“I’ve lost everyone. No help at all, from anyone. Not friends. Not family. Not the police.”
“I wonder if I will be able to fast for Ramadhan” Maria thought, as she looked fondly in the mirror at her ever growing pregnant stomach. It was only November, but Maria had only just found out she was expecting, thinking ahead in excitement towards her favourite month of the year: the family iftars, the night prayers and the unity of the community was unmatched. Lost in her thoughts, she began to prepare a home cooked dinner for her two children – a novelty as she and her husband both worked full time. Her reverie was interrupted by an urgent call from her mother in law, “Your brother, he’s been arrested and you need to get to your mum, Maria, right now”…
Her head was spinning as she headed as fast as she could along Bristol’s bustling City Centre, accidently barging into people. ‘It’s a mistake,’ she told herself, ‘it must be’. But this was no mix-up. The family home was pouring with police, covering every inch of the small garden and spilling out of the front door. “Mum!” Maria screamed, as she desperately barged through to the sight of her elderly mother shackled in handcuffs in her living room.
“It was literally a two second gap between me and her but I couldn’t even hug her or say anything to her because I had police besides me and she had police beside her. She just suffered a stroke. Her blood pressure was sky high.”
Maria could feel her heart racing. She had never felt so powerless and afraid. She wished she could scream for them to stop. Instead, everywhere she turned she was met with images of her family being handcuffed violently by police.
“They were all arrested… I’m not talking about the normal handcuffs… I’m talking about twisted wired handcuffs. I remember when they were taking them off they all had marks on their arms because of how tightly they had put them on them.”
For days, as their home was turned upside down, every member of Maria’s family was questioned, slowly and painstakingly, by police. Just a few days before, Maria had been an energetic mum who filled the room with her presence. But now, she felt shattered, unable to even shed a tear for her pain.
“It’s had a massive impact on me. Until now it’s just made my heart like really stone cold. It’s been one thing after the other, after that. “We had received death threats and had our windows smashed.”
The Bitterness of Winter
During the days following the raid, Maria and her family tried desperately to return to some kind of normalcy. But the news of the arrest spread like wildfire in Bristol until eventually it reached their employers. Despite being under no suspicion from the police, they found themselves desperately pleading their innocence. Maria’s appeal was met with an awkward silence from her manager. Too ashamed to meet her gaze, he asked her to leave.
“It’s completely wrong because you would’ve thought, especially with this country and freedom of speech and independence and stuff that we would be judged with our own actions. …We’ve not even got a detention in school because we had such a strict upbringing with doing good at school and keeping with the law and things. But that’s all gone down the drain now… we’ve lost our jobs over nothing so how has that helped us? I don’t understand. We’ve been good all our lives just for a single moment caused by someone else to wipe that away”.
Having lost their main source of income, Maria and her husband had expected to find solace in the benefits system, only to face another rude awakening….
“All my benefits were stopped. We don’t even know why. I mean, what were we supposed to be living on?”
In the face of complete criminalisation, Maria had expected to be able to turn to her close-knit family for support in her time of darkness. She was unprepared for the harsh reality that hit her…
“They refused to acknowledge that they knew us. No one from my dad’s family even bothered to contact us.. I have very close cousins not message me. Everyone was so scared of being contacted by the police or losing their jobs or being judged for being related to us’…it’s not been the same since.”
Wounded by their ice cold judgement, she felt utterly alone. All the people she knew and loved had disappeared.
“I’ve lost everyone. No help at all, from anyone. Not friends. Not family. Not the police.”
Even the once strong relationship with her husband crumpled under the weight of the arrest. He too had lost his job, his friends and family and felt the bitter isolation of having no one to turn to for comfort. Soon, his upset gave way to anger…
“After the arrest we didn’t really have a relationship. You think your spouse will be the closest person you can turn to and stuff but I couldn’t, because I could see the hurt he was going through and that he blamed me for it. We weren’t even living together for a while… It’s just had a massive strain on our relationship; we weren’t the same, there’s nothing we can do anymore. We’ve lost everything.”
Like a disease, the loss and suffering infected every member of Maria’s family. Her mum had always been the strongest woman she knew; she had stood tall in the face of hardships throughout their lives, ensuring she was there for her family. But for the first time in her life, she seemed smaller and weaker.
“She’s just broken, literally just broken She gets so emotional and I literally have to get up from the room and just walk away ‘cause I haven’t had the chance to open up. Seeing her breaks my heart. She’s constantly crying and weeping. Her world’s been turned upside down because she was widowed at a very young age, and she brought us up – we were her everything. She suffered two strokes.”
The worst impacted though was Maria’s brother. Following repeated visits from the police, something in his mind gave way…
“After the third day, he started making stuff up in his head. He thought people were out there to kill him; that they were out there for his kids. He started taking down the numbers from his door so people wouldn’t know where he lives. He became so paranoid at this point.
