The 30-day fast from sunrise and sunset of Ramadan is coming to an end for Muslims in Orange County, which means Eid al-Fitr celebrations are just beginning.
Eid al-Fitr, which translates to the “festival of the breaking of the fast,” commemorates the end of the holy month of Ramadan and spans over three days.
Usually it is celebrated with acts of charity, getting dressed up to pray at the mosque in the morning, gatherings and, of course, a big meal. Some in the community equate Eid to Christmas.
“Eid is very important to mark the end of Ramadan and we’re excited to have the Eid celebration. Almost every year we do that but last year we could not do it, because of the pandemic,” said Sean-Habib Tu, president of the Islamic Center of Santa Ana.
Tu is Vietnamese and part of Orange County’s Muslim Cham community who orignate from the ancient kingdom of Champa located in South Central Vietnam. Cham people later migrated to Thailand, Laos, Malaysia and largely to Cambodia.
Many of the Cham people in Cambodia migrated again to escape persecution from Khmer Rouge communists. Tu himself fled Vietnam with his father for political reasons to escape persecution from the communists after the fall of Saigon.
“We migrated to Santa Ana in the ‘80s and we’ve been here since then. In the beginning, we worshiped in a very small apartment complex, but then we moved to this new location in 2016,” Tu said about the community. “We were able to accommodate more parkings and more worshippers.”
The parents of Amina Sen-Matthews, the health programs director at The Cambodian Family community clinic, were part of that first migration to Santa Ana in the 1980s. She is a part of a volunteer women’s group at the mosque.
For Sen-Matthews, the best part of Eid is the gathering.
“Pre-COVID it was here. The place would be decorated,” she said. “We would have the prayers here at the mosque as well and this whole place will be just filled up with people and kids running around.”
Last year, her community celebrated Eid at home because of the pandemic. This year during Ramadan, the mosque had socially distanced prayers with masks, and the women’s group organized daily dinners for people to break their fast.
Sen-Matthews said Eid and Ramadan should be taught in schools and is being incorporated in mainstream America.
“We’re starting to see a positive influence of Islam starting to kind of revive, which is wonderful because we need our children to see that they shouldn’t be celebrating Eid and Ramadan in silence or just at home,” she said.
While Islam is entering mainstream culture, the Cham community isn’t always highlighted.
“We pose a unique, unique position and unique culture among the Muslims in Orange County,” Tu said. “Having stories about Southeast Asian Muslims is very important because sometimes I feel like we’re marginalized.”
Tu said that the culture of Muslims from Southeast Asian communities differs from Muslims in the Middle East, India or Pakistan, but the religious aspects are universal.
“What we’re talking about is the difference in culture – the way we dress, the way we eat food, the way we present ourselves. So these are the subtle differences between the Muslims from the Middle East and the Muslims from Southeast Asia,” he said.
One of the universal aspects for Muslims across the world is the Eid prayer.
Usually Eid prayers at the Santa Ana mosque bring in 150 people and the crowd spills into the streets. This year prayers will be socially distanced, Tu said.
On May 13, the center will hold a prayer at 8 a.m., and on Sunday the mosque will have a small potluck gathering and hand out toys to kids.
The mosque is part of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California – an umbrella organization of mosques and Muslim organization that operate in the region.
Azeem Syed, chair of the council, said the council oversees between 20-30 mosques in the county and that there are about 100,000-200,000 Muslims in the area.
Last year, Eid al-Fitr prayers were virtual for the most part, but Syed said this year a number of mosques in the county will be having multiple group prayers in light of the pandemic, like the Islamic Society of Orange County in Garden Grove.
“With the pandemic last year, we could not hold Eid prayer with the lockdown situation. We had the sermon relayed online and asked people to listen to the sermon and pray at home with their family,” said Muzammil Siddiqi, director of the Islamic Society of Orange County.
The mosque will be hosting two limited sessions of Eid prayer Thursday, the first at 7:30 a.m. and the second at 9:30 a.m. Attendees must bring masks and their own prayer rugs.
“We are going to pray inside the Masjid (mosque) as well as outside. We put some tents (on) our lawn as well as part of the parking lot,” Siddiqi said. “We have asked people to register because we cannot take more than 1,000 people.”
In Fullerton, the St. Phillip Benizi church will host a Eid prayer for Muslims at its campus after members of the Islamic Center of Fullerton reached out to church leaders for a space where people can pray wearing masks and are socially distanced. The prayer is Thursday at 8:30 a.m.
Eid is not just about prayer.
“It’s supposed to be a time where what you couldn’t do in Ramadan and what you gave up for the sake of God, you now try to enjoy those things,” Syed said. “You have food during the day, which you couldn’t just a day prior. People give each other gifts. Children are given toys.”
He added that it’s not just the material gifts that people look forward to about Eid.
“But the joy of accomplishment and satisfaction of having done something actively for the sake of God and moving towards the betterment of yourself,” Syed said.
It’s also about Zakat, or giving charity which is one the five pillars of Islam – the core beliefs of the religion.
Syed said celebrating and commemorating the end of the fast is an important aspect of Eid but so is Zakat al-Fitr, a mandatory donation of charity to those in need for Muslims able to give at the end of Ramadan.
“Zakat al-Fitr is part and parcel – it’s almost a requirement of everyone who is able to pay,” Syed said. “Before as everyone is in a festive mood, obviously, but we’re making sure that everyone who is not in the same socio-economic status has the same chance to feel like they’re also able to celebrate.”
Syed said this year mosques and Muslim nonprofits are collecting $15 per person in a family which is organized by the council to get jobs, clothes and toys to people in need. They are also collecting money online.
ICNA Relief Southern California, part of a greater national organization, is a Muslim nonprofit based in Fullerton. ICNA Relief has been doing food distributions and diaper distributions throughout cities in Orange County and other neighboring counties for years prior to the pandemic.
This past Sunday, the nonprofit held a drive-thru distribution and gave out 30 pallets of toys for Eid at the Islamic Society of Orange County.
“It’s going to be the largest distribution that we’ve done of this type, for toys, and it’s coming I think at a good time when again families are struggling, the communities are struggling,” said Abdullah Zikria, the outreach coordinator of ICNA Relief Southern California, before the distribution.
“The tradition amongst the Muslims has been that the month of Ramadan has not been a time where we sit back but rather we do more,” he said.
Uplift Charity, another Muslim nonprofit, has also been giving back and distributed over 2,400 food boxes and 7,000 pounds of chicken during Ramadan.
“For Eid, we will distribute Walmart gift cards vouchers for around 350 families,” said Ahmed Almukhtar, Uplift Charity’s director of operations.
“We have a list of families and actually I’m sure that the number will be increasing because people keep calling us asking for Zakat al-Fitr and for the Eid gift cards. Every year we do this. Last year, we distributed to around 480 families.”
On May 8, Uplift distributed 400 food boxes at Al-Ansar mosque and was recognized by the Anaheim City Council for its work.
The Islamic Center of Santa Ana is also collecting donations and has been fundraising to give back to the community.
Sen-Matthews said that people in Cambodia are going through hardship during a second COVID shutdown, leaving people unemployed and dying from the virus.
“We do collect money from here and a lot of members also send money back home as well,” she said. “We’re in abundance here and we have to remember those who are less fortunate than us and that’s what Islam is all about.
“It’s not just about praying and reading the Quran. It’s really through your actions.”
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.