By Khadija Gurnah
Patiently, then, persevere… for the Promise of Allah is true. And ask forgiveness for your faults, and celebrate the praises of your Lord in the evening and in the morning — 40:55.
Breaking fast after 8 pm means that most evenings my husband and I set up and clean up after two dinner sittings. I have food ready for my girls by 7 pm, so that they are fed and in bed before I sit with my husband and teenage son for iftar. It is a long day, much longer than the fasts that I was used to in Kenya — made longer still with the absence of communal meals every night that we used to share in our multi-generational home. As fatigue sets in towards the end of the fast, I work to maintain our regular routine even when I keenly feel the absence of caffeine and sugary treats. I know that my children are learning Islam through watching my husband and I, and if the enduring memory of this holy month is of tired and impatient parents, that will shape their understanding of religious observance.
This is the patience and perseverance I am imperfectly modeling for my children. But, it is not of my caffeine-deprived afternoons, making last-minute runs to the grocery store to pick up vegan marshmallows for my son’s school meeting, or negotiating with my 7-year old about arranging play dates only if she cleans her room. Rather, I am reminded of the asylum seekers at our border who have persevered through unimaginable trauma to seek safety in the United States, only to be met with additional pain and trauma.
As I prepare iftar, it’s not uncommon to receive an email about another asylum-seeking child who has died while in the government’s custody. Today, as I made rice and beans, I received an email about a 10-year-old girl from El Salvador who died in the government’s custody on Sept. 29, 2018. She was the first of six migrant children to die in U.S. custody — or soon after being released — in the past eight months.
Like all mothers, my children are the most important thing in my life. I want to give them everything, and to defend them with all my soul. It is devastating to think that as I sit my daughters down to eat, there are more than 14,300 vulnerable migrant toddlers, children and teens languishing in crowded detention centers and residential facilities across the country. Some of the children have been separated from their parents, and some have risked everything to walk across the border unaccompanied, only to be met with even more challenges when they reach the border to seek asylum.
Today, as I made rice and beans, I received an email about a 10-year-old girl from El Salvador who died in the government’s custody on Sept. 29, 2018.
In addition to the thousands of children held in immigration detention, on any given day, over 503,000 children and youth are being held held in facilities away from home and away from their families as a result of juvenile or criminal [in]justice involvement.
The anxiety and distrust children suffer when they’re institutionalized away from loved ones can cause long-lasting mental and physical health problems, particularly for young children who need personal attention in their formative years. Children who experience extended separation from their parents because of incarceration or detention are at increased risk of facing a variety of physical, mental and behavioral health issues throughout the rest of their lives. In fact, this type of child–parent separation is classified as a specific type of trauma: an adverse childhood experience (ACE).
Although we primarily hear of asylum seekers from South America, immigration policies and family separation and detention deeply impact Black communities. In 2016 alone, 19,000 African and Haitian migrants arrived in Mexico on their way to seek asylum at the U.S. border. Black refugees and immigrants are faced with disproportionate immigration enforcement combined with increased policing, making them particularly vulnerable in a system that is increasingly hostile to immigrants of color. It is no surprise then that one of the first cases of child separation that I learned about was the case of a mother and her 7-year-old daughter fleeing violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who were forcibly torn from each other in the United States and detained separately 2,000 miles apart.
Between work and children, I rarely have the energy or the opportunity to attend tarawih prayers. Even going to the masjid for a communal iftar leaves us all exhausted the next day, so we don’t go as often with the later iftar time. Yet, this juz’ speaks to me of faith that can be practiced not just through prayer and recitation. It tells of the first community of believers, who practiced in the most difficult of circumstances. Whose actions in supporting the most vulnerable among them was a form of ibadah.
I am part of a faith tradition that has ingrained into it the pursuit of justice, to want for others what you want for yourself. That my faith is playing my small part in advocating for the mothers who cannot be with their children.
Thousands of mothers today are persevering through unimaginable horrors from having their children forcibly separated and incarcerated; and I am in a small way able use my voice to be an advocate for them. All children deserve to be with their loved ones outside of cages, whether they are asylum seekers or children who have been tracked into the school-to-prison pipeline by failed punitive discipline and zero tolerance policies.
Ramadan has always been a time of spiritual renewal for me, and this Ramadan, an active part of my ibadah has been in deepening my commitment to support the work being done to protect vulnerable communities, whether they are asylum seekers or children who have been tracked into the school to prison pipeline by failed punitive discipline and zero tolerance policies. My worship may not look the same as it did when I was a college student. I am not able to participate in communal prayers as I used to. But I am part of a faith tradition that has ingrained into it the pursuit of justice, to want for others what you want for yourself. I recognize that my faith is playing a small part in advocating for the mothers who cannot be with their children.
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Khadija Gurnah is a Campaign Director at MomsRising where she works to support immigrant communities through policy advocacy, via grassroots outreach and engagement with legislators. For more than 10 years, Ms. Gurnah has worked in the global south and throughout the United States to foster improved physical and mental health outcomes for women and children, focusing her efforts on underserved populations, the uninsured and Medicaid beneficiaries. She has used her extensive experience in program development, implementation, delivery and analysis to engage on projects with the White House Office of Public Engagement and the Department of Health and Human Services. She worked with the Department of Education on a bullying prevention campaign to bolster cultural sensitivity and with the Office of Juvenile Justice to support religious accommodation for Muslim youth in the juvenile justice system.