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I'm Converting: My First Ramadan

Mounira Madison is the program director of Makespace, a Muslim community center in Virginia. She converted to Islam in 2016 and helps other converts with their transitions.
Madina Mojadidi
Photo Courtesy of Mounira Madison
Mounira Madison is the program director of Makespace, a Muslim community center in Virginia. She converted to Islam in 2016 and helps other converts with their transitions.

For Muslims all over the world, Tuesday will mark the first day of Eid al-Fitr — traditionally a three-day celebration to mark the end of the holy month of Ramadan.

Eid is a time often spent with family and friends — eating, drinking and rejoicing after a month of fasting and long nights of worship. But for many people who have converted to Islam and are struggling to find their way in the Muslim community, this family-focused holiday can be isolating.

It's an experience Mounira Madison is familiar with. As a child, Madison grew up in the United Methodist Church in Chester, Va., but she later left the church and ventured away from her faith. She spent nine years as an agnostic as she navigated the twists and turns of life. It wasn't until Madison returned home to take care of her mother — who had been diagnosed with cancer in 2015 — that Madison decided to convert to Islam in 2016.

At first, she didn't even tell her family about her conversion. She practiced her faith in private, watching YouTube videos to learn how to pray.

During her first Ramadan, Madison says she was still learning the ins and outs of Islamic rituals and did not have a community.

"I would say that that Ramadan was a bit lonely, but there was a lot of calm in that solitude," says Madison.

Today, Madison is the program director at Makespace, a community center based in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., where Muslims can pray, gather and worship. Since the start of Ramadan, she has spent her time running between potluck iftaar dinners — the sunset meal where Muslims break their daylong fasts — and the different locations spread out throughout Northern Virginia designated for late night worship known as taraweah prayers. Makespace has been a part of Madison's life even before she was a convert. She credits the community for making her transition into her new faith family an easier process.

"A lot of people experience Ramadan, they experience their faith because they're surrounded by friends, family and culture," Madison says. "I really am very grateful for how my journey has unfolded because it's helped me grow closer to God."

David Debye converted to Islam 15 years ago and spent his first Ramadan on active duty in the U.S. Marine Corps in Iraq. He also came to Makespace in hopes of finding community.

He recalls listening to the taraweahprayers that were being broadcast on loudspeakers across Husaybah — the city where he was stationed. Despite being stationed in a Muslim-majority country, Debye says he was the only Muslim he knew of on the base where he often worshipped by himself.

Converts like Debye make up approximately one-fifth of the 3.45 million Muslims living in the U.S., according to the Pew Research Center. Debye says his experience as a convert gives him insight into two different groups of people who sometimes eye each other with suspicion.

"I feel like I'm straddling a line," Debye says. "I've got one foot in the American Muslim community and one foot in the American, non-Muslim community. There's a lot of opportunity in the space in between, but at the same time it can be very lonely."

Lauren Arnold's journey to Islam started 16 years ago, and she says it wasn't easy. Arnold taught herself the basic tenets through online classes. She learned the rituals and motions of prayer through videos, and she did this with little to no in-person guidance. She remembers how it took her a couple of years to feel comfortable enough to venture out to a mosque to join in communal worship, but even that was a challenging experience as she was greeted with unkind and rude behavior, she says.

But 16 years later, Arnold says she's finally found a community that she likes.

"Good manners and good character is such an important part of the religion," Arnold says. "Now, especially with Makespace, I find that people are actually living the religion. It was a bit of a learning curve, but after 16 years I've really found my path."

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