“They have been there more than my own family, I lived with my family for 20 years and I have lived with HHUGS for 20 years.”
Following the civil war in Algeria, I was released, like all political prisoners. I knew however, after all the torture I had endured, that if I wanted to survive I had to escape Algeria. I fled to the UK, believing it to be a land of freedom, where they deal with everyone fairly. But I would soon learn how far that was from reality.
Though I was completely alone, with no family or friends, I was determined to build a life here, something I couldn’t do in Algeria. I began working, and, after a long wait and months of hard work, I finally obtained asylum status. I had promised myself that if this day came, that, having the necessary travel documents, I would go on hajj and so I immediately submitted by visa application.
A Lamb to the Slaughter
My dream of performing hajj was shattered when, one day while on my way to work, fourteen heavily armed police charged towards me. Before could understand what was happening, they had jumped me and I was on the ground in handcuffs. Overwhelmed with panic and confusion, I was pushed to the back of a dark van and driven to a police station.
Days passed and I still had no idea why I was being held. I was completely lost: I wasn’t brought up in this country to know the rules or the law, I didn’t know my rights, or that I should have a solicitor present. I was like a lamb to the slaughter.
I was transferred to a high security prison and held on remand for over two years. The loneliness was crushing. We were locked up in isolation for 22 hours each day, no books, no access to education or work in prison, not even halal food in the beginning. The officers would make fun of me as I couldn’t speak much English. For a long time, the only visitor was my lawyer. My solicitor would send us money. The friends I had made during my time in the UK had vanished; they feared that they would end up in the same place.
I didn’t have any family here to visit me. I couldn’t even let my parents in Algeria know. I didn’t speak to them for the entire time I was inside. They didn’t have a phone at home and I didn’t want to cause problems for the neighbours, who did have a phone. Eventually they discovered what had happened when the Algerian security services paid them a visit. It’s considered shameful if your son is in prison, the stigma was so bad for them that my entire family had to move from their home, the place where I was born and brought up, because of me.
In prison, you weren’t even allowed to speak on the phone in Arabic. They would bring the interpreter but with only eight minutes for a call, it would be over in a moment due to all the time it took back and forth to translate. You couldn’t say anything in that time.
After 27 months, I was acquitted at trial. I was homeless for a while until the council found me temporary accommodation in a hostel. With a roof over my head, I tried to move on with my life, to forgive and forget. Five months after my release, I even got engaged, hoping finally to start a family. But just weeks later, my hostel door was smashed down at 6am. Thirty officers charged in and threw me face down to the floor as they handcuffed me, one on my back, another on my arms, a third on my feet. I asked if I could take my medication which was on the bedside table, but they refused, and I started vomiting. I was led out of the hostel in front of all the other residents and taken to Belmarsh’s segregation unit.
It was just like dream – well, not a dream, it was like a nightmare.
Moved again to Long Lartin, I was now held under immigration laws, as a threat to national security under SIAC – it stands for the Special Immigration Appeal Commission – pending deportation to Algeria. It’s like the Nuremberg Trials. All this time, I was never questioned, let alone charged or tried. Not you, your solicitor, or barrister are even allowed to hear the secret evidence in the closed hearings, so it’s a guessing game.
I felt really lost inside. I didn’t know this system or what was going on. All of the guys were on suicide watch or in the infirmary a wing for mental health problems. For Muslims, to be driven to that length…to try to kill himself… it does mean a lot. We were in a state of despair, like there was nothing. I feared I would spend decades in prison and then be sent back to my country… that would be my life.
Mentally I was destroyed completely. I was watching people lose their minds. I was popping pills constantly because I couldn’t cope. Even now, I am on five different medications; I’m suffering from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, paranoia, insomnia – everything you can imagine. It was God who gave me patience to get through.
The Never Ending Cycle
I was granted bail eventually, but I was subject to extremely harsh conditions and only allowed out of the house for two hours a day within a small boundary. I couldn’t meet people without clearance from the Home Office. Even the elderly English gentleman who kindly let me stay in a room in his house, couldn’t be visited by his daughter who lived across the road. His cleaner stopped coming too because she didn’t want to apply for the clearance out of fear. My conditions destroyed his life, so eventually I had to leave.
I can’t keep rebuilding this life – not even life, but what appears to be a life. I start to rebuild a little bit, but every time I do, they come and start to destroy everything. Why should I do this again and again and again? In the end, I gave up.
