CLIFTON, N.J. ― At 3:30 a.m., most IHOPs and McDonald’s restaurants aren’t exactly hot spots for family dining ― except perhaps the ones near mosques during the month of Ramadan. Large groups of Muslim families and teenage friends often gather at such places for suhoor, or pre-dawn meal, before the long fasting day begins.
It’s a rite of passage, especially for young Muslims, to go out without parents to share a meal with friends. There’s a thrill to being out so late at night. Ramadan is a month of community, and most young people look forward to this ritual.
“In Ramadan, when I’m with my friends, it’s just so cool to go out to eat or go get ice cream,” 15-year-old J’wel Kudeh from North Bergen, New Jersey, told HuffPost on a recent weeknight. “When food is accessible, it’s just more fun. It just lightens up the mood.”
J’wel was attending Ramadan prayers at the Islamic Center of Passaic County in Clifton, a suburb just 15 miles from midtown Manhattan. She was waiting for a break in prayers so she could run to the nearby Dunkin’ Donuts with her friends. She wanted a breakfast sandwich.
“My mom knows that there is a purpose of my late-night eating,” she said. “But for any other night, there is no need to go out. Since it’s Ramadan, it’s more acceptable.”
J’wel’s friend, 15-year-old Faeza Zaiter, nodded. “For once, we’re all eating at the same time,” she said. “We’re all fasting, and we’re all up for most of the night.” On past occasions, the girls have eaten at Wendy’s, picked up Pizza Hut or gone to one of the more popular 24-hour restaurants for American Muslims: the International House of Pancakes, or IHOP.
Early Sunday morning in Sterling, Virginia, 17-year-old Nabra Hassanen had just participated in the same ritual. Hassanen and her friends had eaten at an IHOP and were heading back to the All Dulles Area Muslim Society Center when they were confronted by a man wielding a baseball bat.
The teens fled. Hassanen’s mother had loaned her an abaya ― a traditional long dress commonly worn by Muslim women ― and she reportedly tripped on it as the attacker approached. She became separated from the rest of the group. According to police, the assailant struck her with the bat and then took her away in his car. Hours later, her body was found in a nearby pond.
Fairfax police have arrested and charged 22-year-old Darwin Martinez Torres with murder. Details of the incident are still unclear, as the investigation is ongoing. Police said in a statement Monday that they are not treating the incident as a hate crime, calling it more likely a case of “road rage.”
When news broke of what happened to Hassanen, the Muslim community was horrified. In particular, many young Muslims were shocked to learn that a joyous and familiar ritual had given way to a brutal killing.
Salma Khan, a 32-year-old Muslim American who works in education reform in Philadelphia, said she couldn’t shake a nagging sense of deja vu. She recalled taking trips with friends to the 7-Eleven convenience store next to her mosque after prayers during Ramadan.
“Me at 16, 17 years old, that’s what you would do,” Khan told HuffPost on Monday. “It starts at the mosque during Ramadan, then you run to the 24-hour Starbucks or McDonald’s.”
After the news of Hassanen’s death, Khan and her group of friends were texting all night, devastated and horrified, she said. They all felt that it could have been them.
“This was me. This was me in my youth,” Khan said. “You go to IHOP. You’re hanging out with friends. Except the stark contrast that today you can end up dead. That is scary.”
She’s worried about her nephews and nieces who have also picked up the Ramadan post-prayer food tradition. She doesn’t want them going out by themselves that late anymore.
Khan’s nephew Farhaad, a rising senior at the University of California, Los Angeles, sees things a bit differently. He was saddened about Hassanen’s death, but he feels it was “a one-off incident.” He plans to keep going out for pre-dawn meals with his friends for the remainder of the holy month.
“It’s a chance to bond and create stronger friendships, especially in Ramadan,” Farhaad, 20, told HuffPost. “You really want to hang out with all your Muslim friends.”
J’wel, the teen from New Jersey, agreed. Hassanen’s death was “a wake-up call, because it is definitely scary to see something like that,” she said. “It makes me realize that not everything is as safe as it looks.”
But she still wants to participate in the nightly adventures, even if it means having a chaperone for the rest of Ramadan.
“I don’t think people will stop going for suhoor,” said Faeza, her friend. “These things will happen. Even if we don’t go out, that won’t stop the hate or it won’t stop the crimes.”
All three young Muslims acknowledged that they’ll need to be vigilant and careful of their surroundings. Farhaad Khan’s mother is already asking him to minimize his late-night excursions for his safety, he said.
“It’s something that we do as young Muslims all the time. It’s such a common thing to go out for suhoor, especially after night prayers,” he said. “Our parents are just very protective.”
Rabia Chaudry is one such parent. A Maryland attorney and mother of three ― including a 20-year-old daughter who likes to grab a late meal with friends at various 24-hour restaurants during Ramadan ― Chaudry says she is worried for her children.
“It’s become a ritual, and it’s become something young people look forward to,” she told HuffPost.
On Sunday night, she wrote on Twitter that she will no longer let her daughter go out to eat the pre-dawn meal during Ramadan. But she hates the idea of giving in to fear, she told HuffPost, and she realizes her daughter is an adult who can make her own decisions. Chaudry asked her daughter to come home immediately after prayers and not go out for a meal afterward for the rest of Ramadan. Her daughter agreed, Chaudry said, without hesitation, understanding her mother’s concern.
As the Muslim community tries to process Hassanen’s death, the ADAMS Center in Sterling “will continue to follow the investigation to ensure justice is upheld to the maximum extent of the law,” it said in a statement.
“The wound is still very fresh,” Joshua Salaam, the chaplain at ADAMS, told HuffPost. “We’re still in shock. We’re still devastated. Our hearts are broken and we’re still trying to figure out how to move forward.”
A vigil for Hassanen is scheduled for Wednesday at the Lake Anne Plaza in Reston, Virginia.
An online campaign to support her family has raised over $250,000.