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Kids and Ramadan: No fast, but a focus on more good deeds

Baltimore radiologist Fauzia Vandermeer fills one of her kid-friendly Iftar Treat Boxes, akin to Advent calendars, with chocolate coins. (Vandermeer family photo)

This is the third in a weekly series about managing meals, nutrition and more during Ramadan.

I still remember my excitement as Ramadan approached when I was a kid growing up in Damascus, Syria. The sights and sounds of those times are vivid in my mind. There was the drummer who walked the streets of the ancient city before dawn, calling for people to wake up for suhoor (pre-dawn meal). As the sun set, the bustling streets emptied; people gathered inside their homes preparing to break their fast. The doorbell rang every evening with neighbors dropping off some of their meals to share, then the sunset call to prayer would ring out from every corner of the city. It was time to eat.

My last Ramadan in Syria was more than 30 years ago. I try to hang on to every memory because given the situation there, I’m certain I’ll never have one in Damascus again, nor will my children. But their American Ramadan is different and lovely in its own way.

I’m fasting for Ramadan, but life can’t slow down. How do I make the best of it?

This year, my 5-year-old son, excited by the holy month, declared he wanted to fast. Of course, Fareed is too young to go without food and water for so many hours, so that was not an option. To be clear, children are not expected to start fasting until they have reached puberty.  One day he insisted, and so I told him he could try to fast the last hour before dinner.  It wasn’t long before I heard the sound of crunching coming from inside the pantry. I found him sitting on the floor with a bag of tortilla chips and applesauce. We’ve all been there: The moment we decide we aren’t going to eat something, it becomes much more appealing. He looked up at me and said, “I’m still fasting, Mama.”

Luckily, there are other ways to get children involved and excited about the month, which is about so much more than fasting.

The Iftar Treat Box is the Ramadan version of the Christmas advent calendar — 30 days and 30 treats kids can enjoy as their parents break their fast each evening, bringing them closer to the end of the holy month and to the Eid El Fitr celebration. Part of the box’s sales profits are donated to the International Rescue Committee. It’s sold in the Washington area at Barston’s Childs Play stores, among other shops.

Baltimore radiologist Fauzia Vandermeer created this gift only recently. The artwork for it was created by a Baltimore artist, and the chocolate was stuffed by the hands of friends and family. She has already sold more than 700 boxes — impressive for a project that came together just a few weeks before Ramadan and whose only marketing was word of mouth.

Vandermeer tells me her goal was simply “to reflect American Muslims, and in particular American Muslim children, so that they could feel included in our shared culture and feel pride and joy in connecting with others in celebrating their religious heritage.” She started out selling the calendar in stores in the Washington area, and then offered them online. She said she wanted her kids to see themselves represented the same way other children do during Christmas, Easter and Hanukkah.

My son’s favorite part of the treat box is the chocolate, of course. Mine is the beautiful art inspired by Persian miniature paintings, representing children of different races and backgrounds. Most images of Muslims these days are negative. This was a refreshing reflection of who we really are, a diverse group who loves to eat.

Baking date bars (Facebook Live)

In case you missed it, this week Nour Zibdeh, the dietitian and nutritionist who was featured in my first Ramadan blog post, joined me for a Facebook Live session to show us how to make wholesome date bars  — a delicious treat that kids can help assemble.

Ramadan bedtime stories

Another fun and educational way that parents are explaining Ramadan to their kids is through literature. It used to be that finding good, engaging books on the topic was like going on a scavenger hunt. But in the past few years, a number of well written and beautifully illustrated books have been published and have made their way to people’s bookshelves, public library displays and classroom presentations on the Muslim holy month. Some of my favorite titles: “It’s Ramadan, Curious George,” “Night of the Moon,” “Lailah’s Lunchbook,” “My First Ramadan,” “Under the Ramadan Moon” and “Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns.”

Daily good-deed activity

Doing good deeds is an integral part of Ramadan for both adults and children. Creating a “good-deed jar” is a fun way to get children excited and involved. The idea is exactly as it sounds: Decorate a container as elaborately or simply as you like, then fill it with strips of paper upon which a good deed is printed on each one such as “Give an extra smile” and “Call Grandma.” Every day, a child can select a deed from the jar. Keep the tasks simple, especially for younger children.

Charity is an important pillar in Islam and encouraging children to be more generous is a great way to celebrate the holy month.  Many mosques hold toy drives throughout the month where Muslims and non-Muslim children can donate new and used toys. Or you can spend a day at a local soup kitchen with your older kids.  The most important thing is to find a way to increase the number of those good deeds.

For the Q&A segment of this week’s journal,  I thought I should consult an expert on this issue — Fareed, my son.

What is your favorite part of Ramadan?

My favorite part of Ramadan is waiting for Eid.  [That’s the holiday after Ramadan — the festival of breaking the fast.]

Why are you looking forward to Eid? [One tradition of the holiday is wearing new clothes.]

Because I want more toys and more clothes.

Is there anything else you like about Ramadan?

(long awkward silence) Cooking together.

How do you think Baba and Mama are doing during Ramadan?

Tired, and tired.

I think that’s a pretty fair assessment.

Reem Akkad is a senior producer for The Washington Post’s original video team.

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