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Tears streamed down Iman Asfour’s face as Imam Waleed Basyouni of Clear Lake Islamic Center prayed specifically for her people, Palestinians struggling in Gaza, during his final prayer Thursday evening.

“When he included Palestine, it just (broke) my heart, and I (got) more emotional because he's recognizing us,” she said. “Somebody’s recognizing us. Somebody's praying for us.”

why we reported this story

Ramadan is typically a time of introspection and prayer. This year, as the conflict in Israel rages on, Palestinians in Houston approach Ramadan with a different perspective.

  • Houston has more than 2,000 Palestinians, the largest in Texas, according to ZIP atlas.
  • As the conflict ensues miles away, we wanted to highlight how Houstonians are celebrating this sacred time.
  • Many still continue with tradition, but pray for those who are suffering or whom they lost overseas.

Asfour is one of many Houston Muslims who is observing Ramadan this year with a heavy heart as the sacred month of worship, which is typically a time of joy, spiritual renewal, prayer and fasting, has been marred by the ongoing conflict in Gaza that began on Oct. 7. Feeling helpless from miles away, she breaks fast in guilt while roughly 2.2 million Gaza residents suffer from hunger, and as the Palestinian death toll surpasses 31,000 people.

While celebrating Ramadan this year feels different and peculiar, she clutches onto her faith to sustain her through an ongoing period of uncertainty and peril.

“This is the month that we’re supposed to stay up and pray, and ask Allah, ask God for whatever you need,” Asfour said as the Quran was recited from her Samsung tablet Thursday evening and while she prepared maqluba, a traditional Palestinian chicken-and-rice dish.

“The month of Ramadan for us is (when) you get very close to God,” she said. “You feel different when you fast, obey God’s rules, and ask him for forgiveness, ask him for whatever you want.”

Iman Asfour heads to the Clear Lake Islamic Center for evening prayers on Thursday, March 14, 2024, in Clear Lake. (Annie Mulligan for Abdelraoufsinno)

‘More somber' Ramadan

Across the region, some imams and Muslim leaders say they have noticed an uptick in mosque attendance this Ramadan in the wake of the ongoing conflict in Gaza.

“People want to be nearer to God and talk to him more,” said William White, director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations Houston Chapter, a nonprofit that aims to enhance the understanding of Islam, protect civil rights, promote justice, and empower American Muslims.

During Ramadan, Muslims commemorate the revelation of the Quran, or the Muslim holy book, and abstain from food and drink during the sunlit hours to draw closer to God and exhibit self-control, gratitude, and compassion for those less fortunate. It takes place in the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, which this year is from March 11 through April 9.

“This Ramadan, for me personally, is very different from every moment prior. This feels more somber and much heavier,” White said.

“Trying to fast and breaking my fast knowing that people don’t have food to break their fast on, trying to go to the mosque to pray nightly prayers knowing that mosques have been destroyed in Gaza, and just spending time with family knowing that thousands of Palestinians are without theirs.”

On one occasion, Asfour learned that her family had to share two eggs among nearly 20 people, and have sporadically obtained one produce item at a time.

“They’re starving,” Asfour said. “It’s like an open jail.”

While White is not Palestinian, he has struggled to find solace both personally and professionally this Ramadan and doesn’t think he will be able to for a long time.

“Nothing has changed from October until now. What we're seeing is a constant from what we saw in October,” he said.

On Oct. 7, Hamas, the Palestinian militant group controlling the Gaza Strip, stunned the world by launching one of the deadliest attacks on Israel, killing roughly 1,200 people, mostly civilians and taking nearly 240 people hostage. The Israel Defense Forces retaliated and swiftly launched a military operation, bombarding Gaza with airstrikes.

After CAIR-Houston received threats, White said they noticed early on that they couldn’t advertise their events because it would put their community at risk. In the month following Oct. 7, he said, CAIR-Houston reported a 104 percent increase in anti-Muslim and Islamophobia in Houston, primarily in cases of workplace harassment, school bullying and harassment and curriculum misinformation.

Other cases directly reported to the organization include law enforcement harassment and general public harassment, such as graffiti or people yelling “go back to your country,” White said. The report, which will be published in April, was based on intake from the community collected either via phone or online submission.

“This is the largest increase in Islamophobia that we've seen,” he said, “And I point out that our data shows that there's much more out there that just wasn’t reported to us.”

Keeping tradition amid turmoil

Asfour has tried to stick to tradition as much as possible. She regularly attends services at the mosque to pray, hangs Ramadan-themed decorations throughout her southeast Houston home and prepares traditional Palestinian dishes.

On a recent Thursday evening, the aroma of chopped garlic, cilantro, fresh herbs and seasonings consumes her home as the sun begins to set, and she prepares to break fast with her family and friends. Minutes before 7:30 p.m., the Adhan, or the Muslim call to prayer, sounds from her entryway console table and Asfour gets in position to pray. She brings out her Quran, lays a mat in front of her bedecked fireplace, and begins lifting her hands and bowing down on her knees repeatedly in reverence to God.

Then, it’s time to break their fast, first with dates, then lentil soup, a traditional Palestinian salad, maqluba, and finished off with atayef, which is a sweet Arab dumpling dessert, or a folded pancake, that is filled with cream cheese or nuts, and soaked in a rose sugary syrup.

Once she finishes her evening meal, she rushes to beat the crowd at the Clear Lake Islamic Center for the 9:15 evening prayer.

“This is the month that we always get together, help each other, support each other,” Asfour said. “Sometimes we don't see people around here very much. But at Ramadan we see them every day for 30 days.”

Maintaining some form of tradition and fellowship with her faith community at the Clear Lake Islamic Center is therapeutic for Asfour. It allows her to keep her mind off the tragedy that befell her on Feb. 7, when an Israeli air strike erupted next door of her family’s home in Rafah, later killing one of her brothers and injuring six of her family members.

“I was shocked and not shocked because of everything that’s happening and going on over there,” she said.

But some traditions have unintentionally slipped through the cracks as she processes her pain and grief.

Iman Asfour prays for Palestine at the Clear Lake Islamic Center on Thursday, March 14, 2024, in Clear Lake. (Annie Mulligan for Abdelraoufsinno)

Normally each year for Ramadan, Asfour would assemble Ramadan baskets with foods like rice, pasta, and canned goods for local charities or those in need in her community. But this year, her brain has been in a fog, she said, and all she can think about is her family, and prioritizing their needs.

“She takes it day by day,” said Dalal Rammadan, Asfour’s 19-year-old daughter.

Every day that the conflict drags on is another day that Asfour lives in angst, afraid of missing their phone calls or receiving more bad news. Every time she picks up the phone, her heart breaks.

One Saturday night, her five-year-old nephew called and begged her to rescue him.

“Please auntie, come and take me out. I am scared. Take me to live with you, please,” he said to her via video chat.

If she could she would, but it’s not that simple.

Asfour said she tries to save as much money as she can to help them, but as a single mother of four children who also works two jobs as an in-home physical therapist and a social worker at the Clear Lake Islamic Center, she often feels overwhelmed.

“The worst part is, I feel like I cannot give more than a prayer,” Asfour said. “That's why I’m going to pray more because when you submit your needs and your suffering to God, he will take care of it. Because I cannot do it. I cannot do much.”

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Monique Welch covers diverse communities for the Abdelraoufsinno. She was previously an engagement reporter for the Houston Chronicle, where she reported on trending news within the greater Houston region...