“It was like somebody putting a hole in your chest, taking your heart out, basically, and then stepping on it in front of you. ”

My heart thumped fiercely against my chest as the solicitor began to speak. His words assaulted my ears as  I learned how my home had been raided the day before; how they had kicked down the door screaming and shouting, ripping the floor boards apart, removing the light bulbs and even the sockets in the wall. I couldn’t recognise my home from the pictures he showed me, it looked torn apart, even food and drinks strewn across the floor. ‘My wife’, I muttered… how would she be? The solicitor looked down and slowly read from the police record that she was ‘hysterical’: they nearly called an ambulance fearing she was having a heart attack.

I could barely breathe.

I pictured her lying on the sofa for the entire night and next day alone as dozens of male police officers ransacked her home.

It was like somebody putting a hole in your chest, taking your heart out, basically, and then stepping on it in front of you.

My wife suffers from fibromyalgia, an illness that inflames the muscles in an extremely painful way. She’s on the severe end of the spectrum, so often she struggles to even move without feeling excruciating pain. Her condition is made worse by stress and trauma. She had begged for her carers to come and help her, but despite rushing to her home, the police refused them entry unless they were willing to undergo extensive checks. Out of fear that they would somehow too be implicated, they declined and instead, waited outside the home.

That night I played my solicitors narrative on repeat, thinking obsessively about how my wife and children would have felt at each moment.  Was my eldest, seven year old Sarah, able to get her siblings ready to leave? Did the baby know something was wrong? I reflected how Allah created the night for rest, but how these raids turned the nights of peace into nights of terror. From that night, my kids struggled to sleep…they can’t sleep unless there’s a noise in the background; either TV or the Quran playing. It’s a constant torment.

When I spoke to my wife on the phone she would assure me she was okay and managing. But I soon learnt that when the police came, they had taken all of our savings. I consoled myself that she was receiving disability benefit, but to my horror they had stopped that too. It would take months for her application to process. My spine shivered at the thought of my family going hungry.

My wife was trying to hold herself together emotionally but everyone knew that she was falling apart. Everything was piling up; she was becoming increasingly unwell and struggling to cope with the effects of the raid on the children. As the news spread, she was deeply stigmatised by the community. One of her neighbours actually tried to sell a story to the Sun newspaper. Those we thought of as friends suddenly disappeared. There were one or two who stuck by us, but, other than that, all of our family abandoned us. They didn’t even call, even though everyone knew about my wife’s condition. She was left devastated and alone. Soon, she confided in me that she was suffering from depression.

Without me, my children began to suffer. My eldest was just 7 but my wife had no option but to rely on her doing a lot of the running around. It hurt me to see her having to grow up so fast even though she was so young. School teachers informed my wife that she was coming to school every morning crying – she would just be sitting in class and burst into tears. They would ask her what was wrong but she would say she doesn’t know.

My son used to be so close to me. He wouldn’t eat unless I was the one that fed him. If its bath time he would want me to give him the bath. He would want me to change his clothes or his nappy. He was crushed when I was no longer there, constantly crying and crying, begging for me to come home, asking, “where’s daddy? Where’s daddy? My kids would search the wardrobes for me, thinking that I was playing hide and seek. They’d shout, “Daddy, daddy, we’re going to come and find you! We know you’re hiding! Where are you? I’m coming!” But to their constant disappointment, I was never there. Soon, my son started wetting the bed; every night. I crumbled at the thought of my wife having to change the sheets every day, and of the inevitable pain she would no doubt be experiencing.

There was one particular conversation which haunts my dreams until today. My wife called and said that the kids wanted to speak to me. It was like someone was crushing my soul when my beautiful son and daughter told me that there were some men who were bullying them on their way home from school. They claimed that my children owed them money and that next time, they would have to give them ten pounds; otherwise they would get hurt. I knew immediately that these were the drug dealers who were on their route home from school. I felt so helpless, I wanted so badly to protect my children and to just be their father but I couldn’t be that for them. How could someone exploit my children for money and there was nothing I could do to protect them? l could only tell them to speak to their teachers because mum, what can mum do to help them? I couldn’t say, ‘mum, you need to go to school with them’ because she couldn’t have managed that physically. I can’t say, ‘don’t go to school until we sort the problem out’ because Social Services are saying, “If they don’t go to school, we’ll have to take them away because that shows you’re incapable of looking after them.”  All I could say is, “if you see these people then go in a different direction, or run away or tell your teachers”.

It was excruciatingly difficult for me.   This was there time of illness and suffering, their time of weakness, the time when I really needed to be there. But I was torn from them. I was in so much pain knowing that there was no one there who could take care of them.

My wife would exert all of her body’s strength trying to bring the children to visit me in prison.  She had a mobility scooter but the journey on public transport was still excruciating. Sometimes horrible bus drivers wouldn’t let her on or drive past her without stopping because of her scooter so even after her journey we would only get a few minutes together because of the time it took to get there. I would beg her not to come because I knew that it was making her severely ill for three or four days after each visit but she would insist. Travelling by taxi was expensive, and if the kids were coming, then she needed to hire a mini bus – a minimum 100 pounds per visit which was crippling for her. But she would still do it because she and the kids wanted to see me so badly.

