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Muslims seek days off for holidays

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Farhana Islam, a Sewanhaka School District parent, choked up when recounting to the Board of Education on Nov. 26 how she felt hearing Muslim students describe how frustrated they are that they must attend school on the Eid holidays.

“I was moved to tears,” Islam said, noting that it reminded her of when she was a young Muslim-American girl “who looked forward to everyone else’s holidays instead of her own.”

“When will it finally be our turn to feel as though we’re a part of this community,” Islam asked the board members, “and not just out in the margins any longer?”

She and a group of Muslim parents and students in the Central High School District petitioned the board that night to include the Eid holidays in the 2020-21 school calendar.

The holidays are the two most important in the Islamic faith, according to the Eid Holiday Coalition Long Island. The first, Eid ul-Fitr, marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims are required to fast from sunrise to sunset. Based on the predicted date of a new moon, the holiday is likely to occur on May 13 in 2021.

Eid ul-Adha, meanwhile, commemorates the end of the holy pilgrimage to Mecca, and reinforces among Muslims the values of family and sacrifice. It will likely occur on July 9 in 2021.

During these holidays, families attend mosque for morning prayers, and then spend the rest of the day celebrating with family members and friends. Children also receive presents on Eid ul-Fitr to reward their good deeds for the month.

But when children feel pressure to attend school, they may miss out on the festivities, students throughout the district told the board last week. Wali Owais, an Elmont Memorial High School freshman, asked board members to imagine what it would be like to attend school knowing that friends and family members were celebrating at home.

“This doesn’t give you the same respect, knowing that other kids on their religious holidays are given off multiple days or even sometimes weeks,” Owais said. “I believe that Muslim students have the right to follow their religion.”

They also do not receive a reprieve when they return home, Rafia Ahmed, a student at New Hyde Park Memorial High School, explained. She said she was forced to attend school on Eid last year, and was drowning in homework that day. “When I finally came down for the night, we were shocked and sad that I was unable to spend time with my family,” she recalled. “I felt miserable.”

Those who do take the day off may face repercussions, according to Floral Park Memorial High School student Rukshana Khan. She told the board how she once missed the school day, and spent the next two weeks trying to catch up on the work that she missed in her Advanced Placement classes. So, she said, “Last year, I had to beg my parents to let me go to school for a few hours on Eid.”

The board is now considering the students’ request. President David Del Santo called their stories “heart-wrenching” and noted that the district suspended testing on those holidays. “So we’re taking steps towards it, and we’re going to work together,” Del Santo said at the board meeting. “We’ve got a long road to go down.”

The district’s calendar will not be finalized for another few months, and will have to match those of the elementary school districts in the area.

Islam spent the last year petitioning the New Hyde Park-Garden City Park Union Free School District to add the Eid holidays, she said, but the board tabled the request until more absences were recorded.

Determining how many Mulim students live in a school district is difficult, because the U.S. census does not ask residents about their religions. But according to Sperling’s Best Places, 1.2 percent of Elmont residents identify as Muslim.

Last year, thousands of Muslims from Elmont and Valley Stream gathered at Masjid Hamza for Eid al-Fitr. The mosque was founded in 1990, and has since grown to include a community center, an elementary school and a basketball court. It also recently acquired two houses behind the building for additional parking and construction of a new school.

The Elmont Islamic Center, a group of Muslim residents from Elmont, Franklin Square and South Floral Park, also hoped to open their own space on Hempstead Turnpike. The group previously rented a room near the intersection of Hempstead Turnpike and Butler Boulevard, but was unable to use the space on Fridays or for large community celebrations.

“Elmont is a diverse community with longstanding, different denominations, different cultural backgrounds . . . from different parts of the world,” the Rev. Danilo Archbold, pastor of New Jerusalem Pentecostal Church in Elmont, said at the meeting. “We can’t change the demographics of what’s going on.”

“If there’s no inclusion in diversity, then there is no diversity,” Archbold continued. “And we’re asking this board to consider all it can to make sure that we really have inclusion here amongst our children and our families.”

Ronny Reyes contributed to this story.