For Muslims all over the world, Tuesday will mark the first day of Eid Al-Fitr — traditionally, a three-day celebration to mark the end of the holy month of Ramadan.
Eid is a time often spent with family and friends — eating, drinking and rejoicing after a month of fasting and long nights of worship. But for many people who have converted to Islam and are struggling to find their way in the Muslim community, this family-focused holiday can be isolating.
It's an experience Mounira Madison is familiar with. As a child, Madison grew up in the United Methodist Church in Chester, Va., but she later left the church and ventured away from her faith. She spent nine years of her life as an agnostic as she navigated the twists and turns of life. It wasn't until Madison returned home to take care of her mother — who had been diagnosed with cancer in 2015 — that Madison decided to convert to Islam in 2016.
At first, she didn't even tell her family about her conversion. She practiced her faith in private, watching YouTube videos to learn how to pray.
During her first Ramadan, Madison says she was still learning the ins and outs of Islamic rituals and did not have a community.
"I would say that that Ramadan was a bit lonely, but there was a lot of calm in that solitude," says Madison.
Today, Madison is the program director at Makespace, a community center based in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. where Muslims can pray, gather and worship. Since the start of Ramadan, she has spent her time running between potluck iftaar dinners — the sunset meal where Muslims break their day-long fasts — and the different locations spread out throughout Northern Virginia designated for late night worship known as taraweah prayers. Makespace has been a part of Madison's life even before she was a convert. She credits the community for making her transition into her new faith family an easier process.
"A lot of people experience Ramadan, they experience their faith because they're surrounded by friends, family and culture," Madison says. "I really am very grateful for how my journey has unfolded because it's helped me grow closer to God."
David Debye converted to Islam 15 years ago and spent his first Ramadan on active duty in the U.S. Marine Corps in Iraq. He also came to Makespace in hopes of finding community.
He recalls listening to the taraweah prayers that were being broadcast on loudspeakers across Husaybah — the city where he was stationed. Despite being stationed in a Muslim-majority country, Debye says he was the only Muslim he knew of on the base where he often worshiped by himself.
Converts like Debye make up approximately one fifth of the 3.45 million Muslims living in the U.S., according to the Pew Research Center. Debye says his experience as a Muslim-American convert gives him unique insight into two different groups of people who sometimes eye each other with suspicion.
"I feel like I'm straddling a line," Debye says. "I've got one foot in the American Muslim community and one foot in the American, non-Muslim community. There's a lot of opportunity in the space in between, but at the same time it can be very lonely."
For Lauren Arnold, her journey to Islam started 16 years ago, and she says it wasn't easy. Arnold taught herself the basic tenants through online classes. She learned the rituals and motions of prayer through videos and she did this with little to no in-person guidance. She remembers how it took her a couple of years to feel comfortable enough to venture out to a mosque to join in communal worship, but even that was a challenging experience as she was greeted with unkind and rude behavior, she says.
But 16 years later, Arnold says that she's finally found a community that she likes.
"Good manners and good character is such an important part of the religion," Arnold says. "Now, especially with Makespace, I find that people are actually living the religion. It was a bit of a learning curve, but after 16 years I've really found my path."
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Muslims all over the world will celebrate Eid al-Fitr this Tuesday to mark the end of Ramadan. Families and friends will come together for prayer, for food and community. But for many people who have converted to Islam and are struggling to find their faith family, this family-focused holiday can be isolating. Our producers, Hiba Ahmad and Sophia Boyd, went to an iftar dinner last week where Muslims break fast during the holy month. And they spoke with some converts about what their first Ramadan was like.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: It sucked. Like, the first Eid, I showed up at the mosque, and everybody was already going home, and I was just there all by myself.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I really didn't have anyone to, like, teach me things. So I was learning off classes on the Internet. I learned to pray off videos. It was a little bit of a learning curve.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I've got one foot in the Muslim community and one foot in the American, non-Muslim community. Sometimes it can be lonely.
SIMON: Mounira Madison is trying to bridge that gap.
MOUNIRA MADISON: (Speaking Arabic) How are you?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Good.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Good to see you.
MADISON: You're coming to all our iftars.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: I know.
MADISON: That's awesome. I love it.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: I missed yesterday's.
SIMON: She's the program director at MakeSpace, a community center where Muslims can pray, gather and worship.
MADISON: Our idea is that you would meet each other in these two iftars, connect, build friendships, and then we would plan together how we could celebrate Eid.
SIMON: As program director, she organizes events to welcome people who are new to the area, the religion or both. It took her a while to feel comfortable talking about her new faith, and she didn't even tell her family at first. At the iftar, she and Kelly El-Yacoubi bond over their tentative transitions into Islam.
KELLY EL-YACOUBI: Yeah. Yeah.
MADISON: I also fasted in secret and hid things. And, like - you know how like most moms would get upset if their daughter wasn't wearing an abaya or a headscarf.
MADISON: I totally would, like, wait, get in the car and then right before the masjid, I would, like, put it on.
EL-YACOUBI: Yeah, I did that when I was in high school. Like, my older sister...
SIMON: Madison grew up in the United Methodist Church in Chester, Va. And as a child, the church was the center of her world.
MADISON: I was always loved. I was always cared for. I was always - I had so many aunts and uncles and grandparents because of that church family, who I still love and still hold dear.
SIMON: She got older. She left the church and her faith behind. She worked as a professional musician, playing the flute in overseas orchestras, including in Jordan, where she lived for more than six years. She immersed herself in the culture there, but her time in Jordan was only part of the process toward converting. It wasn't the turning point. That came in 2015. She returned to the United States to be with her mother who had just been diagnosed with cancer.
MADISON: I was catapulted into this nine-month period of deep self-reflection and trying to understand my own identity. And that was the catalyst for my conversion - that period of introspection and reflection that was sparked by my move back to America. And I realized, oh, well, I think I'm Muslim, but let me test myself. Because Ramadan was just around the corner. I said, OK, Ramadan, it's a whole month of fasting from sun up to sun down. Let me see if I can do this, like one of the seemingly hardest things to do as a Muslim when you're not from the faith.
SIMON: It was even harder for Madison because her new faith was a secret. She didn't tell anyone she was fasting or talk publicly about her decision to convert. She practiced her faith privately, watching YouTube videos to learn how to pray.
MADISON: I would say that that Ramadan was a bit lonely, but there was a lot of calm in that solitude. A lot of people, they experience Ramadan, they experience their faith because they're surrounded by friends or family or culture. And I am so grateful. Although it was lonely sometimes, I really am very grateful for how my experience has unfolded, how my journey has unfolded because it's helped me grow closer to God, grow stronger in my faith and know that what I'm doing is literally because I believe in it.
SIMON: This Ramadan, she's making certain that others who are new to Islam have a place to go to explore their religion with late-night prayers and potluck suppers. And that's how she's going to celebrate Eid at the close of the holy month - with her faith family at MakeSpace, helping people find their place in the community.
MADISON: When I look back at my only three-year journey, it's come so full circle, and that I just have to say, like, (speaking Arabic), which is, like, something you say that's just like something is so good something, something is so great that, like, you can't even imagine it.
SIMON: Mounira Madison in Alexandria, Va. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.