Ramadan this year will be very different for mother-of-four Niyara Mamutova. She moved away from her hometown in eastern Ukraine a week after the Russian invasion to seek safety in the western part of the country.
But safety still feels far away for her, her husband, and their children, including a 2-month old baby.
“When we hear the sirens, we have to hide somewhere safe. I have a newborn so we cannot run to the basement of our building. We sit in corridors where there are no windows. When we hear the sirens we feel anxious and when they stop we feel a little bit of calm. It means we are alive,” she told VICE World News via WhatsApp.
Mamutova is currently staying in a town near the border to Romania. Residents have to abide by a strict 10PM curfew and the streets are filled with Ukrainian troops. It’s not the usual way to spend Ramadan, one of the holiest months in the Islamic calendar.
“I do not feel safe in my new city because Russian rockets fall here,” she said. “Every day and night we hear sirens and it means that danger is close – the danger of bombs.”
During Ramadan, Muslims fast from dawn to sunset everyday for a month. The month of fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam that Muslims live their lives by. It’s a month of celebration, gratitude, and spirituality. Ramadan is often spent sharing evening meals with family and loved ones, going for nightly prayers at the mosque with the local community, and giving back to those less fortunate.
Niyara Mamutova and her family pictured in Ukraine before the war began.
“I miss that atmosphere of preparing iftars for a lot of people, gathering and staying together for Taraweeh prayers,” Mamutova said. “All these pictures stay in my mind and I remember that time when we were happy.”
Before the invasion, Mamutova was involved in a Muslim women’s network spread across Ukraine. Ramadan would be a special time for her, putting together charity and social events. She says this year she misses the “atmosphere of sisterhood” that Ramadan would bring.
Now, her days are spent concerned about what will happen next: “I worry about my four children. Their present and their future. They can’t go to school, do art activities or sports. We are living and waiting for the war to stop.”
For Ukrainian Muslims who managed to leave the country, similar worries haunt them of loved ones left behind.
Olha Fryndak left Irpin, her hometown of 15 years, on the first day of the invasion. It took her and her family a week to reach safety in Germany. They travelled through Moldova, Romania, Hungary, and Austria before reaching their final destination where they are renting an apartment from the local authority. Doing the journey with young children meant lots of questions and confusion along the way.
“Every time we set off on the next part of the journey, the children would ask us ‘are we going back to Irpin’?” Fryndak said over WhatsApp.
Olha Fryndak and her children during a day out to Kyiv Park and Science Museum, before the war.
“Usually in Ukraine, we gather with our big family every week to make iftar in our homes together, pray Taraweeh together, and visit Kyiv mosque to pray and have iftar with other Muslims. This year, it’s so upsetting that the mosque is closed because of the war in Ukraine and many Muslims are left displaced.”
She says she misses celebrating Ramadan at home now she’s in a town in Germany that she doesn’t know. There are no home comforts of breaking fast with family, or heading to the local mosque to spend the evening. Her children can’t take part in activities like Qur’an competitions in the way they used to. She gets emotional thinking about her community and family left behind in Ukraine.
It’s a feeling that’s shared by other Ukrainian Muslims who have left their country.
Olha Bawazir, a 23-year-old master’s student from Kharkiv, has also found refuge in Germany. Her home city was one of the first cities to face Russian forces when the invasion began in February.
“Ramadan will be different this year because the usual feeling of happiness and joy is not there. My heart pains because of my country,” she told VICE World news via WhatsApp.
Olha Bawazir and her husband pictured on an evening walk to get coffee in Kharkiv, before the war began.
“I wish to go back to my life in Ukraine. I want to have family gatherings like we used to, meet up with friends in the city centre, go to university, go to work, drink coffee in my favourite cafe, and many other things.”
It’s the first time she’s spent Ramadan outside of Ukraine. She keeps in touch with friends and family but mentions it can be “distressing” receiving messages from loved ones confirming if they’re still alive.
“This war has united all Ukrainians, from the east to the west. People I barely talked to before have now become like family,” Bawazir said. “My friends who stayed are optimistic about the outcome of this war because the truth always wins.
“After the darkest night a beautiful sunrise comes.”