Every visit brought with it a wash of relief for me. When I would see my kids excitedly rushing through the doors to see me, my eyes would fill with tears of joy. We would hug and kiss and play. Then the officer would announce the end of the visit, exclaiming, “Times up! Any person that doesn’t get off their seat will be banned from visits again next time.” My kids would hold onto me so tightly, crying and begging me to stay with them. They would think that it was because I didn’t like them. But faced with the threat of not being able to see them for their next visit, I was forced to muster the strength to push them away; only reinforcing their fear that daddy didn’t want to be with them.

I was struggling to hold myself together in prison. For the next three years, everywhere I turned I would see people who were completely broken. Broken people, broken spirits coming from broken families, and now they were in a broken place…

When Ramadan came, you’re met with a mix of emotions. You need every ounce of mercy Allah swt can give you so that you can pray for your return home but at the same time there is a deep sadness of not being there with your family, or being able to be in the mosque and pray at night. There was one night we were allowed to pray tarawih in the mosque – I just burst into tears. It reminded me so much of being at home, of being outside with the community, worrying about getting home for suhoor. It was this warm feeling that made me realise how much I was missing.

My wife would save up so that she and the kids could come and visit on Eid or the days after. We would try to make it a happy visit by letting them get fizzy drinks from the canteen and things like that. They would tell me about Eid parties they were going to at home and I would yearn to be there with them. I would look at my wife and know that her Eid was no happy occasion; there was no joy in Eid for her without me.

Then I was released

After three long years, the day came when my solicitor sat me down and with bright eyes told me that I would be released soon. I was filled with joy and contentment and gratefulness to Allah, I couldn’t believe that I would finally be reunited with my beautiful family. ‘But’ he said, ‘there’s going to be conditions, Walid that you need to know.’

Even though I was out of prison, those conditions meant that I struggled to see my children. I was forced to re-locate to the other-side of town, and every time I saw my children, it would have to be with someone from social services watching and listening to everything we said to each other. It made me feel like I was a criminal with my own children. Once my son started talking about school and an innocent shooting game he was playing, but moments like that are terrifying, because construed in the wrong way, it could have had devastating consequences on my ability to see them.

A lifeline

In the midst of my chaos, HHUGS stepped in and supported my family. Social services were constantly threatening to take the children away because, without me there, there was no one to look after them.  At the same time they refused to increase the hours of the government carers which would have meant my wife could retain custody. That’s when HHUGS did something unimaginable; they paid the government carers who were working a few hours a day to work 7 hours a day 7 days a week. It didn’t stop there – while my wife’s benefits were coming through they had provided her with shopping vouchers so they could afford food and their volunteers dropped food off too. That was a lifeline for my family.

But it still didn’t end there.  My wife found really good friends at HHUGS in their keyworkers, who she could speak to and share her concerns and difficulties. To help her feel less isolated, the sisters would have coffee mornings and Eid parties. The kids would receive Eid gifts which had sweets and books. They even started helping my wife with prison visits so for the first time, I wasn’t sitting there worrying about how they were going to get there or go home safely, I could just enjoy the company of my family.

HHUGS was like the father that I couldn’t be. So it was like they came in to save my family from breaking apart by protecting my children from going into care. So when I say it’s a lifeline, I mean it because, and Allah knows best, but my children would be in care right now if HHUGS hadn’t stepped in.

When I was released from prison, HHUGS’ rehabilitation scheme was the reason I kept afloat. I wasn’t allowed to work, but at the same time I was expected to pay for the hostel they had put me or I’d be sent back to prison. So HHUGS helped me pay the rent, they got me a mobile and constantly topped it up so I could contact my family, and even paid for public transport so I could see them. They offered me counselling. It was as if HHUGS had saved me from going back to prison.

Forget about politics and let’s just think about humanity. Whatever people in prison may have done, their families are innocent and are victims just like anyone else. But they serve a prison sentence too. Whether that’s for three years or twenty, they’re also vulnerable. They go through trauma, they’re alienated through society. Their home, their most secure place, has been violated; it’s been turned upside down. The guardians and protectors have been removed from their family.  So when local authorities cannot provide the necessary support, that’s where HHUGS come in. They give these families space to open up, not just their homes, but their hearts and minds so that they can enjoy some sort of normality in their life.

This is a community issue that we are facing. Prevent affects everyone now. You can’t escape it and you can’t run away from it. You could be a doctor or a lawyer and be well respected in your community but you can still get that phone call tomorrow saying that you need to come into school because we think your child is showing signs of radicalisation. That’s why HHUGS is something we all need to work upon together.

I believe Allah (swt) brought HHUGS into my life because He knows if they’re not there, I wouldn’t be able to bear it and my family wouldn’t have been able to bear it. That’s, for me, the wisdom behind it. I don’t believe it was something haphazard. I believe they were the nasr; the help of God for me and for my family. They were the du’as, the prayers – our prayers to God to help us.