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New London - As the savory aroma of chicken makhni, kebabs and other dishes filled the room Sunday night, Rama Majzoub reflected on a recent conversation with an elderly woman in a grocery story.
Majzoub, one of the speakers at the Sharing Ramadan program Sunday evening at Connecticut College, told an audience of about 300 fellow Muslims along with several non-Muslims from the community that the elderly woman's question caused her to articulate the purpose behind Ramadan, the yearly month of fasting that is one of the five pillars of her faith.
"She asked why we do it, what's the reason behind our fasting," said Majzoub, a recent graduate of the University of Damascus. "Ramadan teaches us about willpower, and how to be patient, and with that comes gratitude. It gives us a glimpse into the lives of the less fortunate."
The annual event, sponsored by the Connecticut Chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations and the Islamic Center of New London, takes place during the month of Ramadan to bring Muslims together and share the Muslim faith with others.
Among guests at the event were Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio and several local school officials and community leaders. Ramadan, which takes place at a different time each year according to the Islamic lunar calendar, began July 9 and will continue until early August.
Each day of Ramadan, Muslims abstain from food, drink and other activities from dawn to sunset.
During Sunday's dinner, the fast was broken first with a serving of figs, melon, grapes and a pastry, followed by prayer. After that the full meal was served.
"It's hard, but we're used to it," said Anyssa Dhaouadi, a freshman at American International College, president of the Islamic Center youth group, CAIR-CT youth director and one of the organizers of the event. "You're supposed to keep your mind busy with good things. The last five minutes before breaking the fast are the hardest, because you're smelling all the good food."
Dr. Reza Mansoor, cardiologist at Hartford Hospital, assistant professor at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine and president of the Islamic Association of Greater Hartford, told the audience that fasting for Ramadan has both health and spiritual benefits.
The practice of Ramadan, he said, invites Muslims toward spiritual development that too often gets neglected in modern society.
"When you don't pay attention to your spiritual being, your physical being suffers," he said.
Fasting can build a "strong and healthy character" while at the same time helping people lose weight. He noted that by losing weight, risk of heart disease from diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol are lessened.
Ramadan, he said, can be a "month of change."
"You can make that first step," he said. "You make one step towards God, and He takes two towards you."