A family's struggle to survive
In a state of absolute disbelief and utter confusion, Khawla sat and observed the upheaval of her life. The contents of her drawers lay strewn around her room. Her elder children moved like silent ghosts, attempting to restore their possessions to their rightful place. Her youngest daughter, Amani, who had just turned three, held her tight, her face pressed into the comfort of the crevice of her neck. Khawla was unsure who in fact was comforting whom, but her warm embrace was very welcome. She knew she should get up and try to restore some normality, but the disarray symbolized the state of her mind. She didn’t know where to start; should she comfort her children, seek explanations or simply absorb the realisation that life had just irrevocably changed.
Her mind raced back to that night, the recollection of vivid images and painful cries which she would never be able to forget. This had been the third raid on the home. As the dawn broke, thirty police officers had stormed the house, breaking down first the porch door, then the front door. Before they knew it, the police were upstairs, on top of them with guns, her children completely petrified.
“They entered, exited; they went everywhere. The door, the glass was broken. The children, especially the girls, they were still young, screaming. The boys, the ones that were eighteen… they dragged them off the bed, the police put their faces against the wall… they held them on the floor, with guns above them. There were two or three people on top of you, SubhanAllah, squeezing and hurting you. The younger ones were crying, ‘Policeman, don’t take my baba, leave my baba.’ When they came, I wasn’t covered but I put the blanket on top of me, I was screaming… I wanted to go downstairs to bring my robe but the police officer refused. ”
The sound of the sirens rang in her ears, recalling how she was bundled into a police van and taken away to a nearby hotel whilst the police scoured through every intimate item in their home for the next five days.
As she watched her son, Umar, gingerly brush up all the broken crockery, a wave of love enveloped her. His father’s arrest had hit him the hardest. She knew he was putting on a brave face for her and his younger siblings. Despite his strong exterior, in the private confines of his mind, he could still hear the sound of their footsteps, coming up the stairs. “I was terrified at the time. You think, ‘it’s my last day…‘ It was very scary, very hard, very emotional – they don’t even give us the option to meet each other or see each other.” He recalled the sight of his mother – the dearest person to him in the world – police officers towering above her with a gun over her head. “All that insecurity of what’s happening. Any small thing just wakes me up at night ‘til this day.”
They had confiscated every laptop, desktop and phone in the household, electronics, anything of worth and value, as well as the family car – and with that, went all of Umar’s GCSE coursework, and the hours of his painstaking efforts undone in minutes, yet he hadn’t complained once. They’d already submitted five requests to receive their items back from the previous raids but all but one had been denied: a computer now broken which wouldn’t even switch on. But Umar’s deadlines were fast approaching. He’d already started rewriting his essays by hand but even his second drafts were not to his usual standard. He had been predicted all A’s but Khawla realised it would be difficult for him to reach anything close to his full potential. And he wasn’t alone in that: his brothers’ work was affected too.
Khawla missed her husband dearly; she had heard nothing from him at all. Days turned into weeks, weeks turned into months and still no word. He really had been the centrum around which all her children orbited. Everything a father should be, he helped around the house, assisting the children with their homework, always with a ready ear to listen to their problems. He gave the best advice. These months without him had been the most difficult days she’d had to endure. Her days were long and but the nights were even longer. The trauma from the raids had meant she had been unable to sleep as the memory of police shattering the peace of their home, waving their guns over their heads, repeated on loop in her mind.
Friends, whom she considered like family and whom she had expected would be there for her in her time of need, were nowhere to be seen. It pained her deeply to think of all the people that had just cut them off.
"Unfortunately, Muslims, they get scared. Even the one who is your friend, she doesn’t visit you, doesn’t call you, even your own family and people. A lot of them cut us off but all praise is due to Allah in all situations. The family even cut off, nothing, they all got scared. Myself, myself, that’s it. There was not anyone. I was alone and Allah was with me.”
Though the community around them celebrated the arrival of Ramadhan with their loved ones, Khawla and her family could find no joy in those moments.
“There was no taste of it, no Ramadhan or Eid, we didn’t feel anything.”
