When Abdullahi Warsame dropped off flyers at a Middle Eastern restaurant in northeast Minneapolis last year, the owner asked him what the ads were for.
“I told him it’s for Hajj,” said Abdullahi, a travel agent at Mina Hajj and Umra, a Minnesota-based travel agency that helps book trips each year for people making the pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. The restaurant owner said he wanted to go for the Hajj and would contact Abdullahi for the details. He got too busy, and like most Muslims struggling to find time to complete the Hajj, he said he would aim for 2020 instead.
The restaurateur died of COVID-19 earlier this year.
What Abdullahi couldn’t have guessed is that the threat of COVID-19 would derail the Hajj for Muslims around the world. On Monday, officials from Saudi Arabia banned international visitors from performing the Hajj this year to minimize the spread of the coronavirus, just five weeks before the pilgrimage begins. In the wake of that announcement, Muslims in Minnesota have expressed disappointment that they will not be able to make the Hajj, a once-in-a-lifetime religious journey required in Islam. And the cancelation adds to the grief and uncertainty that has already besieged the Muslim community since the COVID-19 pandemic first hit.
Earlier this week, Abdullahi cancelled 70 Hajj bookings for his clients at Mina Hajj and Umra.
The Hajj typically attracts an estimated 2.5 million Muslims worldwide. Muslims spend years saving for the costly pilgrimage. The Hajj this year would have cost $6,500 through Mina Hajj and Umra, a sum that includes lodging, airfare, ground transportation and other Hajj-related accommodations. But some agencies charge up to $15,000. Travel agents also secure visas for customers going on the Hajj: Saudi Arabia issues just 12,000 visas to Americans each year.
In 2012 and 2013, a different coronavirus known as MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome), infected pilgrims at Mecca, leading to 858 deaths around the globe. Yet restrictions under the COVID-19 pandemic are unlike any in Saudia Arabia’s history. The last time the Hajj experienced such a disruption was during the cholera epidemic in the mid-1800s.
Abdullahi said his agency books hotels for its customers with a 10 percent down payment four months in advance. He also coordinates with Delta Airlines to secure blocked seats for his Hajj group. Giving up those plans has been painful.
Abdullahi said he spoke with a customer who began to cry when the travel agent returned his documents and told him he would not be able to attend the Hajj this year. The client begged him to keep his documents until next year.
“In a COVID-19 era,” Abdullahi said, “there might not be a next year.”
Abdirahman Warsame oversees the Minnesota office of Salama for Hajj, another Hajj travel agency. One of his clients who planned to attend the Hajj this year died of COVID-19 in March. Abdirahman said they’re offering deposit refunds, but most clients asked him to keep their $2,000 deposits in hopes of traveling next year.
“A lot of people are okay with it, because they have no other option,” Abdirahman said.
“You had the intention to go”
Shoreview residents Noor Siddiqui and her husband, Fahad, had decided in December that this would be the year they went for the Hajj. As the pandemic escalated in March, they decided to cancel their plans. They had the option of crediting their payments to apply for the Hajj trip next year, but they didn’t want to take the risk.
“It was the most horrible feeling,” Noor said. “We were in denial.”
Noor called her father crying to give him the news.
“First, I want to say Hajj mubarak,” her father responded, congratulating Noor for a pilgrimage she couldn’t complete. “You had the intention to go.”
Imam Hassan Mohamud, known as Hassan Jaamici, of Islamic Da’wah Center in St. Paul, also tried to take consolation from the attempt to make the trip. He’d had plans to take 20 to 30 people from his mosque on the Hajj with him this year. Despite the heartbreak, he told them, religiously speaking, the intention to go represents its own blessing.
Abdi Sabrie, from the northwest metro suburb of Eagle Lake, planned to attend the Hajj with his wife, Lul Omar, this year.
“This is something that I promised her to do when we got married,” Abdi said. “We have four children together so this has been a long time planning.”
“This is something that’s out of our control,” Abdi said. “We’re happy to be alive and have a livelihood, unlike others who have lost their lives.”
He’s tried to find a sense of connection in a pandemic that doesn’t discriminate based on race or class.
“Maybe we’ll find some unity in this global suffering,” he said.
“We don’t have any work to do this year”
The Hajj is a time when Muslims all over the world celebrate, said Jaylani Hussein, executive director of CAIR-MN. This spirit presides even when Muslims are not actually attending the pilgrimage themselves.
“Almost every community, all over the world, can say that they have a representative or a community member there,” Jaylani said.
Saudi officials said by limiting attendance to 1,000 Saudi locals, they can ensure social distancing and keep the disease from spreading back to the home countries of pilgrims. But Jaylani added that Muslims typically see images of Mecca filled with people circulating the Kaaba, a holy structure in the middle of Mecca’s Grand Mosque. Now that area will mostly be empty, Jaylani said it just won’t feel like Hajj for most people.
Jaylani added that Hajj travel agencies — there are three primary players in Minnesota — will feel the loss of the annual event: as a pilgrimage and a livelihood.
Mina Hajj and Umra typically organizes Hajj trips for 350 people each year. This year, they’ve had only 70 interested clients. The Saudi government advised the Mina Hajj and Umra staff in March to hold off on booking hotels and flights, “because you don’t know the fate of this year,” Abdullahi said.
In March, Abdullahi said they also stopped accepting deposits and started refunding the $1,000 deposit to clients.
“We only work a couple months out of the year,” Abdullahi said of his 16-year-old business. “This is what we do, and now we don’t have any work to do this year.”
Abdirahman also said “business is zero.” This year, his 50 clients in Minnesota will not be able to attend the Hajj.
At this time last year, Abdullahi said, his office was bustling with employees processing passports, visas, plane tickets and hotel vouchers. Now, they’re completely shut down.
“We never expected this thing would happen in our lifetime,” Abdullahi said.
Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.