America's Unofficial Ambassadors

We work at the grassroots level throughout the Muslim World to counter violent extremism before it takes hold, to promote tolerance and understanding, and to foster better relations with the United States.

Fasting Far From Home

By Tolossa Hassan

Tolossa Hassan is the recipient of a Mirza Family Foundation Scholarship. He is a rising junior at Allegheny College, where he studies Economics and North African and Middle Eastern Studies. Tolossa was born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya, and now lives in Seattle, Washington . This summer he is interning at a summer camp for children at the Zaouiat Sidi Abdeslam Youth Center. After graduation, he hopes to continue to travel and work with Muslim-majority countries. 


Ramadan Kareem! For the first time in my life, I’m away from my family during Ramadan. I have been fasting during Ramadan since I was seven years old, so I was not too worried about that aspect of the holiday. However, I’ve spent all of my previous Ramadans with my family.

This year, I am 7,833 km away from family and friends as I volunteer as one of America’s Unofficial Ambassadors in the village of Zaouiat Sidi Abdeslam in the Mid-Atlas Mountains.  America’s Unofficial Ambassadors (AUA), a citizen diplomacy initiative, seeks to improve relationships between the United States and the Muslim World through service internships. With two other AUA volunteers, I help to run a daily summer camp for youth, ages seven to fourteen. Together, we play soccer, teach the students English, and play interactive games.  This has been an incredible experience: I have built relationships with Moroccan families and friends, and witnessed how Ramadan is similar and different across cultures.

Tolossa w campers_Gillen_June 2016

Tolossa organizes a soccer game with campers in Zaouiat Sidi Abdeslam

Ramadan, at its foundation, is the same no matter where you are.  However, there is cultural influence, whether you are in the United States or in Morocco, which gives it different colors.  One of the most surprising experiences I have had thus far was the organization of iftar. In the United States, one must have a planned location at home, at the mosque or at the home of family friends for ftour, the breaking of the fast. In Morocco, though, where more than 99 percent of the population is Muslim, , it amazes me how quickly and easily students get together for ftour.

On campus, all it takes is a few texts and phone calls and we have a place to ftour and more food than we could eat. The way this works is that everyone brings something small to the table. The accessibility of food makes this process easier here in Morocco. Students do not have to go out of their way to get food. Most of their parents pack boxes with traditional Moroccan sweets. If they need something fresh, the campus restaurants are conveniently available and sometimes students will even cook.

One of the most amazing experiences I had during Ramadan was during a last minute trip to Rabat. Ismail, a Moroccan student who I met during my campus tour, has become one of my best friends here. He and his soccer friends hosted me in the beautiful city of Rabat. They gave me tour of the Hassan Tower and showed the greatest hospitality.


Breaking fast with new friends at Al Akhawayn University (Photo: Tolossa Hassan)

We were on the beach enjoying the nice weather and view, when I noticed people digging giant rectangles in the sand. Then they placed tablecloths over the rectangular sand pits and laid out the food for the nearing ftour time. Although we didn’t break our fast at the beach, seeing how easy it was for people to organize a beautiful setting revealed another cultural difference. My family in the States would not do this due to our fasting and busy life. In Morocco people are not in rush, we left the beach half an hour before ftour and from just one phone call we were able to arrive at a giant table full of food.


Coming to Morocco, I thought it would be challenging for me to find food for iftar and sohour, our pre-dawn meal. But that has been the least of my worries; everyday I have been invited by my new friends to ftour with them. I have experienced the fajr or pre-dawn prayer, where in the States, you can expect the mosque to only have the first and second row filled. The mosques in Morocco are crowded and full, even in the pre-dawn wee hours.


Breaking the day-long fast at iftar (Photo: Tolossa Hassan)

The shared aspect of community is alive here at all hours of Ramadan. The adhan, or call to prayer, here is always loud, during the day or at night, and sometimes, you can hear the call to prayer from two different mosques overlap. Late at night, before the dawn prayer, there is a special call for people to wake up and eat and pray. There are even people who walk around the city blowing horns. In return for waking people up, they receive food from others.

While I’ve certainly missed my family, the welcome reception that I’ve received in Morocco has made this a special Ramadan for me.



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This entry was posted on July 1, 2016 by in Volunteer Related.
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