“I'm Syrian, so anything that has Syria on it I have to be there, otherwise I'm a disgrace to my family,” joked Maria Awwa, BC '17 and a member of the Columbia Muslim Students Association.
Awwa was one of about 80 attendees to MSA's Fast-a-thon on Thursday night to benefit Islamic Relief, one of many charities currently working to bring humanitarian aid to children in Syria who have been displaced by violence and political upheaval.
The Fast-a-thon is a national MSA event held at schools across the country, which urges its participants to fast from dawn to sunset “in solidarity with victims of hunger, poverty, and oppression around the world,” according to outgoing MSA Vice President Noor Siyam, BC '15. The night begins with a dinner, in which participants celebrate the end of their fast.
The Fast-a-thon has been held for more than 10 years. This year, MSA members decided to focus on bringing relief to children in Syria.
According to Save the Children, over 5 million children in Syria are currently in need of humanitarian assistance. And as of this month, the United Nations has registered over 2.58 million refugees from Syria. Every minute, three Syrians become refugees abroad, and every two minutes, eight children are forced to flee their homes, according to the Washington Post.
“I think this event captures the essence of the values of our religion,” Siyam said. “Our religion preaches the importance of helping others, of giving back to the community, of putting others before yourself.”
The event's keynote speaker was former Denver Nuggets player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, who changed his name from Chris Jackson when he converted to Islam. Abdul-Rauf spoke about his conversion and the intersecting roles that religion and basketball have played in his life.
Ibrahim Jaaber, a spoken-word artist, and representatives from Islamic Relief also performed and spoke at the event.
This week, which was designated Islam Awareness Week, culminated in Thursday's Fast-a-thon. The week was marked with events that celebrated and encouraged discussion of Muslim identity. In addition to a panel on Muslim-American identity on Wednesday night, the awareness week featured an open-mic night, a prayer service, and a guided tour of the Islamic art wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
While the event itself is a part of Muslim Awareness Week, the organizers said that the Fast-a-thon is an event rooted in humanitarian activism that people of all faiths can participate in.
“We tried hard to make this event as apolitical as it could be,” MSA Community Outreach Program Coodinator Ayah Zaki, BC '15, said. “This is an event purely for humanitarian relief and nothing else.”
“This is an event for people of all beliefs and all backgrounds to come together and focus on charity in an interfaith setting,” outgoing MSA President Haris Durrani, SEAS '15, added.
“As an event, it's basically a way for everyone to come together and understand the importance of fasting and the importance of giving back to charity,” Maisha Rahman, CC '14 and the MSA community affairs chair, said. “Fasting really builds upon your willpower. It's about self-purification—it allows you to know your own strengths.”
MSA members said this year's focus on Syria held special significance because the group has a special connection to Syria and the Middle East.
“It hits close to home for a lot of us,” Siyam said. “A lot of us are from the Middle East and some of us have relatives in Syria.”
In addition to the personal connection, MSA members felt Syria was a topical choice, given the current conflict in the region.
“Obviously you can't help everyone but tonight we have the agency to bring this crisis up in a relevant way when we see it falling off the radar,” incoming MSA President Hebah Akram Khan, BC '17, said.
“We do whatever we can, as an organization, not just as Muslims—but as humanitarians,” she said.
Correction: An earlier version of this article said that this was the 10th annual Fast-a-thon, when the event has been going on for more than 10 years. The article also said that the fast started after dinner, when in fact the dinner concludes the fast. Spectator regrets the errors.
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