A Father's Struggle

“It’s the family that suffers the most.”

Shakil was home with his wife and three children, a daughter age 4, and two sons aged 8 and 10 – too young to know what was about to hit them. The polite knock at the door after fajr, revealing the 20 officers outside, would serve as an interruption that would irrevocably shape their future. Compelled to answer intrusive questions, as officers scanned his house for money and clues, confiscating their belongings, papers, and even the family car; forced to say goodbye to his wife and children, it would be another month before he would see them again. As a man who was assured in himself, he was often calm and collected in these situations.

“I wasn’t afraid, because in my mind I thought, ‘what they can do?’ I haven’t done anything, you know. But you also feel your heart beat increases, you start to think about your wife and kids. Thoughts go flying through your mind and you feel anxious.”

His family, in a state of distress and confusion, weakened Shakil’s unshakeable stance, as his children were too young to be able to differentiate between their father and the “bad guys on TV”, imprisoned for crimes like theft and murder, and were visibly distressed. They could not reconcile this with the image they had of their father, an honest man and loving father, who never raised his voice. He recalls, “Because they have good thoughts about the police. In their mind, the police are there to catch the bad guys but (then they’re wondering) why are they taking my dad?” Oblivious to fate that awaited him, he reassured his children, “don’t worry, Dad will be back soon”, joking as police officers led him away.  Over the next three to four hours, he was questioned in custody. In the end, a detective confided in him,

“I’m really sorry, I don’t want to tell you this, but the CPS has decided to press charges. It breaks my heart to do this to you, I don’t think it’s right. I don’t agree with this… I know you’re not a bad guy, I don’t agree with this, but the CPS has decided and there’s nothing I can do”.

Life in prison

Denied bail, he would not be able to see his wife and children any time soon, with no information to give him any indication of when that might be. Life in prison, particularly for those held in London, was much harder on the mind, than those outside the city; it would be gruelling for anyone, let alone someone who may be more susceptible to mental illness. Shakil saw grown men, excruciatingly troubled, cracking under pressure and breaking down, crying. Prisoners were allowed no more than 20 minutes outside their cells each day, or in the event a prisoner self-harmed out of desperation, they would be on lockdown for the whole day. Part of the psychological torment was having no link to the outside world, yet left alone with their thoughts; enough to drive a person mad, their mind confounded with questions, desperately trying to make sense of the situation. Shakil found it harrowing trying to make calls to his wife. A whole month would pass without speaking to her, because the cost of calls from prison were so extortionate – 50p a minute. The whole process was mentally exhausting, no companion to speak to, the only reassurance knowing that faith in Allah’s trials for a believer, would keep him sane.

 “It’s the Family that Suffers the Most”

For Shakil, the worst part in all of this was the reality for his family, who were suffering back at home. His wife, now acting as a single mother, was left alone to shoulder the responsibility of both parents. Carrying the stress of her financial and practical daily tasks -taking the children to and from school, buying groceries, whilst juggling cooking and caring for the children, worrying about the uncertainty of her future, she inevitably felt the strain. Being a mother is hard work enough, but the work load at home was no longer divided between two. With no respite from the daily stress, no break from the children, she could no longer socialise with others, or go out freely without the heavy responsibility of her children’s well-being on her shoulders. Coupled with the anxiety of her husband’s fate in her heart and the instability surrounding her life, she had to carry the burden alone, finding no source of solace: no one would understand if she told them. With any cash at home seized in the raid and as their benefits were halted for over a month, she was left bereft of any income, vulnerable, the whole process was strangulating.

“Mothers emotionally and psychologically get affected. Everyone needs rest and time for yourself. As much as we love our children, you can’t spend 12 hours a day with them; you need a time where they go to school, where you get time for yourself and relax.”

The reaction of Shakil’s family was mixed, some upset about the ordeal, empathising with the family, whilst others washed their hands of any association. He recalls the terrible feeling of being shunned by relatives and community members alike due to the stigma of terrorism, when comparing how paedophile and murderers would receive so many visitors from their relatives in prison. The inescapable feeling of family and friends abandoning him at such a time saddened him deeply.

The help of HHUGS was near

In this initial period, where HHUGS were unable to make contact with Shakil’s family, they struggled immensely, suffering in silence. Shakil didn’t know how HHUGS finally managed to make contact with his wife, but once they were involved, it made the world of difference.

