Fast Friends: A House Office Observes Ramadan on One Long, Hot Day

In solidarity with a staff member, Rep. Dan Kildee's office goes a day without eating

Jenan Abu-Hakmeh, left, who works for New Jersey Rep. Bill Pascrell, and Bunyad Bhatti, who works for Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, attend an iftar dinner on a roof deck in Northeast, D.C. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Jenan Abu-Hakmeh, left, who works for New Jersey Rep. Bill Pascrell, and Bunyad Bhatti, who works for Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, attend an iftar dinner on a roof deck in Northeast, D.C. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted June 22, 2016 at 5:00am

There are two Muslim members of Congress. Dan Kildee is not one of them.  

But the Michigan Democrat and his staff observed Ramadan for one day this week, inspired by a staff member to give up eating and drinking for 16 hours on one of the longest and hottest days of the year.  

The fast, and a sunset staff dinner Monday, was among a small but growing number of Ramadan observances on the Hill. It took on extra meaning this year, as the nation reacts to the Orlando mass shooter’s description of himself as an “Islamic soldier” and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump ramps up campaign rhetoric that equates Islam with terrorism.  

Kildee’s office offered an alternate view: that in this country, most of the estimated 3.3 million Muslims are, in the ways that matter, just like everybody else.  

“With the language being used, and some of the terrible things being said by Donald Trump, it just becomes more clear how much ignorance there is about what diversity really means, and frankly a lot of ignorance about Islam,” Kildee said.  

The Ramadan fast has become a tradition for the Michigan congressman in the four years he has been in office, starting during his election campaign as a sign of solidarity with staff assistant, Ghada Alkiek, who is Muslim and fasts for a month every year.  

Kildee and his team join her for one day. This year it was a day when the House was not in session and Kildee, who is on the congressional baseball team, did not have practice.  

They started around 3:45 a.m. with an exchange of cell phone photos of their breakfasts, some more elaborate than others.  

Press secretary Mitch Rivard had two eggs — fried and scrambled — yogurt, banana slices, an English muffin, berries and three Excedrin to ward off the inevitable caffeine headaches.  

Kildee had a bowl of Grape Nut Flakes, and he forgot to take a picture.  

Those meals were still on their minds when they gathered for a staff meeting about 10 hours later.  

“How we doing?” Alkiek asked. “Surviving right now? Six hours to go!”  

Kildee corrected her. “Six hours and nine minutes.”  

A few minutes later, the congressman interrupted a discussion about the order of amendments that could be offered on an upcoming House bill.  

“You know what would be in order right now, would be like a pizza,” he said.  

Kildee was joking, but he said later that the constant thoughts of food were part of the experience.  

“You develop an understanding, from a layman’s perspective, of how meaningful it is, because you are constantly reminded of the sacrifice throughout the day,” he said.   

Michigan Rep. Dan Kildee, center, attends an iftar dinner on a roof deck in Northeast, D.C., for his staff and others who participated in fasting for Ramadan. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Michigan Rep. Dan Kildee, center, attends an iftar dinner on a roof deck in Northeast, D.C., for his staff and others who participated in fasting for Ramadan. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

While 38 percent of Americans know someone who is Muslim, Muslims are expected to become the second-largest religious group in the United States by 2050, according to polls conducted in 2014 and 2016 by the Pew Research Center.  

Congressional representation is slowly catching up . The two Muslims serving in the House, Reps. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, and Andre Carson of Indiana, have risen to leadership positions since they were elected in 2006 and 2008.  

The number of Muslim staff members has grown from a handful in 2005, when the Congressional Muslim Staff Association was founded, to about 100 today, said the group’s president, Omair Mirza. A program in its second year aims to bring Muslim students to Congress as interns, just as the Black and Latino caucuses have done for years.  

“There’s such a fear of the unknown, a fear of Islam,” Mirza said. “We want to be here so people can say, ‘Hey, what do you guys do?'”  

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Tear, Hugs, Prayers at Orlando Vigil on Capitol Steps

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The Kildee Ramadan celebration is a case in point. The tradition started during Kildee’s 2012 campaign, as part of a friendly challenge between Alkiek and another staff member.  

Alkiek wears a head scarf and grew up in a small town outside of Flint, Michigan, where her grandparents raised their nine children after immigrating from Syria. She said she was touched by her co-workers interest in her culture.  

“It means a lot to the Muslim Michigan community to know I have a team that supports me,” Alkiek said. “It’s not easy. Even when I tell my family they’re like, ‘Why are they fasting? They could just come and enjoy dinner.’ But it really feels like family when they’re fasting.”  

As word has spread, staff members from other offices have started to participate. Some of the Muslim congressional employees and interns also joined Kildee’s staff for their dinner this year, on the roof of Alkiek’s apartment building at 8:37 p.m. Alkiek prepared a spread that included recipes like her father’s cinnamon-scented chicken and a few dishes from the proverbial melting pot — like a pan of cheesy baked ziti.   

“This means so much, especially when you have politicians saying we should be banned from this country,” said RJ Khalaf, who works in Carson’s office as part of the second class of interns to participate in a leadership development program for young Muslims. “The only way for people to truly overcome those sorts of feelings is to interact with Muslims in settings like this.”


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