Khawla needed to grieve her loss. She wanted to withdraw into herself and focus on bringing her family back together. She desperately needed some privacy, some normalcy where she could shelter her children from the hurricane that had consumed their family. But the media refused to afford her such a luxury. Instead, she and her children were stalked, hounded constantly with incessant knocks on her door, and when they did not respond, notes were posted through the letterbox, question after question in the quest for their latest story. After journalists published her address online, a swarm of unwanted, racist and threatening visitors camped outside their home. They threw stones, broke their windows and on one occasion threw a pig’s head outside their door. These visitors had a singular purpose: to make Khawla and her family disappear.
“They would bring wood and they would hit the door with it. One time my son was sitting on the computer and one person at night came and took a heavy piece of wood, threw it at the window. It passed right by my sons face. Even we were scared they would throw at us things with fire that would burn the house. So we removed jackets, anything flammable from there…
“Of all this harassment, the media were the worst SubhanAllah. They would come and sit here… I didn’t know how to protect my children, to take them to school and bring them back, because they would take pictures of us. Even the few who used to visit us stopped out of fear.”
Besieged in her own home on the one hand, Khawla felt the immense financial impact on the other. Before her husband’s arrest, she was in receipt of benefits and her elder sons were working, maintaining her in a reasonably comfortable lifestyle. But with her husband’s arrest came the complete cessation of all of Khawla’s benefits. Every penny she had been receiving came under strict scrutiny and investigation. Khawla tried to turn to her savings, but her joint account with her husband had too been shut down and all funds frozen. One by one, the doors around Khawla were closing. In an effort to help, taking their father’s role, her sons quickly picked themselves up and tried to return to work, only to find another door closing in their face.
"Their jobs were affected, they had nice jobs and everything and they lost their jobs. Sometimes the media would follow them and start taking photos of them at work. My son was working towards becoming a manager– he was paying his taxes and doing his thing – but they stopped him on purpose. The same thing happened to my other son. When they would try to apply for a new job, sometimes the interviewer or someone in the job would them to the media for £300 or so – that’s the worst bit...”
Khawla had no money to survive on. She had run out of options, with no lifeline, her safety net cut. Holding herself together, she began to cut everything that was not a complete necessity; the portions of food drastically reduced, the heating was hardly switched on. She longed to pour her heart out to her husband, to tell him of her sorrows, but she simply couldn’t afford to send him money so that he could call her. Amidst all of this, what hurt Khawla most was being forced to withdraw her children from their faith school, removing the last symbol of stability and familiarity they had left. The impact on their psychological and emotional wellbeing was immense. The detention was clawing away at every last piece of security they had left. Her children became extremely anxious, and their grades spiralled downwards. Her son relates,
“Physically I was very tired as I had GCSEs at the time… I grew up very early, yes, due to the responsibility. I couldn’t do everything that others do at that age. It does affect you, and you’re always insecure – like you’re afraid to enter a room – you’re afraid to enter a field of work or anything like that because you’re afraid they might get you…
“It made me lose some of my emotions. I was a solid rock sometimes and I became numb. I thought about what they’re doing to my father, people were saying he’s not Muslim and things like that. I mean, imagine what it must be like for a child, who witnesses their father’s arrest, then sees them giving him a hard time whilst imprisoned and then on trial and all of that – these emotions then turn to anger... It had affected each one of us in a different ways.”
To exacerbate the situation, Khawla’s younger children were bullied and ridiculed in the playground because of their father. The effects were long lasting as her son developed a stutter. Their behaviour was unprecedented, they were impossible to control; they were angry and they weren’t afraid to show it…
“We were bullied, but because of what was happening with the police and everything it made us react in a violent way most of the time – I don’t know why - and I think it’s all the anger in you and you just need to react. We felt something wrong was done to us, it was the feeling of oppression – of being wronged. So it only takes one thing to flip and we will charge on everything…
Activities and everything, all of that stopped – so we were all at home and because of that pressure we all took our anger out on each other, so yes, the family broke down but my mother, may God protect her, she was always there doing her best…”
Seeing Khawla’s plight, it is easy to see why children of prisoners are vulnerable to falling into such a vicious cycle. The elder sons had lost their jobs, the younger ones bullied, their father had been taken away, they had been humiliated by the media and their family were falling into poverty before them. They were angry. Khawla tried to reassure them, she wanted desperately to keep her family together but in a short space of time, her sons had turned to the wrong crowd. Khawla’s energy was waning, but she found solace in her faith, “I was tired, very tired, SubhanAllah but Alhamdulillah (all praise be to God), Allah decreed for me supplications, prayer and recitation of the Qur’an, it makes it easier. It is difficult, 100% - but you return back to Allah as that’s it, you are cut off, so what are you going to do?”