“My biggest worry was my children’s emotional wellbeing – especially my children are very happy, and I knew they were ok, because HHUGS was there. If my wife was falling short, she had HHUGS behind her and she had some support around her. That’s what enabled me to do the time and cope.   Before that she couldn’t tell anyone. Mentally, I was able to cope knowing they were getting support with bills.”

HHUGS enabled Shakil to see his family again, arranging transportation and covered the expenses for her to visit him whenever she could.  It was difficult for her to bring the children initially, so his only contact was with his wife. Those rare and reality altering moments with her were what got him through, his only attachment to normality and the outside world momentarily, he could forget he was in prison, albeit briefly.

It was a great relief but after the visit you’d feel down, because for an hour you’re in a different world, talking about life; the children, how they are and what they are doing. Then reality hits and you go back to your cell, and it’s just doom and gloom again.”

Shakil was grateful to HHUGS for the assistance they provided to his wife financially, monthly food vouchers, helping with bills, lifting a huge weight from his mind. Many brothers would offer to help him or his family, to which he replied, “If you want to help me, help HHUGS.” To ease the burden on the children, HHUGS help with their tuition fees so they could attend Madrasah, so much so, his children didn’t feel the strain so much on their social life and education. To provide some normalcy and escape, Shakil’s son was able to continue with his Jujitsu classes, that he loved so much, due to the support from HHUGS.

A Prison Beyond Prison

Shortly after Shakil was released, he was put on license –a situation he described as being worse than prison itself and one he endured for two years. Monitored 24 hours a day, with a curfew in place, it created immense psychological pressure, constantly living in fear that he might break his conditions and be incarcerated once more.

“In prison, you don’t have a fear of what may happen, you’re already in prison. But when you’re outside, you have a worry, ‘ok, I don’t want to be late, they will send me back to prison,’ so you have that fear, that worry, that whole time, one or two years, every single day, so you’re extra careful, you’re worried not to do anything that could get you sent back to prison.”

A greater shock to the system was that he was unable to return to the family he so desperately longed for, forced to remain in a hostel on the other side of the city. But most painful of all, was being deprived of seeing his children. Though a risk assessment concluded that his children were not at risk from radicalization, yet 4 months passed after the assessment, and he still had not seen them. A formidable blow to his children, they asked daily after him, unable to understand why he was now a free man yet unable to see them.

How do you explain that to a child? OK, prison they could understand, but now the day before, I saw them, spent four hours with them; the next day, suddenly my daughter was asking my wife, ‘Why can’t Dad come today?’ She couldn’t understand why, she’s only four years old. My wife asked social services, ‘you tell me what to tell the children.’   They give couldn’t give us an answer. I would see my wife at cafes, I was allowed to see my wife and not my children, and I remember seeing my son once, I had to run away in case he sees me. I didn’t want to put any stress on him. I didn’t want to be in to prison…”

The fear of being sent back to prison for stepping out of line, or due to seeing his children accidentally, was too anxiety-inducing to allow him to live or sleep peacefully. During this stressful time, Shakil’s hostel rent, food via vouchers and clothing was covered by HHUGS, helping to alleviate some of the worries surrounding him at the time. They funded his travel expenses, so he was able to visit his family, living on the other side of the city, and further relieved the strain by providing psychological and emotional support in the form of friendship through key workers.

“I have known about HHUGS for a long time and I always make du’a to keep it going. It was one of the first thoughts I had on going to prison, to urge my wife to call HHUGS even though at first she was apprehensive.”

Life was never the same for Shakil after that knock on the door. The raids, arrests, impacted his mind in a way that became unbearable. The smallest sound in the house was sufficient a cause for him “to jump out of bed,” questioning his own integrity and innocence.

“It turns your life upside down. Just the arrest, just the raid. Things are never the same again. The moment you hear a knock in the morning, you think, ‘what’s that? Is it them again?’ You’re innocent, you’re not doing anything but it’s just that’s the effect it’s had on you.”

HHUGS was there for Shakil’s family for the duration of this test. They continue to work around the clock to help marginalised women and children. Shakil often refers to how people are losing their humanity today, where our moral obligation to one another is to support and provide relief for injustices people face.

“HHUGS are not helping people who are criminals; they are helping people who are innocent: women and children who are suffering at home alone, helping them just live; looking after their children, looking after their emotional wellbeing, their safety; giving them something to do. Helping them get through that difficult stage. What crimes have they committed? They are innocent.”