Rama Alhanash, her husband, Mohammed Alhanash, and their children pull up to the New England Arab American Organization’s drive-up Eid al-Fitr event at the Westbrook Community Center on Saturday. Families drove up through the parking area and received packages of Middle Eastern foods and toys for the children. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

WESTBROOK — Over 125 families drove by the Westbrook Community Center on Saturday for a pandemic-conscious celebration of Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim holiday that marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan.

Cars stopped at a table laden with toys and boxes of food, where volunteers from the New England Arab American Organization greeted them at their windows and exchanged warm greetings. Music from the ’80s era played from an RV with an American flag, and young women in princess costumes handed out toys to children in backseats.

“Hello, hello, habib!” Zoe Sahloul said as she leaned to the window of a green sedan, using an Arabic word for “beloved.”

Zoe Sahloul, executive director of the New England Arab American Organization, gives a hug to a former student in one of the organization’s classes during the drive-up Eid al-Fitr event at the Westbrook Community Center on Saturday. Sahloul said the event was almost like a reunion for people in her community whom she hasn’t seen since the pandemic began. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

For years, the region’s Muslim community has held large gatherings in Portland for Eid al-Fitr, during which Muslims break the Ramadan fast with music, meals and communal celebration. But the pandemic has forced Sahloul, executive director of the NEAAO, to improvise.

Attendees on Saturday picked up toys and food – boxes of dried beans, rice and ghee, among other products – and took them home to cook, rather than stay and visit.

“It’s a holiday that’s usually celebrated as a big community,” Sahloul said in an interview Saturday. “The pandemic caused this isolation, especially for elders, so now that the vaccination is available for people 12 and up, we’re doing everything we can to make sure people get vaccinated.”

Eid al-Fitr was celebrated on May 12 and 13 this year, but NEAAO chose this weekend for the event to avoid competing for space with other programs.

Eid al-Fitr is also a time for festive costumes, and people on Saturday even dressed up their cars. One visitor, a NEAAO employee, dressed as Batgirl and draped a sash with flowers around her car.

Mowafak Alhanash, 10, and his brother, Majed Alhanash, 6, pick out their toys while at the New England Arab American Organization’s drive-up Eid al-Fitr event at the Westbrook Community Center on Saturday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Dr. Imad Durra stopped by each car that rolled up, encouraging families to get their shots. An infectious disease specialist in Lewiston, Durra said minority religious and ethnic communities had seen vaccine resistance stemming from online misinformation, ideological reasons and “some legitimate cynicism and doubt about government mandates” applied – or misapplied – to minorities in the past.

Still, about half of the families Durra had spoken to had already been immunized, he said, and many of the others said they had appointments on the books.

A clinic at the Westbrook Community Center has been offering COVID-19 vaccinations, so those visiting on Saturday didn’t have to go far.

Reyam Kadhum of Portland picked up food and toys for her two small children, who fidgeted in the back seat of her car as she spoke with a reporter.

“I want to keep this tradition alive for them so they don’t forget,” she said.

But that doesn’t seem like too much of a danger. Kadhum said her children asked repeatedly about the big festival they were used to attending, leading her to explain why, for now, people had to stay apart.

Kadhum encouraged people in the Muslim community and beyond to get their shots so that celebrations like these can return.

“Now, with all the people who are vaccinated, hopefully we can get together,” she said. “I encourage everybody to get vaccinated so we can get back to normal.”

The NEAAO held a drive-up last year, as well, according to a news release from the organization. About 250 families came from Portland to Augusta.

In past years, thousands gathered at the Portland Expo and nearby Deering Oaks. But this year and last, Muslims in the Portland area stayed at home, making sure elders were well and had food to celebrate, and calling one another with well wishes.


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