It took a few hours before the word started to get around the Norfolk grandstands at A-2 Districts, but track parents are notorious for killing time by chatting with the strangers around them. The parents from Omaha Central probably said it in passing, followed quickly by, “gosh, the weather today sure turned out better than I expected.” A parent from another high school made the Central parent repeat it.
That girl in the headscarf? The one getting ready to run the 400? She’s going to go without food or drink for how many hours? She has four events today? How is that even possible?
The United States has always been a melting pot of immigrants, and Omaha has been a frequent destination for new arrivals. In 2016, Nebraska had the highest per capita immigration rate in the United States. While Omaha has had a large Latino community for decades, more recently a large tide of immigrants have resettled from Central America, Nepal, Syria and Sudan. Mahassin Abakar (her legal name is Mohussin) is one of those Sudanese immigrants, arriving in Omaha as an eighth grader.
Sudan was embroiled in a civil war from 1983 to 2005. When Mahassin was six months old, her father left Sudan in search of a better place for his family to live. After traveling through Africa for several years, he arrived in Omaha in 2009. In 2011, his wife and four children began their journey to America. Mahassin, her mother and siblings first lived in a refugee camp in Cameroon for two years. Mahassin said it wasn’t a bad place to live, but she missed her father terribly. In 2015, her family finally reunited in Omaha.
By then, Mahassin was 13. Thirteen-year-olds in Omaha go to middle school, so she was enrolled at Norris Middle School. She spoke no English. She knew virtually nothing about the United States. She didn’t know any classmates. She had never played a sport.
Many established religions have strict standards. Some followers observe these standards all of the time, some do the best they can, and others experience an ebb and flow of adherence as they move through different stages of their lives. Mahassin is Muslim, and she does the best she can to live the Islamic faith.
A key foundation of Islam is the Five Pillars of Faith: (1) a declaration of faith to God and that Mohammed is God’s last prophet; (2) daily prayer; (3) charity; (4) a Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, the birthplace of Mohammed, at some point during a Muslim’s life; and (5) fasting during daylight hours during the holy month of Ramadan.
Early in my accounting career, I lived in Saudi Arabia for six months. Five times each day, loudspeakers blasted the call to prayer. Nearly all of the Muslims prayed, sometimes in a mosque, but often at work or at home. In a predominantly-Muslim country like Saudi Arabia, the call to prayer sets the rhythm of daily life and is a gathering time for neighbors and families.
A devout Muslim’s obligations expand during Ramadan, the holiest month of the Islamic calendar. Much like Lent is to Christians, Ramadan is the time of year where Muslims focus on self-sacrifice, recharge their faith, increase charitable efforts, and ask for forgiveness. Adult Muslims are taught to abstain from food, drink and smoking during the daylight hours of Ramadan.
I worked in Saudi Arabia during Ramadan in 1991. At the start of Ramadan, abstaining from food and drink during daylight hours is a tolerable for most Muslims. However, as the days drag on, it becomes more difficult to replenish the body’s nutrients. Fatigue sets in earlier each day, to the point that many of our Muslim co-workers would take sick days because they didn’t have the energy to even sit at their desks. My colleagues referred to it as, “Calling in hungry,” but that makes light of the physical rigors of fasting. It’s hard and uncomfortable. It’s exhausting.
The Islamic calendar is approximately 354 days long, so Ramadan starts about 11 days earlier each year on our solar calendar. If Ramadan falls during Omaha’s winter, the period of fasting might be as little as 10 hours. However, when Ramadan falls near the summer equinox, then the fasting period in Omaha can last more than 15 hours. Ramadan last 29 or 30 days.
In 2019, Ramadan started on May 5 and will not end until June 4. Class A Districts were held on May 10, and the State meet is on May 17-18. On the first day of the State Track meet, the gap between sunrise and sunset will be nearly 15 hours. Mahassin will wake at 4:00 a.m. to eat breakfast, a small meal consisting of cereal, milk and perhaps a little more water than normal. She won’t eat or drink again until after 9:00 that night.
Omaha is the home of Tri-Faith Initiative, the country’s first-of-its-kind campus that features a Jewish synagogue, Muslim mosque and Christian church. The purpose of the campus is to build inter-faith dialogue, cooperation and understanding. The last of the three buildings will be completed in 2019, but teachers, students and parents within the Omaha Public Schools system have been engaged in this type of community-building for decades. Mahassin’s story is not unique within OPS.
In the fall of 2015, during her first semester at Norris Middle School, Mahassin focused on learning English and adapting to American school life. During the spring, a few of her new friends encouraged her to join the track team. She had no athletic experience other than 8th-grade gym class, but she decided that track would be a good way to learn English more quickly and make more friends. Tall and lean, she wasn’t a natural runner, but she was a gifted athlete. At the end of the season, she finished 2nd in the 800 and 1600 at the OPS 8th grade track championships, finishing in 2:47 and 6:10.
