks the end of the day’s fast, is the high school’s first and one of a few dinners hosted for students across the Dearborn Public Schools District during Ramadan. The month is a time of reflection and community engagement, during which Muslims abstain from food and drink from sunrise to sunset.
“We just felt like it was so important for these kids to get together,” said Janice Fawaz, a counselor at the high school and the freshman class sponsor who helped the students organize Thursday’s night iftar. “Honestly, just being here day to day and seeing how these kids are fasting all day, then going to sports and then taking a test, I’m impressed. They’re young and it’s embedded in them, and they’re so disciplined and I just find it amazing. I feel blessed to be in this community.”
Ramadan in Dearborn is a sight to behold. Homes are glowing with decorations, businesses display “Ramadan Mubarak” signs, and thousands — including from out of state — flock to the Ramadan Suhoor Festival every weekend. It can’t be missed that a significant portion of the city’s population is celebrating the privilege of witnessing another Ramadan.
But for these freshmen in DHS’ cafeteria, breaking their fast is also an excuse to hang out with their friends after hours.
The iftar has been in the works for months, Fawaz said. She was first approached by two students who were struck with the idea in February, and they have been preparing ever since.
“I was just thinking about the community and all of our values,” said Mohamad Sobh, 15, of Dearborn, who approached Fawaz with the iftar idea. “I was like, I think we all deserve a good meal and a good night. I wanted to be special, especially for us freshmen.”
As Ramadan is typically a family affair, it’s rare for teens to get a night alone with their friends. The month usually amounts to a series of elaborate iftars with families cycling through their turn to host each other. Leaving teens — particularly those without driver’s licenses — subject to their parents’ roster of dinners.
The cafeteria iftar, Sobh said, provided an environment that’s wholesome enough for parent approval and still genuinely enjoyable. The meal was also free for students, thanks to donations from some of the city’s mainstay restaurants, including Al-Ameer, Byblos, Famous Hamburger and Shatila Bakery.
“Every day, at like 3 p.m., you come home and you’re tired, you just went through six hours of school and you’re thirsty, you’re hungry,” said Anmar Aldunainawi, 14, of Dearborn Heights, Mohamad’s right-hand man who handled the business operations of the dinner. “But this moment right now where everyone is just united together is what we were trying to do.”
The two teens are wise beyond their years, both shook my hand firmly and contemplated my questions thoroughly before answering with great consideration. Their parents, who volunteered to staff the iftar, beamed with pride as they watched their sons race around the cafeteria to make sure every detail was according to plan.
“I’m just so proud of him,” said Reem Sobh, Mohamad’s mother. “I always encourage him anytime he wants to do something and let him know that he can do anything if he puts his mind to it.”
When sunset strikes, there’s magic in that synchronized first sip of water. Without missing a beat, the teens are up and filling their plates from the food spread — an arrangement of shawarma, subs, sliders and lots of pizza.
Anmar and Mohamad take turns insisting that I help myself to a plate, refusing to accept my polite decline, and attempting to entice me with cookies and fries. Even Fawaz chases me down and says she’ll be mad if I don’t make a plate. But I again say no, partly due to professional ethics and mostly because I have food waiting at home.
This relentless hospitality may come off as aggressive to some, but when you recognize that it comes from a place of love and care, it’s heartwarming. And when you live in Dearborn, where this overwhelming hospitality is inescapable, you learn to love it.