“Growing up as a child, my siblings and I always loved the coming of Ramadan,” recalls Dauda Sesay, a former refugee from Sierra Leone, now living in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. “The weeks leading to the month of Ramadan, my father would buy food (bags of rice, sugar, cans of milk) to give out to the needy. My siblings and I would help my parents parcel the food in plastic bags and share it at the mosque.”
“It is a legacy I am still doing on behalf of my late father.”
Ramadan is the holiest celebration for Muslims around the world. It is a time when families come together to show kindness and solidarity, and to strengthen their faith.
But for refugees, the celebration can be bittersweet – a reminder of traditions lost.
Dauda’s family was forced to flee Sierra Leone in West Africa due to a brutal war that tragically led to the murder of his father and sister. While fleeing, Dauda was seriously injured but found safety in a refugee camp in Gambia. He was just 16 at the time.
The first years celebrating Ramadan in Gambia were difficult Dauda recalls. “Ramadan always reminds me of my family, especially my dad. Initially, it was very depressing, but finding the love of my life (his wife) at the camp changed my life and brought back the joy of Ramadan.”
Not only did Dauda find the love of his life at the camp, he grew into a leader, continuing his father’s legacy of service to others. He worked with other refugees to advocate for better living conditions in the camp and for more education opportunities for children.
All these experiences prepared him for the next chapter of his life – Dauda, his wife and 6-month-old child were resettled to the United States in 2009. The family found safety and a place to restart in Baton Rouge.
The family immediately embraced their new community and Dauda found a way to honor the legacy of his family’s Ramadan traditions.
“My favorite moment is was when I was able to organize the Gift of Joy event with The Louisiana Organization for Refugees and Immigrants (LORI) and Islamic Center of Baton Rouge. We gave $50 gift cards to 50 refugee children to buy new clothes and provided breakfast to over 300 adults and children during Eid prayer at the mosque.”
But this year, the coronavirus pandemic has challenged the way Muslims around the world are celebrating Ramadan.
“COVID-19 significantly impacts the way we celebrate Ramadan,” says Dauda. “This is the first time we are breaking fast consecutively with just my nuclear family. I miss the diversity of breaking fast with Muslims from all over the world.”
Despite the new challenges, Dauda finds strength in his faith and through carrying on family traditions. “I was born and raised into a devoted Muslim family. I feel peace as I am able to continue my beloved father’s legacy of providing for the needy, especially in the month of Ramadan.”
Dauda Sesay is the President and Executive Director of the Louisiana Organization for Refugees and Immigrants. He is also the Louisiana delegate for Refugee Congress, a national advocacy organization built and led by former refugees.