As a sophomore at Pomona College, Aysha Gsibat remembers rushing to get into the dining hall to grab food to break her fast during the holy month of Ramadan, which involves abstaining from food and water from sunrise until sunset.
She read prayers while waiting for the sun to go down. Alone in her dorm room, Gsibat had iftar, the sunset meal usually eaten with friends and family, as a party of one.
Freshman Ismail Kavuran hasn't seen his family in Turkey in eight months, and it will be another eight before he sees them again. As an international student at Harvey Mudd College, the 18-year-old worried he would spend Ramadan eating by himself.
Dualeh Dualeh, 19, attended a boarding school before coming to Pomona College. Without a microwave in his dorm, he would pick up boxes of food to eat in the evening for iftar and morning for suhoor, the pre-dawn meal. He expected he would have to do the same as a college student.
But this year is different for all three. On a recent Thursday, the students and other Muslims celebrating Ramadan at the Claremont Colleges have come together just about every weeknight for iftar, breaking their fasts in community.
Ramadan started in late March and ends this week, marking the holy month for Muslims, who believe the first verses of the Quran were revealed during this period to the prophet Muhammad more than 1,400 years ago. It represents the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, and the dates vary each year. Ramadan this year has fallen fully into the academic year for many students.
At the Claremont Colleges, Muslim students hail from different backgrounds and regions — Indonesia, Syria, Turkey, the Palestinian territories, Somalia. Shia and Sunni Muslims, groups that have historically had a tense relationship, have spent the holy month sharing meals and prayers in campus dining halls, those covering their heads with hijabs alongside those without.
Other colleges in recent years have also expanded their services to accommodate Muslim students. UC Berkeley announced in January that it will provide expanded dining options for students fasting during Ramadan, including carry-out meals. At UCLA, the Muslim Student Assn., which was founded in 1964, has been organizing iftar prayers and dinners and fundraising to cover the costs since early March. Last year, USC began offering students to-go meals for suhoor because dining halls did not open before dawn.
The dining staff at the Claremont Colleges has stepped up to provide authentic meals, laying out elaborate banquets for students during a trying time when they are studying for rigorous exams and fasting.
" Ramadan is not just about staying hungry and breaking your fast, but it's also about being together with your community," Kavuran said as he sat at a table in the Harvey Mudd dining hall on a recent Thursday during iftar. "Before coming to the United States, I was concerned about how I was going to celebrate because I [moved here] alone."
But here, he said, "I can eat food from my country, I can have drinks from my country, from my kitchen. And if you look at the people, they're just like family. I can sit with anybody and they're just embracing me like I'm one of them."
The Claremont Colleges are a consortium of five undergraduate schools and two graduate schools: Claremont McKenna, Harvey Mudd, Pitzer, Pomona and Scripps; Claremont Graduate University and Keck Graduate Institute. This year, the campus dining halls have expanded meal options and hours to host iftar dinners every weekday at a different undergraduate college dining hall to serve the Muslim community.
Last year, when students were back on campus amid the COVID-19 pandemic, many tried to put together iftar meals on their own. But this year, Shaila Andrabi, the coordinator of Muslim life, said she spoke to each college's dining services team to see if they could extend their hours to accommodate students who are fasting during Ramadan.
"This is the first time that this has ever happened, that all the colleges have acknowledged Ramadan, and they are learning," Andrabi said. On the weekends, she orders catered food and prepares fruit salads at her home, with the help of students.
At USC, about 150 to 200 students have shown up to iftar meals put together by the MSA chapter this year, according to Varun Soni, dean of religious life. While the university provides some funding support, Soni said the iftar meals, which take place at the University Religious Center, are driven by students, who organize and fundraise.
On a recent Thursday evening, the Hoch-Shanahan Dining Commons at Harvey Mudd was humming as students arrived for dinner. In the main dining hall, students were queueing up to grab Mexican food prepared by the staff. As the hour grew closer to 7 p.m., the usual closing time, and the sun began to fade, the hall was still crowded, as staff began to lay out plates, desserts and drinks for iftar.