Under all the pressure, my engagement also broke. My fiancé couldn’t have lived with all these conditions. I was moved to the outskirts of a remote town hundreds of miles away. I was so isolated – I hated it more than the prison. At least in prison you can talk to other prisoners next to you in the cell; talk from the window. Here, there was nobody; nothing. No computer, no internet. Any visitors needed clearance. I began talking to myself, to the walls. On the odd occasion that I’d be cleared to see the GP, I’d become excited like a child because it meant I could speak to someone – how sad is that?
There was no mosque in the city they had moved me to, so I had to travel to another city 45 minutes away to pray on Fridays. That first Friday, I got lost on my way home and I ended up returning an hour after the agreed deadline. A police officer was waiting when I arrived home. Despite him reassuring me it was ok, by Monday I was arrested again and my bail revoked.
Over the years, I can’t even count the amount of times I have been recalled to prison. I’m finished; I have no will or power to go on like this.
If I could go back in time, I swear I would never have come to this country. If I say I want to leave the UK, they say, ‘you want to abscond’, so it’s like a catch-22; whatever you say, you are wrong. I went through hardship in Algeria but here, they destroy your mental state..
Now, it’s not a life…just surviving. Breathing – I used to say I am breathing, not living. I am breathing because I cannot do anything. I don’t know my purpose, my goal, I don’t have anything really.
I can’t start again – I’ve done it once, twice, three, four times. I’m tired. I’m always living in fear – I can’t risk it because they can just come and take you back to prison and restart the process. Time doesn’t mean anything for them, but for us, it is our lives that have gone. It’s been 15 years – people who commit murder can get a 15 year sentence and I have served 15 years without being charged or found guilty of any crime at all.
You are not allowed to hope, you are not allowed to dream. I just want peace. Just let me live this broken life.
Two years ago, the deportation order was dropped but they still will not allow me to have any ID nor to work. I can’t get benefits or apply for courses. When I try to apply for jobs, they contact the Home Office, who then say I shouldn’t be employed. Even housing, just for me to live somewhere, my landlord has to contact the Home Office. Even though I’m free, an innocent man, I struggle to find somewhere to live.
Ten years ago, while I was in prison I got a phone call to say my father passed away. Last week, my mother passed away. Everyone wants to be there for their parents when they are old and frail; I wanted to be there, to help them financially at least, to do my duty as a son, but I couldn’t.
HHUGS – More than family
I was given HHUGS’ number by the detainees in Long Lartin. Since then, they have been helping me. They have become my family in this country. Their volunteer realised I was lonely so he started visiting me with his children. Even though they weren’t allowed inside my house, we would sit in the front doorstep and chat, using the wheelie bin as a coffee table. You can spend a day without food, two days, as long as there is water, but without talking to people, joking… it made me feel human again. I always say God sent them to show you that there is someone who cares, who is at least thinking about me from time to time.
I felt really embarrassed to ask them for financial help, but I’ve come to rely on them, the way you fall back on your family without needing to ask – or even when you do, you don’t feel embarrassed. For years, they gave me monthly vouchers for food and vouchers for clothing. They’ve paid my rent at times, even my phone bill to speak to my family and a TV licence so I could keep myself busy. When I was living in really terrible conditions, they gave me a bed to sleep on, a wardrobe and a humidifier for the damp and mould in my home. They paid for my oyster card which meant I could travel at least within my boundary. When the conditions relaxed, I was able to drive and HHUGS paid for the costs of the car tax and insurance. They paid for English courses and funded my vocational courses in Electricity and Security when I was allowed. They even covered the fees for my biometric document which was essential for my immigration case.
They have been there more than my own family, I lived with my family for 20 years and I have lived with HHUGS for 20 years. I’m not just saying that to praise them, it’s genuinely how I feel. Like, when my mother passed away last week, the first people to come to give me condolences were HHUGS.
Some Muslims say that they don’t agree with helping people like me because ‘there is no smoke without fire’, but you have to explain to them that there is no smoke, only fire. HHUGS are that minority of people trying to help us, even though they have little funds themselves. They are trying to help others so they should be helped, not given a hard time. God asked you to give charity, to do good deeds. Do those good deeds, your reward is guaranteed.
HHUGS, to me, embody heart-felt kindness, generosity; they give money, their time, their sincere advice, even a smile. I can never repay them for what they have done – I can only ask God to do that. May He reward them, and protect their families.