When Mahassin entered high school, she didn’t join the cross country team. A few months later, a gym teacher pulled head track coach Trent Lodge aside. “You’ve got to get Mahassin Abakar on the track team,” the teacher said. “She’s one of the best athletes in my class.” She primarily ran the 400 as a freshman, with a PR of 1:06.4.
With a longer cross country training season, she saw success as a sophomore and junior, earning top-15 finishes at Districts and top-50 placements at State. However, her highest potential may be on the track in the 400 and 800. During the 2018 season, she qualified for the State meet in the open 800 and the 4x400 and 4x800 relays. She ran her fastest times at State – 1:04.2 and 2:25.8 – during the first week of Ramadan.
If you follow Class A distance running, you’ve probably seen Mahassin. She’s polite, shy and more than a little nervous about having an article written about her. In order to honor the Muslim ideal of modesty, she wears a headscarf, long-sleeve shirt and tights during races. Mahassin’s mother has only been to one of her races. She saw how much pain a distance runner must endure to excel. She cannot stand to see Mahassin in pain.
The District meet was not an easy day for Mahassin. As one of Central’s stronger middle distance runners, she was scheduled for the 4x800 relay at 2:30, the 400 at 3:45, the 800 at 5:50 and the 4x400 at 7:10. By the time the 4x400 race ended, fourteen hours had passed since her last food or sip of water. She’d wait at least another ninety minutes, until the final hint of sun was gone, before she would break her fast.
After Mahassin’s second event of the day, her father called her to tell her that she should drink water. After all, Islam has a number of exemptions from the abstinence requirement, and Mahassin could atone for drinking that day it by fasting on another day after Ramadan. However, Mahassin didn’t feel that poorly – she was just hungry – and she believed that fasting was important enough to her religion that she should continue to abstain.
She made it through her final two races of the day. In retrospect, she agrees that the races became more difficult as the day progressed. However, for a girl who lived without her father for twelve years, who lived in a refugee camp for two years, and who has fasted through three previous Ramadans – well, she’s had harder days in her life.
It was a productive day. She qualified for State in the 400 and 800, running a PR of 1:00.95 and a season-best 2:26.18. Her relay teams also qualified. By the time night fell, she was riding back to Omaha on the team bus. She ate her first and only substantial meal of the day.
When you teach and coach at Omaha Central, Google is a valuable tool when you need to learn more about your immigrant students. For Drew Thompson, the middle distance and distance coach for the girls’ team, an important Google search was, ‘how to train athletes during Ramadan.’
Ramadan began the Sunday before Districts. During that week, Coach Thompson emphasized to Mahassin the importance of eating larger meals and maximizing her sleep. With Districts scheduled to fall on Wednesday, the team wasn’t scheduled to have a difficult workouts on Monday or Tuesday. However, the weather forecast delayed Districts until Friday, so the team added an interval workout on Monday. It taxed Mahassin. She didn’t complain.
After Districts, Coach Thompson asked his girls’ distance team if they would shift their practices on Monday and Tuesday to 6:00 a.m. so that Mahassin could run while she was fueled. The entire crew said ‘yes,’ and Monday’s interval workout was one of the best practices of the season. The girls ran long on Tuesday morning, and then they shifted back to the afternoon for light practices on Wednesday and Thursday leading up to State. Coach Thompson raves about how Mahassin’s teammates have embraced her, but even more about how they’ve supported her commitment to her faith.
With the Class A and C sessions falling on Friday morning this year, Mahassin has caught a bit of a break. Central will run the 4x800 at about 9:15 and then she’ll run the open 400 at 11:30. On Saturday, she’s scheduled to run the 800 at 10:00 a.m. and the 4x400 at 4:30. She has the 13th-fastest seed time in the 400; if she qualifies for the finals, she’ll run that race at 1:20 on Saturday.
The weekend forecast is not in Mahassin’s favor, with temps in the high 80’s on Friday, as well as thunderstorms forecasted for Saturday which could cause delays. The State meet will be challenge for her body, but not for her faith. Her faith is strong.
Jay Slagle is a volunteer writer for the Nebraska Elite TC website www.nebraskaelitetc.org. He posts Nebraska high school race pictures at www.facebook.com/preprunningnerd and race results at @preprunningnerd on Twitter. The father of three teenagers, Jay is a self-professed running nerd who was never good at running. His article about Noah Lambrecht, The Runner with the Broken Heart, has been viewed over 200,000 times and is available at https://www.nebraskaelitetc.org/single-post/2018/10/07/NoahLambrecht. He’s a sucker for a good story, so e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’ve got one. He has written two children’s books available for sale on Amazon. Visit www.jayslagle.com for more information.