For grade 11 student Zainab Khan, the sight of Ramadan displays and decorations for the first time at her Surrey high school, British Columbia, made her feel included.
“I was really overwhelmed with happiness,” she told CBC. “It just felt really nice to be part of the school in some way, you know?”
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The experience of Khan at school is however different from that of Afrin Begum a few years ago.
As Begum recalls, the now second-year student at the University of Northern BC said many people often judged her and assumed she was forced to participate in fasting when she was in high school.
“I felt like I was on my own, in a way, because I’m doing it on my own,” she said.
“In my age group there weren’t a lot of Muslims that I grew up with. There was a lack of education from people who are not Muslim, not understanding why I’m doing it and for that reason … it was a struggle.”
But things are changing according to Beth Applewhite, district principal of diversity and inclusion in Burnaby, BC, as elementary and high schools are actively celebrating Ramadan more than ever.
“We’re seeing students driving campaigns and awareness and celebratory posters, announcements. We’re seeing librarians doing displays,” she said.
“It makes the students feel safer, it makes them feel more welcome, it makes them feel they can be their true authentic selves at school,” Applewhite added.
One of the people behind Surrey high school’s Ramadan display was Annie Ohana, Indigenous department head at Khan’s school.
The idea came after some Muslim students asked if they could have a prayer room set up for Ramadan.
“The idea was, we can empower youth through their own identities,” she said.
Now, the display is put at the center of the school to get people think and talk about Ramadan.
“We really need to make sure that we connect with our students, whoever they may be, whatever they represent, and to really ask them, ‘How would you feel seen?’”
“We have a calendar, we have the prayer time, we even have suggestions … written by a Muslim colleague in terms of what we can do during Ramadan as teachers to make our place more inclusive for that celebration,” Ohana said.
Begum encourages teachers and school staff to reach out to their local Muslim community to learn more about both Ramadan and Islam as a whole.
“This should be implemented into the education system — not just our religion, all religions,” she said.
“Students, they learn a lot in elementary and high school, and they leave with that knowledge.”
For students participating in fasting during the holy month, this circumstance may make fasting especially daunting as they go through their school day.