By MICHAELA HALNON
Nearly 1000 Muslims gathered at the Fort Ethan Allen athletic fields in Colchester last Wednesday morning to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, or the festival of the breaking of the fast.
The holiday marks the end of month-long dawn to dusk fasting, known as Ramadan.
This was the first year the Islamic Society of Vermont has held the prayer outdoors, rather than renting a private conference space.
Adults offered celebratory greetings and supervised children playing on a nearby playground as mosque leadership chanted “Allahu Akbar” – God is great.
Men and women were then separated as the local imam, a Muslim worship leader, guided the group through prayer.
Drivers craned their necks as they passed by the massive crowd, dressed largely in vibrant colors. A few pedestrians exchanged confused glances as they strolled down nearby sidewalks.
Adding to the spectacle were several uniformed officers and police cruisers, parked around the perimeter of the prayer space.
Colchester PD called in officers from Winooski, Burlington and Essex to ensure the safety of participants, Colchester Lt. Doug Allen said.
“We are showing this town just how peaceful we are,” Imam Islam said to the crowd, thanking officers for offering their protection.
The fear that a violent attack might occur during a religious celebration is a sad reality for Muslims around the world, 21-year-old Milton resident Amina Habibovic said.
“Usually people are lovely. But there are some times…” Habibovic said, trailing off.
The day before Eid, the Prophet’s Mosque in the Saudi Arabian city of Medina, the second holiest site in Islam, was bombed. At the Eid festival, Imam Islam asked Vermont Muslims to pray for those across the world targeted for their religious beliefs.
As one of just two Muslim families living in Milton, Habibovic is used to the occasional second look.
Habibovic’s first day at Milton Middle School was also one of the first times she wore a hijab, or headscarf, out in public.
“The first day was kind of a hurdle because everyone was staring at me – sometimes it was very blatant,” she said. “But I think after everyone got used to me and I got used to it, it was no problem.”
Habibovic hasn’t experienced any physical violence but has been verbally accosted more than once. Just a few weeks ago, a man in the Hannaford parking lot shouted derogatory comments through her car window, she said.
“He was saying some rude things like ‘effing Muslims,’ ‘rag head,’ ‘go back, you don’t deserve to be here,’” she recounted with a shrug.
Habibovic’s family moved to Vermont from Bosnia in 2001, soon after the violent civil war ended, in search of better professional opportunities. Habibovic’s mother, Aida, works as a laboratory researcher at the University of Vermont. Her father, Amir, is a technician at Global Foundries in Essex.
The family joined the Colchester-based mosque upon arrival in Vermont and tries to attend as frequently as possible. They all pray five times per day and fast twice yearly during Ramadan.
But that devotion is an increasingly challenging logistic as Habibovic grows older. She couldn’t attend the Eid festival this year because of a rigorous summer chemistry course at UVM that meets daily.
In the classroom, Habibovic is sometimes asked to answer for violent incidents throughout the world conducted by extremists.
“People will ask me what my opinions are [of terrorist attacks],” she said. “There is some pressure. I always say the Islam I know and the Islam everyone I know practices is very peaceful, very loving. I don’t know what these people are.”
Despite the struggles presented by school calendars that tend to unfairly ignore the needs of local Muslims, Habibovic isn’t planning to relocate any time soon.
“I think I’ve gotten used to being a minority and being different – I kind of accept it now,” she said. “I think it makes me more resilient. I have more determination.”