WITH the Covid-19 pandemic casting a shadow on social activities, many Muslim students had to observe Ramadan and celebrate Syawal in a distinctly different atmosphere.
Malaysian students abroad, and international students in Malaysia, not only took the challenges in stride, but also remained hopeful and shared their experience with Higher Ed in making the festive season meaningful.
Worried that he might get infected, Ahmad Shazwan Abdul Hamid, 21, a chemical engineering student minoring in studio art photography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the United States, decided not to fly home.
With no gatherings planned, this year's Ramadan was an entirely new experience for him.
"I was not able to break my fast with friends or go to our local Islamic Centre. But my cooking improved after preparing iftar with my housemates everyday."
While the lack of human interaction might be psychologically isolating for Shazwan, it also allowed him room for self-reflection and small accomplishments.
"I feel de-motivated sometimes because I am so used to going out every day for classes and work.
"I need to constantly remind myself that it is okay to not always be productive during this global pandemic. I set small goals, such as waking up early, finishing my homework quickly, or editing travel photos to keep my motivation up."
Shazwan longed for the big iftar and lively Raya celebrations with his family.
"My cousins and I would usually gather to help my mother and the aunts make ketupat and rendang. I definitely miss the sambal sotong and my aunt's raya cookies, such as semperit and tarts.
"This year, I celebrated Raya with my housemates at home. It's a sad but necessary step in this pandemic."
Pursuing a bachelor of communications in public relations at the University of Queensland, Australia, Atiqah Mat Senin, 22, was advised by her sponsor, Mara, to remain abroad.
"With the borders closed, we're worried about not being able to enter the country for the upcoming semester if we returned home.
"We were told that in previous years, an iftar gathering and tarawih were held at our university's multifaith chaplaincy. This year, we prayed at home and with classes being moved online, we had more time to prepare for iftar."
Atiqah was touched by her lecturers and tutors' efforts to regularly email students and ask how they were coping in the pandemic.
"Oftentimes, we tend to feel like we're struggling alone, so it is crucial to stay connected. I now spend more time cooking, baking and watching movies with my housemates. I believe that physical distancing does not mean social disconnection."
While it's sad to spend the festive season away from home, she considered herself lucky to have friends whom she called her "Brisbane family".
"We had a menu prepared for Raya, namely rendang and lodeh. I asked the recipes from my mother via video call as she is an amazing cook."
Born and raised in Kuala Terengganu, University College Cork medical student Nur Afrina Nadia Abd Razak, 22, recently completed her final exams online in Ramadan.
"I had to take an objective structured clinical examination (OSCE) exam, requiring me to examine patients and take their history. Instead of performing the actions, I had to type out my actions, which was a new experience to me."
Nur Afrina also decided to spend her second Ramadan abroad to avoid any disruption to her studies.
However, the inability to go out and have iftar with her friends had left her feeling isolated.
"The Muslim community is small here in Cork, so it is a bit lonely having iftar all by myself. My two Malaysian housemates have gone home, so I'm only here with my Italian housemate. She's very nice and would sometimes have dinner with me. This pandemic has brought us closer."
During this difficult time, she came to appreciate the little things in life.
"As life takes a pause, we can now focus on personal growth. I used to complain about having to walk to class every morning and walk home very late at night, but I really miss it now."
A family tradition that Nur Afrina loves is the weekly iftar at her grandmother's place with more than 30 cousins.
"Despite that, I am actually excited for Raya because it is my first time celebrating it overseas. I planned to get my Italian housemate to wear a baju kurung and celebrate the day with me."
Muhamad Zul Amin Zulkipli, 21, is pursuing actuarial science, applied statistics and mathematical economics at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, the US.
Hailing from Kota Baru, Kelantan, the Petronas scholar who remained abroad for summer classes initially struggled with campus closures.
"West Lafayette is a college town and now that everyone is off campus, I feel like I'm living in a ghost town. There are over 24,000 Covid-19 cases in Indiana now."
With his three housemates, Zul Amin spent Ramadan trying out traditional kuih recipes to fulfill their cravings.
"So far, I have made akok, kuih cara, bingka, keria, and cek mek molek and shared them with other Malaysian students nearby. It is fascinating to see how exchanging food for iftar has become a new way to connect with each other."
He would contact his family in Kota Baru every day, sharing pictures of his iftar dishes with his parents and siblings.
"Even though I wanted to experience raya perantauan, I still feel sad and miss my family. But, this is an opportunity to reflect, count my blessings, and to not take the chance of spending raya with my family for granted."
Source: New Straits Times