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Shouldering grief for Gaza, Muslim staffers prepare for Eid 

Congressional aides describe what it’s like to observe Ramadan on the Hill this year

Staffers pray on Capitol Hill on March 15. The Congressional Muslim Staff Association relaunched last year after a period of dormancy and has organized several events so far.
Staffers pray on Capitol Hill on March 15. The Congressional Muslim Staff Association relaunched last year after a period of dormancy and has organized several events so far. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Muslims who have been fasting from dawn to sunset will celebrate the end of Ramadan next week, and for those on Capitol Hill, that means navigating the holiday right as Congress returns from recess. 

Unlike Easter or Passover, which come during congressional breaks this year, Eid al-Fitr is set to fall in the middle of a week with both chambers in session. 

“Eid is gonna be tough,” a House Republican staffer who requested anonymity told Roll Call. 

The House has a long list of unfinished business, including the question of whether to provide supplemental funding for Israel’s military and humanitarian aid for Gaza. As staffers work amid the heightened political tension, some said they are leaning on each other.

“A lot of people in the Muslim community are carrying a lot of grief because of what’s happening in Gaza right now,” said Mae Eldahshoury, deputy communications director to Rep. Ayanna S. Pressley, D-Mass.

The Congressional Muslim Staff Association, which had been largely dormant since 2017, is back on the Hill and hoping to make a difference. Eldahshoury and others helped revive it last year.

Before Ramadan began in March, they secured temporary prayer rooms for Muslims on both the House and Senate side. While the rooms don’t have stations for wudu, or ritual washing, staffers described them as calming and better than the alternatives.

It’s a “huge step in the right direction,” Senate Democratic staffer Yousof Omeish said. 

“When we don’t have a space like this, I find myself praying in stairwells, having to scout places that aren’t frequented by staff or by other people,” he added. 

Two to three prayers can fall during the workday for a Capitol staffer: Dhuhr in the afternoon, Asr in the late afternoon, and for some, Maghrib at sundown, if you don’t make it off the Hill before then. 

When Congress is in session, the hectic pace of floor votes or markups can mean juggling prayer times. “Of course I would prefer to do them at the time that they’re at. But, you know, frankly, I knew what I was signing up for when I came to the Hill,” the House Republican staffer said. 

Eid in session

Staffers said they are bracing for a busy week surrounding Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of Islam’s holy month and this year is expected to fall on April 10. 

One Senate Democratic aide said her non-Muslim colleagues have been supportive and know that because it aligns with the lunar calendar, “Eid may actually be delayed by a day or may actually come in a day earlier.”

But “my portfolio and the issues that I work on will still continue while we’re in session,” she added, and others said the hard-driving culture of the Hill can make religious accommodations hard to come by in practice.

Some described missing out on fast-breaking meals with family or friends, known as iftar, or on evening prayers unique to Ramadan. Omeish said he advocates for himself now, but during his first Ramadan on the Hill, “being a new staffer … on top of that being a Muslim staffer, an Arab staffer, I didn’t feel comfortable taking up too much space.” 

After Ramadan is over, the staff association plans to host a breakfast on April 15 aimed at introducing non-Muslims to some of the traditions of Eid. Outreach like that might encourage “a bit more empathy,” said Aneeb Sheikh, a Pressley aide who helps lead the group. 

Ed Hasan, an adjunct professor at Georgetown whose research focuses on religious diversity and inclusion in the workplace, said he is not holding out hope that Congress will someday make Eid a federal holiday. 

“I don’t think it’s gonna happen in our lifetime on the federal level,” said Hasan, a Palestinian American who is fasting for Ramadan, adding that he could see some states make the change in years to come. 

Carrying grief for Gaza 

Muslim staffers said the monthlong period of fasting and prayer typically leaves them spiritually rejuvenated at the end of Ramadan. But several said the feeling is different this year, as lawmakers clash over how to handle the Israel-Hamas war that began with surprise attacks by Hamas on Oct. 7, and the growing humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza after months of Israeli bombardment.

“The juxtaposition of the fact that we’re fasting and that there is a mass famine and starvation in Gaza is definitely not lost on myself and … others as well,” Omeish said. 

Staffers said they think of Muslims in Gaza who are without food as they share iftar dishes with friends and family. A State Department official told Reuters on Friday that famine is “quite possibly” not just imminent but already present in northern Gaza.

“It’s impossible to not think about it every day. When we are able to eat before our fast begins, people in Gaza don’t have that. And when we break our fast — they’re fasting, and they don’t have anything to break their fast with. The temporary hunger and thirst that we feel is nothing compared to what they’re experiencing, which is weeks of searching for scraps,” Sheikh said. 

But Sheikh also said his fast gives him the “spiritual strength” to continue “supporting our brothers and sisters in Palestine … praying for them, and making sure that their voices are being heard here in the halls of Congress.”

For Eldahshoury, “When I hear it come up in prayer, I just break down.” 

“It’s really hard to not,” she said. “Because I know the next day I’m going to work — and I work in an institution where we have the power to literally save these people’s lives and to deliver humanitarian aid better than what the administration has delivered now and to stop funding and arming Israel. But we can’t.” 

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