In the backseat of a sedan zooming on the freeway, Belkisa Arifi noticed the pleasant aroma of all the food stuffed in the trunk and the two foil trays in her lap. She didn’t know what was in all the trays but it smelled amazing.

The food was for iftar, the post-sunset meal that Muslims break their fast with during the month of Ramadan. The sun was on its way down and Arifi, along with three other Cal Poly students, were almost at the Cerro Vista Community Center, where the rest of the Muslim Student Association (MSA) was waiting to break their fast.

Five months ago, Arifi got into a study abroad program that took her from the university she attended in Munich, Germany all the way to Cal Poly. She didn’t know what to expect, but in the few months she has been in San Luis Obispo, Arifi has already found a sense of belonging thanks to the MSA at Cal Poly — enough to even help set up the club’s iftar events.

“I was thinking I will be on my own, like all alone, and I kind of prepared myself mentally for that,” said Arifi, a graphic communications major. “I (joined) the MSA and it’s like the complete opposite. I’m relieved — I have so many friends here.”

For the first time in three years, the MSA at Cal Poly brought together Muslim students on campus during the month of Ramadan for a slew of events and programming. Since 2020, the pandemic upended much of the community connection and activities that the holy Islamic month revolves around. 

In a bid to keep at least some level of community last year during Ramadan, the MSA hosted a daily Quran program and weekly meetings over Zoom. At most, 10 people would show up to the virtual programming, said MSA President Hamza Mohamed Ali.

This year, with Cal Poly returning to mostly in-person instruction, most students have been on campus. The MSA made a comeback with more members than even pre-pandemic years. Now, during Ramadan, daily events and programming have cemented deeper bonds within the club — with events having up to 50 people in attendance. 

“People came in fall quarter wanting to connect with people again,” said Mohamed Ali, a biology junior. “We tried our best to create a sense of community and I think we achieved that by bringing people together to have a nice meal and allow them to express their faith together.”

Mohamed Ali said the club has tried to foster a space for Muslim students to come together and enjoy community. That’s especially important for first-year students at Cal Poly who have never before observed Ramadan without their families, like Arifi. 

Arifi was used to doing all of Ramadan’s traditions with her family back home in Munich: from waking up for suhoor, the meal before sunrise, to breaking her fast at iftar and going to the mosque for the long nightly Taraweeh prayer. 

More than five thousand miles away from home, Arifi has found herself doing those very same things with Muslim community members and Cal Poly students in San Luis Obispo.

“I love to go to Taraweeh together because it gave me flashbacks from the Taraweehs in Munich and it made me sentimental in a way,” Arifi said. “Wherever I am, God is with me and the Muslim people that I met in the masjid felt like family. Like I had known them forever.”

Building community around iftar

In collaboration with local community members, the MSA also fundraised about $3,000 leading up to Ramadan to provide iftars at least five days a week, Mohamed Ali said. 

On Fridays and Saturdays during Ramadan, MSA members got invited to an iftar potluck with local Muslim community members at the Mitchell Park Senior Center. On other days, local restaurants including Shalimar in San Luis Obispo and Grape Leaf in Morro Bay catered food for the club. 

Students at an iftar hosted by the Muslim Student Association dig into Indian food from Shalimar at the Cerro Vista Community Center. Omar Rashad | Mustang News

Some local Muslim families have even invitied the entire MSA to their homes. At the tail end of the third week of Ramadan, Mohamed Ali’s family did just that: They prepared enough food for the entire club, which included beef biryani, tandoori chicken, Sri Lankan pineapple curry, yogurt raita, spring rolls and an assortment of fruit — all before some cake, ice cream and mango custard. 

Providing iftars to Muslim students is a big deal, especially when getting through the day can be difficult without a nutritious meal before and after fasting. When local families make home-cooked meals for the club’s members, it can feel like home away from home.

“I think it’s really important because it just makes it feel more like Ramadan when you’re eating a home-cooked meal,” said public health freshman Nura Sinan.

