LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
We're in the holy month of Ramadan, when observant Muslims fast from just before sun up all the way until sunset. At the end of a day of going almost 16 hours without, Muslims often gather together to eat in mosques and homes surrounded by family or neighbors. A new project is seeking to open up that traditional meal, iftar, beyond the usual crowd and the usual four walls. Deena Prichep reports.
DEENA PRICHEP, BYLINE: When Omar Salha was in grad school, he could go home and break his Ramadan fast with his London family, but he felt bad for fellow students who were far from home.
OMAR SALHA: It's almost like the Christmas for Muslims, you know, when you have on Christmas Day everyone gather the family members. It just doesn't seem right that you're - during Ramadan, you're breaking fast alone.
PRICHEP: So with the handful of donated cookies and chips, Salha has started what he called Open Iftar. Students from many different countries sat down in a park and broke bread together.
SALHA: And that naturally just grew into incorporating people of all different faiths and people who have no faith and people who are just interested or passers-by.
PRICHEP: Since that first event in 2011, Salha has worked with groups launching Open Iftars around the world, hosting tens of thousands of people from Turkey to Canada, the U.K. to Zambia.
SALHA: It's so, so important to alleviate any misconceptions which people may have of the Islamic faith or even of Muslims.
PRICHEP: And more recently, the U.S. joined with an Open Iftar in Portland, Ore.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Can we make a plate for you?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Did you get to eat?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Come on, make your plate. I can give you at least dessert.
PRICHEP: Although the Open Iftar volunteers have been fasting for nearly 18 hours, their main concern is making sure the guests have eaten. On this night, it's over 600 people.
SAMIRA SARIOLGHALAM: I looked at the room, and I was seeing a lot of people hijab, no hijab, like, different races. And they all came here, I think, for a reason.
PRICHEP: Samira Sariolghalam hadn't been to an iftar since she came to the U.S. from Iran years ago, But after two people were killed here in Portland standing up to anti-Muslim violence, it felt important to her to show up.
PRICHEP: Guests sit on blankets and folding chairs, indoors and out, sharing food and learning about each other. Many, like Laurie King, had never really sat down with their Muslim neighbors.
LAURIE KING: I didn't know. Should I dress differently? Should I take my shoes off when I walk in the door? You know, all those things that go through your mind when you've never been to a mosque before. And I just found that you come as you are, and you're welcome.
PRICHEP: And over plates of curried chicken and cinnamon-spiked rice - and a stack of pizzas for the kids - Muslims and non-Muslims move beyond political rhetoric and religious divides and get to know each other.
SALHA: Your ills are our ills. And your happiness is our happiness.
PRICHEP: Open Iftar founder Omar Salha says recognizing this fellowship and common ground is one of the central messages of Ramadan.
SALHA: These are interesting habits which are conducted over the course of the month which allow us to come closer to our community. And becoming closer to our community means we're becoming closer to God as well.
PRICHEP: The month of Ramadan lasts another two weeks, but Salha hopes this closeness and sense of community, not just among Muslims but among all neighbors, will last much longer. For NPR News, I'm Deena Prichep in Portland, Ore.
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