On a normal Friday, the parking lot at the Islamic Center of St. Cloud is crowded with vehicles as people gather for afternoon prayers.
The former school was converted to a mosque about five years ago to serve St. Cloud's growing Somali American Muslim community. But last Friday, it was empty.
Ramadan, the holy month of prayer, fasting and celebration for Muslims worldwide, begins on Thursday. But mosques are closed and large gatherings are discouraged under Minnesota’s pandemic stay-at-home order.
For many in St. Cloud’s Somali American community, the city’s mosques are the center of cultural and religious life: gathering places where people pray, talk, eat, learn and share what they have with one another. And their closure is more than just a spiritual loss, at a time when faith and community support are more important than ever.
“I don’t think the community and the world has ever seen this kind of disaster before,” said St. Cloud resident Hassan Yussuf. “Usually, as a Muslim, when we have issues or problems, we run to the mosque. And now, we cannot go to the mosque. So, that is a very difficult situation.”
Share your iftar with MPR News. We'd like to hear the different ways you're observing Ramadan this year. If you'd like to share your story, you can email Kirsti Marohn at firstname.lastname@example.org.
‘No one is here’
The corridors of the Islamic Center of St. Cloud, which would have been full of people for Friday prayer, were dark last week. The former school gymnasium, where worshippers usually cover every square foot of plush red carpet, was quiet.
Mohamed Nuh Dahir, the mosque’s senior imam, pointed to a room lined with sinks used for washing before prayer.
“Usually, the people used to stand here in line waiting to wash their bodies,” he said. “But you can see, no one is here."
Dahir said it's difficult to imagine what Ramadan will be like this year. The holy month is not just about prayers and fasting, he said.
"Also, it was family month that we used to come together and eat together,” Dahir said. “But I don't think that will happen in this situation."
During Ramadan, people can pray at home, said Abdi Daisane, who operates a child care center in St. Cloud. But most people, he said, go to the mosque every evening to worship and share a meal together — and some stay at the mosque all night during the final 10 days of the holy month.
"I just can't imagine what it [will] look like at Ramadan without going to the mosque, gathering at the mosque every night to break the fast and pray,” Daisane said.
The Islamic Center of St. Cloud usually hums with other activities, including children's classes, lectures and community meals. Those have all been put on hold — or online. One corner of the mosque's cafeteria has been transformed into a studio, where leaders can record informational videos in the Somali language for local TV and social media.
Daisane recorded one of those videos a couple weeks ago, explaining state and federal financial assistance that’s available, and encouraging people to stay home and support local businesses.
Impact on businesses
The pandemic has been hard on St. Cloud's Somali-owned restaurants and stores. Many have had to close or lay off workers.
A block from the Islamic Center is Mogadishu Meat and Grocery, where people still can buy food and other essentials while trying to maintain social distance and avoid crowding. But the restaurant in the back of the store is closed to dine-in guests and is only doing takeout orders.
"It is really affecting the community in many ways,” said Yussuf, who runs a tax preparation business from an office inside the store. “People have to wait in their cars for other people to move out. The businesses here are losing a lot of money because few people are buying, and they really don't know how much food to make."
Another of the affected businesses is Nori Cafe, a coffee shop owned by Farhiya Iman and her family. It had been open a little more than a year before it had to close because of the pandemic.
Iman, who’s also a social worker, said she's worried about the community's elders, who depend on mosques and local businesses like hers for social interaction.
"There are times where they can go to the Somali grocery store or the mosque or to the restaurants to be able to converse with other elders and talk about politics, talk about life and stuff like that,” she said. “Now that's completely gone, and I can't even imagine [what] that's like."
There’s also a concern that the COVID-19 pandemic could challenge the acts of charity and caring for others that are long-standing elements of Ramadan. People who don't have anywhere else to go often go to the mosque to break their fast with an iftar meal, and families often invite neighbors or elders into their homes for iftar, too.
Hudda Ibrahim, an author, consultant and educator in St. Cloud, said young people have told her they're worried about not being able to break the fast with elderly parents with health issues. And she said a task force has been meeting to figure out how to deliver food to people who need it.
In the midst of the scuttled Ramadan plans and changes this year, Ibrahim said there’s also sadness over the loss of celebrations to social distancing recommendations. She said people are already looking ahead and wondering about Eid al-Fitr, the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan in mid- to late May, with large family gatherings and gift exchanges.
"It's just so beautiful,” she said. “That's not going to happen. But we are all in this together, so we can do those things hopefully next year."
Correction (April 22, 2020): Farhiya Iman's name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.