As a Muslim student on the predominately Mormon Campus at Brigham Young University (BYU), I wasn't alone. There were roughly 100 other Muslims students who attended BYU in Provo, Utah, coming from Arab countries, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, China and a few other places.
My first Ramadan at BYU was the hardest, as I had just arrived and did not know many people on campus.
Ramadan has always been about sharing and big gatherings, but I had to live without those my first semester at BYU. I remember it was a normal thing for me to go by myself to the university food court and break my fast alone over a Subway sandwich or a hamburger. Being alone in Ramadan especially sucks if you come from a family of 10, like me. Followers of the Mormon faith can relate to all things Ramadan -- they fast once a month, they give "fast offering" and have big families where sharing is caring.
Most on campus had grown up in parts of America where they hadn't ever meet a Muslim, so few people on campus knew what Ramadan is. For the majority, I was the first Muslim they met and with that comes a lot of questions that gets old after awhile. It seemed to me that most student events on campus, where they would hand out free food, took place when I was fasting, which really pissed me off. But I was a guest and I do not get to dictate the calender.
I had a campus job and it was in the dorm's dining room, "The Smith Center," where I helped prepare food that sometimes included pork. I was quiet enough not to make waves about fasting, so I would prepare whatever food they had on the menu that day. Things you would do for $6.25 and hour! On one day, I had a long shift and the kitchen had a surplus of food, so they asked us to eat. The chef was an Italian American named Teresa who knew I was fasting so she asked me to take food home. She even packed me a box and insisted I do just that because I couldn't eat on my shift. As I finished my shift and left with the food, a manger came racing after me telling me in front of some of his staff that I am stealing food. Needless to say, I lost it.
I said nothing and headed back to the kitchen, where I grabbed Teresa, who give him a piece of her Italian mind, leaving him feel like a glorified jackass. I gave him the food and I left saying, "I am not a thief." That night, I had a pizza for Iftar.
Occasionally, the few Muslim students would hold pot lucks on campus, and I used to like those very much. The Muslim families would prepare food and bring it to share. We would bring soda and drinks. It was not uncommon to have non-fasting people from campus show up to those events and learn some culture. We always welcomed such interest until those people started lining up before us to grab as much food as they could put their hands on, leaving the fasting people little food. While most students were considerate and waited until the fasting people served themselves, not all did.
The university faculty who have lived in Muslim countries made sure to send us Ramadan greetings, which was kind of them. Professor Chad Emmet, a professor of Geography who had lived in Indonesia, would bring food to those pot lucks, and so did professor James Toronto, a professor of Arabic and Muslims studies -- both members of the Mormon church who have a soft spot in their hearts for all things Islam.
My second year on campus was much better. I had met a lot more people and, since the terrorists attacks of 9/11 have already happened, there was a lot more students studying Arabic and Islam. One of the things that came out of that was the Alumni Association started a new university tradition. Every Ramadan, the association would hold an elaborate Iftar dinner for the Muslim students on campus. I think the first one we had at one of those famous Sundance resorts, the one gathered in is owned by the university. This would serve two purposes: to make the students feel that the university cares about them and to encourage them to become active alumni. Also, the university gets a dose of diversity, the very thing that some care about.
The break-the-fast idea came from Tod Hendricks, an Idaho man who has never met a Muslim in his life, but felt that outreach is important. Although Hendricks is no longer at BYU, and neither am I, we still keep in touch and I am on his Christmas card list. I remember as we sat to plan the event, I had to explain to the organizers the tradition of breaking the fast with a date. They really did not understand what I meant. Instead, they thought Muslims go on a date right before they break their fast. Until a person sitting in the meeting, brought up the word figs. Only then I was understood. It was both funny and strange. Later we had to deal with the meat being served at the dinner, the famous halal vs. zabiha argument was too complicated.
During my time in Utah, I had to answer a lot of questions about my faith and the practice and there were a lot of misinformed questions and opinions. But Mormons are aware of differences between the perceived image of your faith and the reality of it. Still, many worked hard to get me to convert. At one point, I had seven copies of the Book of Mormon in different languages. But the longer I stayed in Utah, the less energized those efforts became. Many members of the church go the extra mile to accommodate others of different faith. To this day, I still share a meal with my Mormon friends every Ramadan. We often do it in the first Sunday of the month when they tend to fast. While many think that a Muslim living in Utah must faces some major challenges, I have seen none and I have nothing but respect for those who help people get a taste of home away from home.
Last year I took my wife to see my alma matter. She was in love. The moment we landed in Salt Lake City Airport, she proclaimed "I now have arrived to America" people are smiling and they genuinely look happy to see you. My time at BYU helped her make up her mind and attend the Catholic University of America, here in Washington, D.C. We joke that maybe one day, our children can go to a Jewish university in New York.