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Muslim families in Mehlville celebrate as the district makes Eid al-Fitr a school holiday

Members of the St. Louis Islamic Center serve themselves food
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Members of the St. Louis Islamic Center serve themselves food on April 25 during an Iftar dinner at the mosque in south St. Louis County.

Each year, as Ramadan approaches, Alisa Džekić starts to reach out to her teachers at Bernard Middle School to let them know that she might be tired from fasting and to tell them she will be missing a day of school to celebrate Eid al-Fitr.

“I always have to send them emails that I'm going to be out that day because I'm always trying to just be with my family,” the Mehlville eighth grader said. “It's just really hard sometimes because I have to be like, ‘What did we do on that day?’”

Džekić and her family are Bosnian American and Muslim. In the past, the month of Ramadan has meant having to navigate a school system that didn’t give time off for Eid, one of the most important religious holidays for people who practice Islam. Rather than going to school, Alisa and her family spend the day celebrating the end of Ramadan by praying, calling family and friends in Bosnia-Herzegovina and taking an annual family photo.

But this is the last school year Džekić and her Muslim classmates will have to warn their teachers that they might be absent. Starting next year, Mehlville is adding an official holiday for Eid to the school calendar; it might be the first district in Missouri to do so.

Alisa’s father, Alija Džekić, said Mehlville principals and teachers have been supportive of his family’s religion as his two daughters have made their way through the school district. When his family reached out to warn that the girls might not seem like themselves as they fast during the day, or that they may have to make up a test if it is held on Eid, educators responded with encouraging messages.

Alija Džekić, 48, and Alisa Džekić, 14
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Alija Džekić, 48, and Alisa Džekić, 14, on April 15 at Bernard Middle School in Mehlville. The Džekić family is one of the Muslim families who advocated for the Mehlville School District to recognize Ramadan as an observed school holiday, one of the first in the state.

But this official recognition of the holiday has made Alija Džekić feel like his daughter can be her full self at school.

“She does not stand out from the crowd visually, but traditionally, culturally she did,” Džekić said. “She doesn't anymore. She is part of the whole process.”

As many as 1,400 students have been absent on Eid in recent years in the Mehlville School District, officials said. That is about double the absences on a typical day. It’s one reason the district’s leaders started to think about adding the holiday to the calendar.

“We saw that our attendance was significantly less on these particular days,” said Brian Smith, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning in the district. “That's a bad position for a district and the community to be in, trying to make people make decisions between what their religious beliefs are and certainly what the calendar of the school district looks like.”

In October, the district’s calendar committee, which Smith facilitates, was considering the next school year. Džekić and a group from his mosque, the St. Louis Islamic Center in south St. Louis County, went to speak about the importance of Eid in their community.

The St. Louis Islamic Center
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
The St. Louis Islamic Center on April 21 in south St. Louis County.

Eid falls on a different day each year, because it is based on the lunar calendar, so Džekić said first, the group had to try to figure out when it would be next year. When the committee began to discuss April, members of his group raised their hands.

“We said what we wanted to say, that having Eid on the calendar meant a lot to us,” Džekić said. “There were no objections, and it was like my heart started growing. I mean, it was bigger and bigger.”

The committee decided to add the holiday, starting in the 2022-23 school year. Alija’s daughter, Alisa, said she was smiling the rest of the day after she found out.

“I was very emotional, but I was also very proud of the Mehlville school district,” said Alisa Džekić. “Now, everyone recognizes us, and we'll just be able to celebrate that.”

Muslim worshippers pray
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Muslim worshippers pray on April 25 at the St Louis Islamic Center mosque in south St. Louis County.

Eid traditions

At a recent iftar dinner at the St. Louis Islamic Center, dozens of families prayed as the sun set, then gathered in the basement of the mosque to break their fast together. The room was decorated with fresh flowers, balloons and signs reading “Ramadan Mubarak.”

Merjem Šekić and her children, Medina, 3, and Ibrahim, 5
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Merjem Šekić and her children, Medina, 3, and Ibrahim, 5, on April 25 during an Iftar dinner at the St Louis Islamic Center in south St. Louis County.

The mosque is in a new building on Reavis Barracks Road that had its grand opening in 2017. The center has grown a lot since it started, and now more than 600 families are members.

“Most of our members are Bosniaks, or people who originate from Bosnia, but our doors are open for everybody,” said Imam Eldin Suša.

Merjem Šekić was excited to be able to eat with everyone again after the pandemic made these community dinners impossible, and she was already preparing for Eid.

On Eid in Bosnia-Herzegovina, children go door to door to congratulate other families and receive gifts like money or chocolate. Many families have continued the tradition in St. Louis. Šekić and her husband had already bought candy to put together goodie bags for the kids in her neighborhood and family friends.

Šekić was born in Bosnia but moved to the U.S. in 2001, then went to school in Kentucky before moving to St. Louis to be near her husband’s family. She has two children, Medina and Ibrahim, and is expecting another child in the coming weeks.

Both kids will be in kindergarten next school year in the Mehlville district, so they will be part of the first class of children who won’t have to miss school because of Eid. Šekić found out about the change on Facebook.

“I was so excited. I really was,” Šekić said. “[Students] can just take the day off instead of having to make an excuse or, you know, just not show up without an excuse.”

A missing puzzle piece

Bosnians have been in St. Louis for decades, but Suša said this decision in Mehlville has made people really proud to be Americans and experience the full freedom of religion that is promised here.

“It's adding a piece of yourself to the puzzle we created here,” Suša said. “It feels a lot to be accepted as you are. I mean, it makes people love this country even more.”

Alija Džekić was emotional as he thought about the message the district is sending to his family by recognizing the holiday.

“When I came to the United States 25 years ago, I knew it was the land of opportunity, it accepted everybody,” Džekić said. “We are not just here as a number on the census. We are neighbors. We are students. We are teachers. We're cleaners. We're cooks. … We are part of the community.”

He said April 21, 2023, when Eid will be celebrated next, will be written in history.

Now, Suša hopes other districts with similarly large Muslim populations will consider following Mehlville’s lead.

Follow Kate on Twitter: @Kate Grumke

Kate Grumke covers the environment, climate and agriculture for St. Louis Public Radio and Harvest Public Media.