Dnipro, Ukraine – Muslims in Ukraine face a difficult Ramadan this year as Russia’s war on the country continues to rage, yet many plan to use the charitable season to raise money to support those in need.
“We have to readjust everything,” said Niyara Mamutova, a Crimean Tatar and head of the Muslim League of Ukraine.
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On the first day of the fasting month, likely to be on Saturday, she plans to prepare an Iftar evening meal with a group of displaced families who are staying with her in the Islamic centre in Chernivtsi.
“A lot of Muslims went abroad and those who are still in Ukraine need support,” Mamutova said on the phone from the western Ukrainian city where she has been displaced to from the southeastern province of Zaporizhzhia, parts of which are under Russian control.
Five weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine, more than 10 million people have been forced from their homes, including some four million people who fled abroad, according to the United Nations.
Muslims make up about one percent of the population of Ukraine, a predominantly Ukrainian Orthodox Christian country by religion. Before the war, Ukraine was home to more than 20,000 Turkish nationals, as well as a number of Turkic people, most notably the Crimean Tatars.
Preparations for Ramadan have been both difficult and emotional this year as bombs fall on the country and curfews are in place, restricting movement in the evening when families gather to break the daylight fast. Displaced by war, many are also far from their homes, community support networks and friends – yet, they are determined to make the most of the festive period.
“We have to be ready to do our best to get God’s forgiveness, to pray for our families, our souls, our country, Ukraine,” said Mamutova, whose husband, Muhammet Mamutov, is an imam.
‘We will share our bread’
As a Crimean Tatar, Mamutova has been displaced before – when Russia annexed the southern peninsula of Crimea in 2014, she and her family were forced to flee to Zaporizhzhia.
“When we lived in Crimea, we never thought that we would have to leave. My people were deported previously by [Soviet leader Joseph] Stalin and my grandparents and parents always had dreams to go back,” she said.
“When I was two, in 1988, we returned. But then Russia occupied Crimea in 2014 and we understood that we could not continue our religious activities so we left. Now I have fled my home again.”
In 1944, more than 191,000 Crimean Tatars were deported on Stalin’s orders, mostly to modern-day Uzbekistan.
Mamutova said she has had to change her many plans for this year’s Ramadan, including religious lessons – although some will move online – and efforts to feed the homeless.
“In Zaporizhzhia, the Muslim community was various. There were a lot of different nationalities and all would prepare their national dishes. One day we would eat Indian biryanis, another Palestinian mantsev or Uzbek plov,” she said.
“Now we live hiding when we hear sirens. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring. It is difficult psychologically. It seems like we have aged 10 years since the beginning of this war.”
Isa Celebi, a Turkish curtain seller who has lived in Ukraine since 2010, said this year’s Ramadan will find many away from their homes, with some “even living in their cars”.
“We always keep our house open to people during Ramadan, or war. We will share our bread,” he said, adding that stocks of some foods are low while prices have risen.
“The war affected us badly and we are struggling to survive – my business has entirely stopped. But I believe we will see an end, maybe in one year, maybe two, but the good days will be back. That’s why I won’t leave this country.”
At the start of the war, Celebi helped evacuate 400 Turks, Muslims and Ukrainians from his home city of Vinnytsia, western Ukraine, out of the country.
Now, he is helping 1,000 orphans who are staying in nearby Chernivtsi’s Holy Ascension Monastery Banchenskyy.
“These children are filled with tears. I want to give them all of our zakat this year. I call for others, please help this place where children cry,” he said.
“Ukrainians are good people. We should help lift their burden – I call on everyone to support Ukrainians.”