The piercing sound of the alarm clock rings, disrupting my sleep for the night and reminding me that it’s time to wake up for Suhur. Despite the weight of fatigue in my eyes, I’ve never been more excited to wake up to embrace the solemnity of my pre-dawn meal.

The realisation then sets in swiftly. It dawns upon me that this year, I’ll be observing Ramadan on my own, separated from the familiar sight of my family members.

Reminiscing on past celebrations in my childhood, the gentle nudges from my mother or the soft melodic nasheed (Islamic acapella song) playing from the radio in the background used to mark the beginning of each day’s fast.

The absence of these familiar rituals became palpable however, as they are no longer part of my routine this year.

Of course, given the chance, there is nothing I’d love more than to spend this sacred month with my loved ones. But when the opportunity to study abroad in Australia knocked on my door, I couldn’t help but accept the offer wholeheartedly.

A crowded Australian university campus in the afternoon
Living abroad to pursue her studies presented both opportunities and challenges for our writer. (Image Source: Noreen Shazreen)

While doing so fulfilled the dreams of my younger self, it also meant bidding farewell to the communal support that had been an integral part of my Ramadan. 

What is Ramadan?

Ramadan, which falls from Mar 12 to Apr 10 this year, is a significant and sacred month in the Islamic calendar. It serves as a time for spiritual introspection, devotion, and acts of worship within the Muslim community.  

Deemed the most special and sacred month in the Islamic calendar, Ramadan highlights the principles of self-discipline and empathy, as Muslims abstain from food, drink, and otherworldly indulgences from dawn till dusk.  

It is a period marked by prayer, reflection, and extending kindness to those in need, to foster a deep sense of compassion for humanity.

Challenges of Observing Ramadan Abroad as an International Student 

For international students like myself, navigating Ramadan away from the familiarity of home presents its own set of challenges.  

Having grown up in Singapore, where Ramadan is celebrated vibrantly within a diverse and supportive community, the transition to a new environment was tough. 

The disparity in cultural observances between Singapore and Australia became especially evident due to the significantly smaller population of Muslims observing this sacred month. In comparison to the approximately 18% of Muslims in Singapore, there are only about 3.2% of Muslims living in Australia.

Cultural Differences Between Observing Ramadan in Singapore and Australia 

Back home in Singapore, the sounds of the adhan (call to prayer) from radios and the bustling bazaars permeate the sacred month with a sense of collective spirit.  

In Singapore, it’s common to hear the adhan, signalling that Muslims are allowed to break their fast, especially in Halal establishments located in Haji Lane or Kampong Glam. 

In contrast, it is foreign to hear the adhan played on the radio in Australia. I typically had to seek out local mosque schedules for accurate prayer times, further highlighting the contrast between the familiarity I felt at home and my foreignness in Australia. 

I won’t deny that the experience can be isolating at times. While I managed to establish a routine that allowed me to balance my academic workload with other commitments, one aspect that continually weighed on me was the extreme loneliness I felt when preparing my Iftar (meal to break the fast) and breaking my fast alone within the confines of my room.

A plate of salmon on a table in the backyard
It can feel isolating to eat alone in her room, so our writer switched her scenery periodically when breaking her fast. (Image Source: Noreen Shazreen)

Having grown up amidst the bustling energy of a household with seven family members, the stark contrast between the lively atmosphere of home and the solitude of my current surroundings was vivid.

Why Community Matters – And How I Found It 

Amidst the solitude, however, lies an opportunity for growth and connection.  

Stepping beyond the boundaries of my comfort, I endeavoured to form friendships within the local Muslim community. 

Part of adulting is also realising that opportunities and friendships aren’t always going to be handed out to you all the time, and more often than not, you have to take the initiative and step into the unknown.  

And that was how I forged my first few friendships here. While it was scary to get out of my comfort zone, I pushed myself to attend some of the events organised by the Muslim Society at my university, and it was there I made friends with three Singaporean Muslim girls.  

Even the slightest familiarity, like the sound of a Singaporean accent, felt comforting and reminded me that I wasn’t alone in this experience. There were others with whom I could connect and share common ground amidst the challenges of being away from home. 

A selfie of 3 girls breaking fast together in a restaurant.
Breaking fast as a community is an important part of Ramadan rituals. (Image Source: Noreen Shazreen)

Although there were moments when I felt like a fish out of water, there were still rewarding experiences from celebrating Ramadan away from home. It was a time when I could explore, meet new people and grow spiritually by connecting with the local Muslim community. One example of that was making friends with a Muslim girl who had been living in Perth for the last seven years. She graciously invited me to perform my Taraweeh prayers, a voluntary prayer performed after the evening prayer, with her family at a local mosque.  

This was something I had been yearning to do but couldn’t, due to the lack of mosques in my suburb and the fact that it usually takes an hour to drive to the nearest mosque (I don’t have a driver’s license or a car!). 

5 women prayer shawls performing Taraweeh prayers at a mosque in Perth, Western Australia.
Rewards are believed to be multiplied during the holy month of Ramadan, thus our writer was grateful her friend invited her to perform the Taraweeh prayers at the mosque in Perth, Western Australia. (Image source: Noreen Shazreen)

While I had been away from home, I felt thankful that I was able to commit to the same set of practices I had been performing regularly at home, this time with the local community in Perth at the local mosque.

Traditions during Ramadan 

One of my favourite memories of Ramadan in Singapore was also the lively atmosphere at the annual Geylang Serai Bazaar.  

Observing how the holy month was celebrated elsewhere offered me a newfound appreciation for Singapore’s multireligious and multicultural festivities.  

A smaller Muslim population in Australia meant the lack of bustling bazaars, food stalls and festive songs played to get people in the festive mood for Eid Mubarak.  

3 customers queue in front of a stall in a small bazaar in Queens Park, Perth.
Compared to Singapore’s bustling Geylang Serai Bazar, Queens Park in Perth boasts a small bazaar. (Image source: Noreen Shazreen)

There is nothing I look forward to more than celebrating Eid after a challenging month. Though this Ramadan presented a unique set of hurdles to overcome, it was a profoundly rewarding experience that has grown my appreciation for this sacred period. 

Though I will not be receiving green envelopes from my uncles and aunties this year, or get to enjoy my mom’s delectable handmade kuihs, the journey of self-discovery and resilience amidst solitude remains unparalleled. 

To my fellow international students and travellers observing Ramadan far from home, know that you are not alone in your journey.  

Amidst the solitude, may you find solace in your local community. It is through these shared experiences that we embody the spirit of compassion and resilience that defines Ramadan.