'Homesick' Syrian refugees in Europe crave spirit of Ramadan

Homesick Syrian refugees in Europe crave spirit of Ramadan
4 min read
20 March, 2024

Ramadan is usually a time steeped in spiritual, social, and cultural rituals for Muslims around the world. But for Syrian refugees in Europe, the holy month of Ramadan is tinged with feelings of sadness and social isolation.

Separated from their homeland by the 13-year Syrian civil war, Syrian refugees in Europe crave the familiar sights and sounds of Ramadan in Syria: the warmth of family gatherings, the call to prayer, and the spiritual ambience. Now in a foreign land, they try to find new ways of staying connected to their faith and reconnecting their children with their Syrian heritage

Duaa Latouf is a 42-year-old Syrian refugee who works as a caregiver near Rotterdam in the Netherlands. Speaking to The New Arab, she explained just how much she misses the Syrian atmosphere of Ramadan, "I still miss the feeling of walking the streets of Damascus. I feel so disconnected living here in Europe," she says.

"Twenty years ago, we used to send and receive food from family, neighbours, and friends. Now there are no family or neighbours left. We no longer feel the essence of Ramadan"

Although Duaa invites other Muslims to join her family for Iftar [the fast-breaking evening meal] and adorns her house with Ramadan bunting, she still feels empty, a feeling which also affects Duaa's family. Duaa's youngest daughter, born in the Netherlands, knows relatively little about her ancestral homeland. With Ramadan upon us, feelings of nostalgia fill the rooms of Duaa's family home.

Duaa's father, who was arrested at the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2014, remains missing to this day. "We assume he was killed in detention," Duaa says, visibly upset. "No one knows anything about what happened to him." Now Duaa is forced to grapple with a whirlwind of emotions; sorrow, pain, and detachment to society that often feels against her. 

Understanding Syrian social isolation

Unable to make new friends and see their families significantly affects Syrians living in exile in Europe during Ramadan. "Ramadan rituals feel insufficient and cold," said Malik Abdullah, a Syrian living in Sweden with his wife and daughter.

For Syrians in Europe without friends or family, Ramadan can be a lonely, empty experience [Getty Images]
For Syrians in Europe without friends or family, Ramadan can be a lonely, empty experience [Getty Images]

Still mourning the loss of his father-in-law, who was killed in last year's Turkey-Syria earthquake, Malik tries to overcome feelings of homesickness by breaking his fast with friends and family at Arab restaurants in Stockholm. But it doesn't feel the same. For Malik, the holy month of Ramadan is associated with specific types of foods and sweets, such as ma'arouk, which is very difficult to find in Europe, let alone Sweden. 

However, some Syrians are finding ways to satisfy their Ramadan cravings by cooking Syrian food and bringing the community together.

Savouring Syrian food

In the heart of Amsterdam, Sarah, originally from Maarat al-Numan in Idlib, takes advantage of ingredients from Arab, Turkish, and Moroccan stores to prepare some traditional Syrian dishes for Ramadan. And whilst it's not the same as "the feeling of buying them from the markets of Idlib," Sarah explains, it's still something. 

The 25-year-old is still waiting for the reunification with her husband in the Netherlands, marking the second Ramadan without him. Last year was under better circumstances, Sarah was still living in a refugee camp for newcomers, where the atmosphere in Ramadan was much better. Today, she misses her husband and her family, living alone in a country whose language and culture she is unfamiliar with.

Despite this, Sarah continues to invite her friends from the refugee camp around to break their fast and bring back memories through food.

'How are we supposed to feel Ramadan?'

Mueed Al-Hafi, a Syrian refugee who moved to France two years ago, reflects on the contrast between Ramadan in Syria and France. "Twenty years ago, we used to send and receive food from family, neighbours, and friends. Now there are no family or neighbours left. We no longer feel the essence of Ramadan. Even Suhoor [the pre-dawn meal] that we used to grumble about has become a cherished ritual that we long for."

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Mueed admits that he has struggled to make friends, including those who speak Arabic, despite living in a country with a large number of Muslim residents. "No one has knocked on our door yet. We haven't exchanged Ramadan greetings with anyone. Even in the mosque things are normal...how are we supposed to feel Ramadan," Mueed wonders.

This lack of social interaction seems to be common in Europe where each ethnicity sticks to its own circle, leaving Syrians in particular feeling a sense of Ramadan estrangement. Despite their efforts to recreate familiar traditions, they continue grappling with feelings of isolation and longing. 

Mouneb Taim is a producer and journalist based in the Middle East from Damascus, Syria. He was awarded TPOTY's Photographer of the Year and ICFJ's Best Young Male Journalist in 2020