Sinan said she didn’t realize how important the MSA’s iftars were until she began attending them in Ramadan. 

Food served at Campus Dining and at on campus venues have little variety and Sinan said it’s incomparable to the big, healthy meals she has relied on MSA’s iftars.  

She said iftar is not just about having great food or meeting up somewhere. It’s more about being in each other’s company and bonding over the shared experience of fasting during the day and getting to do that in community. 

Sinan remembers being among the few Muslims at her high school in Monte Vista, California, so when she came to Cal Poly, she was excited by how big the MSA was on campus — especially since the university lacks diversity

“It just makes it even more important to show that there is a Muslim presence,” Sinan said. “Even though it’s not that big in comparison, that doesn’t mean that it’s not as important.”

From left, Malik Rahim meets Ali Shaikh for a warm embrace during one of the Muslim Student Association’s weekly meetings in the Engineering West Building. Omar Rashad | Mustang News

Like Sinan, computer science sophomore Ali Shaikh had never before spent his Ramadan away from family. Shaikh, who is also a first-year transfer student, made some of his first friends through the MSA. Ever since last September, he has been attending events, and during Ramadan he made good friends with people he had never met prior to the month. 

Shaikh is from San Francisco, a city much more diverse than Cal Poly and the surrounding San Luis Obispo community. But more than that, moving to Cal Poly meant he would not have the cultural environment he was used to, which supported him in practicing Islam. 

“Having that sense of celebration during Ramadan and the cultural aspect and the traditions you have with your family — like they no longer exist,” Shaikh said. “So I think the MSA stepped in big, to provide that sense of belonging and surround me with students who were celebrating Ramadan.”

One of his favorite moments this month was when the MSA held an iftar at Cuesta Canyon Park with food catered from local restaurant Petra. Everyone broke their fast with something light and then prayed Maghrib, the prayer after sunset, on the grass at the park. 

By the time everyone came back to eat food, little sunlight remained, enough for some folks to pull out their cell phone flashlights to see. 

That night, Shaikh was able to take a step back and appreciate his setting: It was pitch dark. He and his friends were at a park digging into Mediterranean food. He was having a good time during Ramadan. 

“You fast all day and you’re breaking fast with them — it’s just like a good feeling to have other people around you who are doing the same thing,” Shaikh said.

Religious growth during Ramadan 

Being surrounded by people practicing Islam can motivate Muslims to do more worship and become closer to their religion. 

Child development junior Soraya Jabaieh came down with a cold during the first week of Ramadan, so she missed a few community events early on in the month. She appeared at a community iftar when she got better and was greeted by her friends who told her all about what they had been up to the past few days. 

Muslim Student Association Vice President Sara Tubeileh wraps up one of the club’s weekly meetings in the Engineering West Building. Omar Rashad | Mustang News

They had gone to Friday prayer and stayed up at night reading Qur’an together. Hearing about what she missed gave her a sense of motivation after being sick and having a slow start to Ramadan. 

Jabaieh learned about traditions and expectations in Islam at an early age. Seeing her mother pray when she was a little kid encouraged her to do the same, because Jabaieh wanted to be like her mom when she grew up. 

Now, with being surrounded by other young Muslims she met through the MSA who are trying to build a closer connection with Allah, Jabaieh said she feels more inclined to do the same and has reflected on why she wants that for herself. 

“When you’re a kid, you’re being taught all these things that you have to do, but when you’re older and you gain that maturity, it becomes something that you want to do,” Jabaieh said. 

The last day of Ramadan is expected to be May 1, followed by Eid-ul-Fitr, one of two annual religious celebrations for Muslims. Meant to cap off a month of religious growth, the celebration is a time for community and joy. 

It’s a religious tradition to wear new clothes on Eid day, so Arifi, the student from Munich, bought two dresses for herself and bought gifts for some her friends. 

Arifi won’t be able to fly back home to Munich to enjoy her Eid with family. But she said she’ll be in good company in San Luis Obispo with the fellow Muslim students and community members she grew so close to.