Traditionally during the holy month of Ramadan, my thoughts focus on spending time with friends and family and on those less fortunate, but this year my mind is preoccupied by those who have lost their lives or loved ones in the recent wave of attacks unleashed on places of worship around the world.
Places of worship, as well as religious services and celebrations, should be sacred. Yet, in 2019 alone, we have already seen attacks on mosques during Friday prayer in Christchurch, New Zealand and then the attacks in churches on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka. Over the weekend a gunman targeted a Passover celebration at a synagogue in California. With Ramadan just around the corner, I can’t help but worry that more innocent people might be affected.
Of course, the violence that has been dominating the news is just the tip of the iceberg and millions more people across the world are living in areas trapped in a brutal cycle of conflict and uncertainty, where they are not able to feel safe, unsure how their Ramadan will end.
In places like Syria and Yemen, death and destruction continue to be relentless. It is unconscionable that we are still seeing bombs and bullets tearing families apart and that humanitarian access is often being obstructed, limiting our ability to save lives.
People talk about the crisis in Syria coming to an end; but this is far from the case in Idlib in north-western Syria where Islamic Relief Worldwide (IRW) works. Despite a temporary truce coming into force in Greater Idlib in September 2018, attacks are intensifying in the area. At least 357 civilians, including 113 children and 78 women have been killed since then. The past month has been particularly bad and this escalation of attacks has sent a shockwave of panic and fear among the people of Idlib who worry that attacks could resume on a massive scale at any point.
In eight years of war, they have been displaced numerous times and are now living in desperate conditions in overcrowded camps. This Ramadan, we will be providing large food packs to over 50,000 people in Idlib and Aleppo which are a lifeline to so many as aid supplies in the area are dwindling due to the security situation.
Yemen is also at the forefront of our thoughts and prayers during Ramadan. Already home to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, the last few weeks have seen fresh fighting in Taiz and Hajjar where 100,000 people have fled following a wave of airstrikes and ground battles. The situation is so dire that some of these people are even fleeing to Hodeida, which has long been a flashpoint in this conflict.
Every month, Islamic Relief Worldwide provides food to some two million people in Yemen who are languishing on the brink of starvation. I hope that the parties to the conflict will use Ramadan as the opportunity to adhere to their commitments for a truce in Hodeida, reflect on the immense suffering that this man-made disaster has had on the civilian population and renew their efforts to find a lasting solution.
But the problem is not confined to the Middle East. Globally, more people are now displaced than at any other point in living memory – largely as a result of conflict. Over 40million people are internally displaced, and 20million are refugees. All those that have left their homes are wondering if they will ever be reunited with loved ones again and if they will ever be able to return to the lives they once had. We aim to help them too, including both Christians and Muslims affected by Cyclone Idai in Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Malawi and the conflict in South Sudan and to both Muslims and Buddhists in Myanmar.
As a refugee who fled conflict in Eritrea this is something that touches me deeply. Refugees are facing conditions that are far worse than anything I ever went through in my formative years. This is why as the CEO of IRW I am committed to helping as many people across the world this Ramadan as possible. To me, this means taking concrete and immediate action on the ground. We will be providing food to some 800,000 people, a small gesture for families who have lost so much but at least it means people will be able to break their fast together at the end of the day.
Earlier this year we joined with people of all faiths and none, including Amnesty International, to pass on our condolences to those affected by the mosque attacks in New Zealand and to make a stand against hatred and division in mosques in the UK, the US and Australia. Acts of compassion following horrific attacks have also inspired and encouraged me; like the man in Manchester who displayed a sign outside the mosque saying: ’You are my friends, I will keep watch while you pray.”
Broadly speaking, it also means collectively showing compassion and empathy for a better future, which is the only way we will bring about real and lasting change. Despicable acts of violence – from New Zealand to Sri Lanka – need to act as a motivation to us all to try harder to ensure that we are promoting peace and mutual understanding.
Ramadan inspires us to be the best that we can we be; to show compassion and love to our fellow human beings. Let’s hope that the warring sides in the long-running conflicts around the world, particularly in Yemen and Syria, will take heed and finally put innocent people first. They deserve to be at peace, especially during this most holy month.
Naser Haghamed is the CEO of Islamic Relief Worldwide