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American Muslims say they feel urgent need to send aid to Gaza this Ramadan as threat of mass starvation looms

By Monica Haider, CNN

(CNN) — The month of Ramadan feels heavier this year for 33-year-old Palestinian American Nadia Duwaik, than it has in the past. 

Duwaik told CNN she ordinarily approaches Ramadan excited about the chance to celebrate and reflect during her family’s rituals, such as gathering together every night for iftar.

But this year, as the daughter of Palestinian immigrants, Duwaik said her feelings about the holy month have been complicated by the ongoing Israel-Hamas war and the growing humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Since the October 7 Hamas attack, Israel’s siege of Gaza has killed more than 30,000 people and injured some 70,000 others, according to the Ministry of Health in the enclave.

As desperation grows, and Israel’s severe restrictions on aid entering Gaza continue to diminish supplies, humanitarian groups are sounding the alarm over the worsening conditions as the United Nations says hundreds of thousands of Palestinians are on the brink of famine.

On Friday, the European Union announced it’s opening an emergency maritime aid corridor from Cyprus to Gaza with allies including the US. The day prior, President Joe Biden announced the US Military is planning to build a temporary port along the Gaza coast to try to deliver much-needed humanitarian relief.

The international push for aid comes after more than 100 people were killed earlier this month, when Israeli soldiers opened fire while people were gathering around food aid trucks according to eyewitnesses and Palestinian officials, who said chaos subsequently erupted, causing many to be run over by the trucks, injured or trampled.  

CNN previously reported Israel confirmed its forces fired on people, saying crowds had threatened their troops, but disputed the account given by eyewitnesses and Palestinian officials.

Gaza’s entire population of roughly 2.2 million people are facing “crisis or worse levels of acute food insecurity,” according to the World Food Programme, and the organization said child malnutrition in Gaza is “higher than anywhere in the world.”  

As the crescent moon makes its appearance Monday to mark the first night of Ramadan, American Muslims, like Duwaik, tell CNN they feel a urgent need to fulfill a core tenant of Ramadan and their Islamic faith known as zakat, or giving to charity, to help provide Gaza relief.

Jad Shaheen, who is also Palestinian American, said the worsening humanitarian crisis and his family in the West Bank are never far from his mind.

“People need more help than they’ve needed in the past because the situation is obviously worse – they’re being actively starved,” he said. “Food and water are being blocked from people in Gaza to access, so it’s extra important to try and get those things to people who need it.”

Duwaik said since the war began, she’s donated to the Palestinian Children’s Relief Fund and the United Nations Agency for Palestine refugees. This year because her birthday falls during Ramadan, Duwaik said she will ask friends to donate to a nonprofit that supports relief efforts, instead of buying gifts.

In 2023, the nonprofit Islamic Relief raised more than $30 million in online donations during Ramadan, according to a spokesman for the organization.

Awrad Saleh, assistant director for international programs and partnerships at the nonprofit, said her organization has found “people want to give during Ramadan more than any other time.”

Islamic Relief’s goal this year, she said, is to have the food donations and aid available from the first day of Ramadan to the last in each of the countries where they provide assistance.

“For Ramadan, for Gaza, we’re supporting them through hot meals,” Saleh said.

She said they hope to reach 250,000 people and are working with partners in the region to distribute the meals to areas that include Khan Yunis and Rafah.

In addition to the hot meals, they’re also providing vegetables for suhoor, which is the time people typically consume a meal before fasting at dawn.

“It’s literally for anybody in the area who needs a hot meal, but in particular because this is specifically for Ramadan, it’s just to ensure that people who are fasting also have access to food that they need every day,” she said.

The organization is guided by the passage from the Quran, according to its website, which states, “Establish prayer and give zakat, and whatever good you put forward for yourselves — you will find it with Allah. Surely Allah sees what you do.”

Nasma Shehadeh, a Christian from Bethlehem who now lives in New York, said while she doesn’t share their Islamic faith, she’s donated to aid agencies like Islamic Relief, to help Muslims in need. Shehadeh said she’s concerned for her friends in the region who are facing Ramadan with scant supplies.

“There’s no food, and they have such strong faith, so surely they’re going to be fasting,” Shehadeh said. “The idea of them fasting and not having food is just crazy to me.”

Shehadeh said she’s focused on trying to help her friend in Gaza, who lives in a shelter after her home was destroyed and is now depending on donations to pay for herself and her family to flee to Egypt.

The charity, Human Appeal, has provided humanitarian relief in Gaza since 1991, according to Samina Taj, the organization’s associate director of communications.

Since the start of the war in Gaza, Taj said their teams have mobilized to try to meet the desperate need for aid.

Taj said the charity is working to establish a mobile kitchen in Gaza to help feed fasting families during Ramadan “so that people are nourished during this spiritual time.”

Since October 7, donations made to Human Appeal have enabled the charity to deliver roughly $1.9 in medical supplies, medicine and winter clothes through the Rafah border crossing and into Gaza, according to a February 2024 report.

Since then, the charity has seen increasing donations and expect even more during Ramadan, Taj said.

Noor Traina, a 24-year-old consultant in Washington, DC, who is originally from Libya, said while Ramadan is about giving, she knows donations will not be enough to bring about the much-needed end to this war.

Traina consistently donates to mosques during Ramadan in what constitutes sadaqa, a concept in Islam of voluntarily giving charity, a slight variation from the more obligatory zakat.

“I just end up giving more, you know, it’s just a spiritual month, so I just have the intention of giving more, as well,” she said.

But Traina worries whether her aid is actually getting to its destination. 

“We try to find the most reliable sources but, is there much hope it’s actually going to reach people?” she said.   

Negotiators had hoped to reach a deal for a ceasefire ahead of Ramadan, but talks fell apart last week. Traina said she and her fellow Muslims will continue to pressure lawmakers to take action.

“This Ramadan, in addition to fasting and giving, while remembering the starving and wounded families and orphans of Gaza and Palestine, we will be worshipping by protesting and demanding a ceasefire and humanitarian aid for Palestinians,” she said.

“That’s what Ramadan is about, but especially this Ramadan.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported Nadia Duwaik’s age. She is 33.

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