School No. 6 teacher Deon Candia is fasting for Ramadan – even though he isn’t Muslim – to show solidarity with his fourth-grade student, Tarek Abdelkhalek, as he observes the Muslim Holy Month. 

 

By Gary Miller

Every morning, Tarek Abdelkhalek gets up early with his family to have a meal and say prayers. But when his mother’s phone alarm goes off at sunrise, he knows he can’t have anything else to eat or drink for the rest of the day, until sundown.

It is part of the School No. 6 fourth-grader’s ritual for Ramadan, the Muslim holy month when observers fast throughout the daylight hours. Tarek has been fasting each year for Ramadan since he was in kindergarten, and matter-of-factly says that it’s not hard to stay observant even when he sees other children eating.

But this year, he has a buddy.

His teacher, Deon Candia, who is not Muslim, has promised to fast throughout Ramadan to show his support for Tarek.

“For the past two weeks, he was telling me about Ramadan,” Candia said on May 18, three days after the start of Ramadan, which lasts till June 14. “As it approached, he was excited that it was coming up. As I learned more about it, I thought this would be a cool thing to support him.”

As a teacher and former Linden High School football coach, Candia said it’s always been important for him to go the extra mile for his students.

“It just shows how our educators are more than just teachers,” he said. “I think it’s reflective of Linden because we’re such a diverse people. We’re not bounded by religion or anything. We just care for each other. And that’s the message I wanted to show him: That even though we don’t share the same faith, it’s about supporting.”

Tarek, who was born in Egypt and is quickly improving his English, said he’s glad to have his teacher’s support.

“He is making me happy because he’s doing it with me,” Tarek said. “Last year, no one was doing it with me. He’s a nice teacher.”

Superintendent Danny A. Robertozzi applauded Candia’s extraordinary effort.

“We have teachers in Linden finding creative ways to instruct, support and connect with their students every day,” he said. “But this kind of personal commitment in his daily life by Mr. Candia is really something special, and something that Tarek and his family will never forget.”

School No. 6 Principal William Mastriano said he is not at all surprised by Candia’s show of support for one of his students.

“School No. 6 is so lucky to have an educator like Mr. Candia,” he said. “He values trust, integrity, hard work and respect, and he models this. He demonstrates great leadership and has a passion for working with all students. He takes a real interest in their lives and supports them in any way possible.”

Candia said taking part in Ramadan is good for him, too, culturally and physically.

“It gives me a better perspective of his culture and what he’s about as well,” he said. “And a fasting period is good. It kind of resets your body and it also gives you a clearer mind. It helps you focus. So it’s a perfect opportunity to support him and to also to do some things for myself as well.”

Candia said he told his wife, Michelle, about the fast, and she is taking part, too.

“So I don’t have to worry about her eating when I’m home,” he said with a laugh.

Tarek said he is mostly on his own in fasting at school – even his brother in pre-K is young enough that he doesn’t fast. And Tarek doesn’t take part in recess during Ramadan because it would take a lot of energy and make him thirsty. Nevertheless, he said, the other students and staff at School No. 6 have been very supportive.

“We actually did a lesson today where we talked about Ramadan and he was able to be the leader,” Candia said. “He was able to share real-life experiences, and the kids really were receptive. So they were more sensitive to what he’s going through.

“So it’s another way of bridging the gap.”