Each dining hall stays open past the regular closing time one day a week during Ramadan. On this night, it was Harvey Mudd's turn.
In the kitchen, as one cook flipped dozens of quesadillas on a grill, chefs Michael Montoya and Ruben Vega moved efficiently side-by-side over another grill, roasting bell peppers and halal chicken kebabs for the iftar feast.
"I definitely feel like it's getting better," Montoya said as he flipped huge peppers on the grill. "We want them to come here and feel like they have everything they need."
After Andrabi spoke to them, the team members at Harvey Mudd volunteered to host the first campus iftar dinner, said Miguel Ruvalcaba, the senior director for dining services at Harvey Mudd.
The dining staff researched the meal's components — dates, halal meat, spices and customary drinks and desserts. They went to stores that sold halal food and asked restaurant owners about what they used to make their meals, Ruvalcaba said.
"We took it as a challenge, like, 'Let's see what we can do with this,'" Ruvalcaba said. "We might not know the foods, we might not know everything about it."
But he wanted to try.
Before this year, Ruvalcaba said, his staff worked individually with a few of Harvey Mudd's Muslim students to provide them with iftar meals to take back to their dorms. But this year, they're feeding as many as 60 people each Thursday night, which can extend dining hall operations for another hour.
As 7:15 p.m. hit — the time the sun set on this Thursday — other students had mostly left, while those observing Ramadan piled their plates with food from an extravagant display. They ate grape leaf dolmas, samosas, Israeli and Balela Middle Eastern salads, grilled harissa chicken — a first for Ruvalcaba's dining hall — and beef kofta. They picked up bowls of tomato lentil and lamb stew. And crispy, sweet baklava for dessert.
Kavuran, in a blue hoodie, exclaimed excitedly over the dolmas, which reminded him of home. After he set down his plate, he ran back out to Ruvalcaba, who was portioning out soups, to tell him the jallab, a grape molasses-based drink with rose water, was just like his iftar meal at home.
"Thank you so much," he told Ruvalcaba as they fist-bumped.
An informal poll by The Times asked Muslim students to rank the various dining halls on their iftar offerings. Although students from all the colleges were surveyed, the findings may have been influenced by the setting — Harvey Mudd.
Because the clear winner was ... Harvey Mudd, which they say set a high bar from the outset. The staff reserved a room for the students to eat their meals in. After the dining hall closed, they had space to pray as well.
"Of course, Harvey Mudd College," said Kavuran, the Harvey Mudd freshman. His friend, Arsum Nadeem Chaudhary of Pomona College, pretended to think about the question. "Are you serious?" Kavuran said accusingly.
"I agree, I agree," Chaudhary relented.
"Thank you very much," Kavuran said, satisfied.
"Harvey Mudd has been the clear winner," Gsibat of Pomona College said. "From the food, the service to the people, the private room, like, they just excel — to the desserts. ... You can tell they put so much work and research into trying to emulate our traditional home dishes. And they do it amazingly."
Students credit Andrabi for much of the success in getting the schools to celebrate iftar.
Andrabi said she and her husband were the first Muslims in the Claremont Colleges community when they arrived in 1988. Since then, she said, the Muslim community has grown. Many students came to know her as "Shaila Auntie," as she served in an unofficial capacity as their confidante and advocate.
"This work was not a burden for me," Andrabi said, and students welcomed the support. "I wasn't a professor so I wasn't grading them, and I wasn't their mom or dad. I wasn't judging them."
The Claremont Colleges already had Jewish, Catholic and Protestant chaplains on campus. Last January, the college named her the interim coordinator for Muslim life, a position that became permanent and allowed her to take on an official role. She began gathering contact information for Muslim undergraduate and graduate students and realized there were many more than she had initially thought.
Her list of emails grew to 200, with students from at least 20 different nations, she said. When it came to organizing iftar meals this year, she was able to get meals covered by the colleges for students who did not have meal plans and wanted to attend.
Andrabi said she is proud of the "beautiful communal meals" they have brought to the campus and breaking down the walls within the Muslim community.
"This kind of coming together is very, very unusual," she said. "I am just so excited."
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.