Last week, while awaiting the confirmation of the moon sighting to mark the holy month, I received an interesting message in my inbox. Before reading the whole paragraph, I chuckled at the first sentence that caught my eye:

“I absolutely LOVE food, I eat all day long.”

The message came from Newcastle upon Tyne woman, Claire Harmer, who teaches students who have come to live in the UK, many of whom come from backgrounds of conflict and political turmoil, and are refugees and asylum seekers. Inspired by the dedication to Ramadan by many of her Muslim students, this year Claire has decided to try fasting herself. Although initially only intending to try one fast, after her first fast and with the encouragement of family and friends, Claire decided to challenge herself to fast for the 30 days of Ramadan while raising money for three refugee charities in the UK.

Interview

So Claire, why are you fasting this Ramadan?

I work as an ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) teacher at a college in Newcastle upon Tyne. My students have come from all over the world to live in the UK. Many of them are asylum seekers and refugees who have fled their home countries due to conflict or oppressive regimes. A lot of my students are Muslim and every year they encourage me to try fasting. My answer has always been “I love food too much! I’ll try next year!” Due to the current situation with the Coronavirus outbreak, Ramadan will be very different for my students and some of them will spend this special time alone. 

In my job, I see how difficult it is for asylum seekers and refugees to find their way and lay the solid foundations of a new life in the UK. The charities I have chosen do amazing work despite receiving little funding and being in such high demand. 

How have you found fasting so far?

The first day was easier than I expected, but I think I was lulled into a false sense of security! The second day was a lot tougher as the weather was warm and I was more active that day. I have really enjoyed it so far. It’s made me appreciate what I have. I might feel hungry and thirsty, but it’s only a temporary state for me. For people all over the world, that’s how they feel on a daily basis. I’m so lucky that at Iftar I get to eat whatever I feel like, many people don’t have that luxury.

Source: Claire Ellen Harmer

What have been some of the challenges you’ve found in fasting?

I usually drink a lot of water throughout the day, so being thirsty has definitely been the main challenge! I’m working from home at the moment and I’ve found that I keep standing up to walk to the kitchen to get water, then remembering and sitting back down again! I’m still trying to find the perfect suhoor meal, that keeps me both hydrated and full enough to last the day. I think the only time I’ve ever eaten at 3am before is when I’ve had a kebab after a night out!

I’ve also found it difficult to concentrate at times. I’m currently in the final month of completing a research project, in addition to working full time, on how the mental health concerns of asylum seekers and refugees have an impact on teaching and the classroom environment. My mind has gone completely blank many times when I’ve been trying to write!

To push through the challenges, I have just tried to focus on the reasons why I’m doing this. My family, friends, and colleagues have been extremely supportive, and my students have been sending me tips and words of encouragement. Working with them has completely changed my outlook on life, so I feel by doing this I am helping to repay them for that. I’ve also been using my Instagram to document my journey. I’ve had some really kind messages and donations from complete strangers, which I never expected.

Claire shares her iftar on video

What do you hope to accomplish by the end of Ramadan?

I hope to raise awareness of the struggles that asylum seekers and refugees face in this country, about the wonderful work that the charities do, and to raise as much money as I can for each of them. The media (and often the government) in the UK, use immigrants as scapegoats for issues not actually caused by them. We are all human and deserve to be treated with respect and dignity, no matter what our background, culture, or religion. I feel my reasons for fasting this month are not only personal but also political.

I was disgusted, but not shocked to see that far-right groups have been using Coronavirus to further spread their anti-Islamic rhetoric. The anti-Muslim sentiment we see in the UK, especially in the press, really angers me. I don’t follow any particular religion, but there are so many aspects of Islam that I admire. I’ve had a lot of people ask me questions about what I’m doing, so it’s great that I’m helping other people learn about Ramadan and Islam. I think education is definitely key to breaking down stereotypes and inaccurate information about the Muslim community. 

On a personal level, I wanted to push myself to do this to see if I have the control and will power to do it. Since the lockdown restrictions were put in place, our lives in the UK have become a lot more difficult. Fasting has given me focus to be grateful for what I have and not think so much about what I am missing. I’ve been keeping a reflective journal, so I’m looking forward to reading that after Eid.

Overall, the experience has been extremely rewarding and I look forward to the rest of the month.

Claire Ellen Harmer

Claire also aims to document her Ramadan journey and share information on Instagram to debunk some of the myths and misconceptions surrounding asylum seekers, which is a great effort in helping to shift the narrative of refugees in the UK as it can often be littered with misinformation.

Claire has now set up three donation pages for all three of her chosen charities and is encouraging those who wish to donate to give to the charity that currently has the least amount, to ensure that the charities receive equally where possible. To find out more and donate to Claire’s chosen charities, click the links below.

Action Foundation

The North of England Refugee Service

The West End Refugee Service

Article By Shazmeen Khalid

With thanks to Claire Harmer for the interview