Despite her bleak situation, eventually there was light at the end of the tunnel.
“There was a sister who called me. I was crying and so she told me ‘do you know there is HHUGS’ and I said no I don’t know of HHUGS, who are HHUGS? She said they are people who help with this and that and they will come to see you. She spoke with HHUGS I think and so, someone called me and said ‘can I come to see you?’ This is the first time the sister came to me and I will never forget her, ever. May Allah reward her with good.”
HHUGS were shocked to learn about Khawla’s financial situation, and at how little she was managing to survive on. HHUGS provided Khawla’s family with contributions to her rent to give the family security and prevent them falling into further arrears, and supported them with shopping vouchers, so that her family would never go hungry again.
Slowly Khawla managed to get back onto her feet. She was assigned a keyworker who provided a shoulder for her to lean on. Through this she also was able to attend coffee mornings and meet other sisters who had been through similar experiences and who could support one another with real practical advice and emotional support.
HHUGS also came to learn of the massive impact of their father’s arrest on the children. HHUGS paid for Khawla and her family to attend regular social and spiritual retreats for the whole family where they could bond and start to grow again as a family. To bring an end to the bullying and abuse they were experiencing at the local state school, HHUGS restored some familiarity and security by paying for them to return a faith school where they were not subjected to the same treatment.
“It affected them in school, if they weren't in a special school I don't think they would have continued with their education because of the situation of their father, but HHUGS helped and paid for it. When they were in public school everyone knew about their father so they got bullied, that was a big thing for them, they didn't want to go to school anymore, it affected their grades. When they made friends with people, when they would find out who their father was they'd get bullied.
“This school was much better; they knew about their father but acted like they didn't. They built their confidence. It helped their grades. It’s very important for the kids, for all Muslim kids, but for the ones whose fathers or mothers have been arrested it’s very important so they don’t feel the effect, in other schools they get bullied but in the Muslim school they didn't.”
When HHUGS first met the family, Khawla’s children were stressed, struggling at school and suffering from low self-esteem. But her son told us that things quickly changed for the better.
“The help made me focus on my studies and Alhamdulilah ultimately achieve very good or one of the highest grades in my University degree. I struggled in my A levels (due to what had happened) but it’s what you get in the end and that’s what matters. It – that enabled me to get a very strong and solid degree which I am now working and gaining experience in…
“The support from HHUGS helped my mum focus on herself which was affecting her a lot mentally – to take care of herself, treat herself sometimes and relax more. She has less pressure and is more comfortable – there is more stability and more time with us emotionally – she used to do all of this but she would have the financial problems at the back of her mind.”
HHUGS wanted to ensure that Khawla and her children were able to see their father, so they arranged for a driver to come and collect them and take them for prison visits. As her children grew up, her son wanted to take greater responsibility for the family, so HHUGS paid for his driving lessons so that he could support his mother. As soon as he passed, instead of relying upon HHUGS to transport the family on prison visits, he began to drive the family there. Khawla’s daughter soon followed, even signing up as a HHUGS volunteer so that she could try to give back to the charity.
“By Allah, HHUGS helped a lot, a lot. And I am happy all praise is due to Allah to the Lord of the Worlds. May Allah reward them with every good.”“I feel like they are like my family, best friends. If you are stuck and do not know where to go, just go to HHUGS.
“Because there is no other organisation which I can think of, that practically helps people who do suffer like HHUGS - everyone helps spiritually, they say they will make du’a that Allah makes things easy and yes, this is good– but you also need to do the work. It’s like a big building and you’ve taken the main pillar, the core of the building – they took it out of the building. Will the building stand? It will stand but it will be very shaky – yes, it has some support underneath but it is a shaky building that can collapse at any time. If it collapses then – the children are lost, their future is lost, their mother is lost and their whole system is lost. HHUGS is there to provide extra support for the building, so that it does not collapse….”