RNA - The call to prayer bounces off the walls of the Hamtramck Islamic centre, punctuated by the sipping of lemon juice and the chewing of dates. It’s 8.53pm, the sun has set, and around 100 Yemeni American men and boys sit cross-legged on the carpet, giving thanks and breaking fast for the seventh time this month.
“It’s like gaining a new life,” says Arif Huskic, a Bosnian Muslim interfaith leader who has come to pray here. “In submitting to God we’re testing ourselves.”
A hundred meters down the road, in this small Michigan city’s hottest new restaurant, an alert is sent to Tharia Begum’s iPhone. Her Muslim Pro app informs her group of six Bengali American girlfriends, all college students in their early 20s, that it’s time to sip chai and demolish the plates of chicken sheesh and tabouli ready and waiting in front of them.
“The first day is hard,” says 21-year-old Amina Ahmed. “But the second day, it’s like a boulder’s been dropped on you. It gets easier the deeper you go into the month.”
In Hamtramck, one of America’s quickest evolving cities and purportedly the first in the country to elect a majority-Muslim city council, Ramadan is observed by an increasingly diverse population. But at a time of deep introspection for Muslims around the world, this year’s month of fast in Hamtramck brings with it a sense of foreboding and a deeper connection to community as residents grapple with a climate of heightened Islamophobia ushered in by the presidency of Donald Trump.
“Since Trump won, yes, we’ve become more alert, but it kind of brought our community together,” says 21-year-old Shahria Islam, picking through the last scraps on her plate. “We look out for each other because we know we’re targets.”
At just two square miles, surrounded by the city of Detroit, Hamtramck was once a hub for Polish migrants drawn to the city by manufacturing jobs at the Dodge assembly plant that opened in the 1914. The factory’s closure in 1980 led to a relative exodus of eastern Europeans who once made up around 75% of the city’s population of over 20,000 residents. Yemeni and Bangladeshi migrants now make up close to a majority of the population.
The brisk transformation is neatly underscored by the array of shop fronts and local businesses that line the city’s main high street, which stretches for less than a mile. A halal supermarket stands opposite a Polish food store; a hipster cafe showcasing local art is a few doors down from a Bengali clothes shop selling decorative silks and bright hijabs that shimmer in the spring sun. The brick walls are lined with murals: one depicts two covered Muslim women, another an American eagle flexing its wings.
At one hipster cafe, among bookshelves lined with old first editions and neatly stacked art magazines, Saad Almasmari starts his day handing out business cards and pitching his vision for the city to anyone who will listen.
The 31-year-old, who arrived in the US from Yemen in 2009 without a word of English, was elected to the six-person city council in 2015, marking the moment the non-partisan body became a Muslim majority. The news sparked uproar among conservative commentators who branded the city in a suite of Islamophobic slurs and suggested Hamtramck was now under sharia law.
Almasmari, who had campaigned on guaranteeing better funding for public schools and promoting diversity, was taken aback. “I’m just a social person. I love politics and helping people through elected office,” he says raising an eyebrow. “To see how people reacted, it was just sad.”
The ambitious father of three, who runs a local ice-cream business, is now running for state office, campaigning as he fasts.
“It’s tough,” he says. “You’re knocking on people’s door and they come out and drink coffee or water, while you’re fasting and tired. But you have to smile at people, you have to act as the best person ever in front of the voters, even though you’re not eating for 15 hours.”
Resistance to the Trump administration’s discrimination against Muslims has been fierce among Hamtramck’s mostly liberal, multicultural populace. Thousands took to the streets here when Trump announced his first travel ban in January 2017, which targeted a group of Muslim majority countries. In April, before a supreme court ruling on the ban, over 100 local business here shut down in protest.
But Trump’s ban, which includes travellers from Yemen, has had direct impact on many here.
Muad Almogari, a 32-year-old science and maths teacher at the local middle school, struggles to talk about his older sister, Afriqiya, who is languishing in rebel controlled Ibb province in Yemen’s west with her husband and children.
Her visa application has been held in limbo since Trump’s ban came into force, and he worries every day that she will be killed in crossfire. He works a second job at an after-school program to make enough money to send $500 a month to his sister, meaning he only just keeps up with bills for himself.
“It’s always there in the back of my head,” he says. “Whether she’s still alive, and who I’d blame if something happened.”
Almogari says he made the gut-wrenching decision to avoid mosque during Ramadan, his reasoning is a sobering reminder of the climate many of America’s roughly 3.3 million Muslims continue to endure in the Trump era.
“I don’t feel safe there,” he says. “I feel like something is going to happen. We don’t turnaround until the prayer is done. What if someone comes in shooting with a rifle like in Canada?”
The month of Ramadan sees a significant increase in outreach at the Muslim family services centre, a not-for-profit organization helping Hamtramck’s poorest Muslim families – many of whom are refugees – by distributing food donations and care packages. 49.7% of the city’s residents live in poverty, according to US census data, a figure that soars almost four times above the national average.
“People are more generous at this time of the year,” says Summi Akteer, the 33-year-old administrations director, adding the centre will deliver close to double the number of food packages, around 300, than they would throughout the rest of the year.
The task keeps Akteer so busy she has no time to visit mosque after work and so travels straight home to cook burgers and pasta for her two children before they break fast.
Although a recent study at Harvard University indicates that Muslim majority countries with longer fasting hours – those which undergo Ramadan in the summer – are likely to experience a minor negative economic impact, countries like the US with a relatively minor population of Muslims will face no tangible economic impact.
To the Hamtramck’s south sits the 7,000-capacity Keyworth Stadium. John F Kennedy descended on the venue at the tail end of the 1960 presidential election campaign, addressing a majority Polish crowd and declaring Hamtramck to be the “strongest Democratic city in the United States”.
Now the stadium hosts Detroit City FC, founded in 2012, who play in the National Premier Soccer League, America’s fourth tier of professional football. The season is just getting started here and the club draws a supporter base from across the city’s different ethnic groups.
Salah Hadwa, 28, is sometimes among the Northern Guard, the most vocal and loyal of Detroit City FC’s fans who descend on matches in formation and let off smoke grenades in the stands. He often works matchdays as a food vendor, selling kebabs with local entrepreneur Moortadha Obeid.
During last year’s Ramadan, in which the team played seven home games, the pair would arrive at the ground by 5am, set up their stall, and sleep in the stands before kickoff in a bid to preserve energy. This year they’re thankful there will only be three games at home throughout the month, all starting much later in the day.
“Detroit City FC is part of Hamtramck, and Hamtramck is part of me,” says Hadwa, as the call to afternoon prayer is heard in the distance. “I will always call this place home. It is my city.”
According to The Guardian, the large US flag flying at the stadium has been lowered to half mast to mark the school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas. On the field the local high school’s American football team practice on the astroturf as Hadwa looks on.
“Any change is always kind of hard for people,” with reference to the city’s evolving makeup. “But there’s no change during Ramadan. The only change are the days it happens. You never let anything affect the fast. Especially not the negative things with Trump.”