“He lost his mental balance completely. He was sectioned and everything. For him, he lost his job; he lost everything he’s ever worked for. The whole family has broken down to say the least.”
Withdrawing herself into the depths of winter, she immersed herself in its bitter cold and darkness. Neglecting her health, and her unborn child in the process, she struggled to muster the strength even to eat or drink.
“My iron levels and everything have been really low. I’m waiting a blood transfusion currently,, ‘cause I just cannot bring myself to eat or drink. I think the massive strain and stress and lack of sleep and all the rest of it has a massive impact as well. ‘I’ve never suffered like this with my other pregnancies. Now, I’m under special care at the hospital.
“I have no one to turn to….the only thing that’s stopping me from taking my life is my strong belief in Allah. I literally don’t know what I could have done because there has been so many occasions that I’ve lost hope…”
Spring is here. Buds of hope blossom
In desperation, Maria made one last cry for help. She’d been given the number for HHUGS, expecting that like the rest of the people in her life, they too would turn her away or disappoint her. She was taken aback by the warmth at the end of the line:
“I just felt like I was connected to them right from the start because of how caring and loving they were. They took us on straight away. We have been judged and we’ve been blamed, and had fingers pointed at us. HHUGS has been the only one that haven’t judged us or pointed fingers at us or blamed us or anything.”
After learning that Maria, her husband and her brother were unemployed and their benefits cut, HHUGS were immediately able to provide them with the support they desperately needed: food vouchers for the family, utility bills cleared and relieved of the debts they had incurred after losing their jobs. Knowing that Maria was close to her due date, they sent her maternity vouchers so that she could afford the essentials to give her new-born the best start in life.
“They helped me with everything you can think of. If it wasn’t for HHUGS and if we were just relying on the benefit system, we’d have nothing coming in.
“It’s like having a mother; because no matter what you’ve been through [or] anything, you can go to your mum and you won’t get judged by her. She’s the only person in the world that you can turn to for that hug. And it’s like the purest, purest form of a hug, where you just feel like you’re in the safest place in the world. Your mother’s the only person in the world that won’t blame you or point a finger at you no matter what you’ve done. And the fact that we haven’t done anything, that’s the sort of love and warmth we got from HHUGS.”
Seeing Maria at breaking point, HHUGS worked hard to ensure she had the highest standard of emotional support. Assigning a keyworkers to befriend her, they provided the professional help she most desperately needed.
“I was offered, like, a shoulder to cry on. My keyworker, she was just literally there for me. I messaged her daily with everything I’ve gone through. She knows when my blood tests are, how the pregnancy is going, how I’m coping. That’s helped me mentally and physically because I’ve got someone to talk to who knows everything. I don’t need to hide anything.”
“I told them I’ve got two young kids – I can’t keep travelling out so they organised telephone counselling. That’s helped me massively.
“Together, it’s somehow allowed me to relieve the pain that I had hidden inside. It’s because of opening up to them that I’ve come to this stage where I can cry about certain things now… Without them, I wouldn’t be living here most likely. I would probably be in a psychiatric ward being sectioned or something by now.”
Seeing the devastating impact on the other members of Maria’s family, HHUGS extended their hands so that they too could find some relief. For her children, they provided swimming and Quran lessons — some escape from their troubles at home. In anticipation for a lonely Eid, they prepared gifts and surprises for the children. After speaking to Maria’s brother, HHUGS began trying to slowly restore his confidence.
“They’re helping him get back onto his feet, he just wants to get back with on his career instead of being dependent. HHUGS are doing a lot to help him with that, toget himback to working full time. With my brother’s wife, they’re helping her with courses that they can’t afford, to get her back working. They’re being amazing in regards to that.”
In the space of a just few months, the Winter freeze had melted and Maria’s thoughts were beginning to return to normalcy. She remembered how she looked forward to Ramadan, considering that perhaps, after all, she might still find the community spirit she had so eagerly awaited in HHUGS…
“They are basically a God send. We just describe them as a God send. Like, there’s nothing more we can say.
“They’re constantly asking me if I am in need of anything, constantly making sure that I’m okay… it’s not just, “oh here’s this” and that’s it. Get on with it. They’re constantly in touch with me to find out if the situation’s got worse”
Maria wanted people who sponsor HHUGS to know just how important their support is:
““I’m one of the people that would question whether what we’re donating and stuff is actually getting to the right people so I can’t stress enough: it’s a legit cause and it actually gets to them. Just keep supporting HHUGS. If it wasn’t for you I don’t know how we would’ve coped.…if anyone that I know or heard of anyone being in a similar situation, that’s the first and last thing I would mention to them; get in touch with HHUGS ‘cause no other organisation, no other force in this country can help them the way HHUGS have helped us.”