Piece by piece, I felt like I was losing everything in my life.
“One HHUGS is not enough. There needs to be 100 of them.”
I thought I had seen the end of life’s horrors when I left the Middle East in 1999. And when my family finally joined me in 2013, I felt like I could finally breathe. I had my kids, my health, we were safe, we were problem-free. Until 2016. That’s when everything went wrong.
It started with police searches. They kept coming to our house and taking our electronics. They would keep them for months at a time before giving them back. We had no idea why and they wouldn’t tell us. Sometimes we were left alone for a while and just when I started to think things were okay again, they would come back.
Then came the worst night of our lives. We went to London to visit my cousin and when we returned home, we found nearly 20 police officers outside the house. I remember, I saw the door, it had been smashed in. And then they gave us the news that shattered our world: “Your son has been arrested.”
When I think back to that night, what haunts me more than my son being taken, our house being raided, our belongings seized, our privacy violated, was the sound of the children wailing. They were terrified. For months after it was difficult to put them to bed, because they were scared to sleep. They would sob into my chest, “The police are going to come in the morning.” Before this, I never had any problems with the police. For the eighteen years that I’d lived in this country, I’d never even had to deal with them, not once. I used to think the police were there to help us. I used to think, 999 is the number to call if you face any trouble, and the police will sort it out. I would never have imagined it would be this way.
My son, he was just 18 at the time of his arrest. He was just another teenage boy, like every other teenage boy. We had no idea why he was arrested. They wouldn’t tell us anything. It was nearly two months after that we found out the reason. Two months of tears, stress, confusion, questions, heartache. Two months of the children asking what happened to their big brother.
When we finally got to see him in prison, we found a completely different boy from the one who was taken from us. He had aged. He was worn. Thin. Tired. Dirty. And he was still in exactly the same clothes he was wearing the night he was arrested, except now they were blackened with dirt. They didn’t allow him to have a haircut, or even to shave in this time, let alone change his clothes. Seeing our child like this was heart-breaking. No one else in the prison looked like our son. They all had haircuts and clean clothes. They all looked human. So I bought clothes for him and sent them to London but they sent them back. I did this three times, and each time, they returned the clothes to me. It was not until the solicitor threatened them with legal action that they accepted the clothes.
I had to keep going back and forth between prison in London and the solicitors in Birmingham. On top of this, the constant stress, it began to take a toll on me. I lost my job because I was unable to cope. Now, I had financial problems along with everything else. Sometimes I felt like I just couldn’t manage anymore.
Without the support from HHUGS, I would not have been able to cope during that time. They helped me in so many ways, practically and emotionally. They fixed my broken front door after the police raid. They sent us monthly shopping vouchers, which were so helpful after I lost my job. It got to the stage where I had to call family abroad to send us money because we had no-one here. But HHUGS, they were so supportive. Suddenly it felt like we weren’t alone anymore. In the winter, they paid for our heating and hot water bills. They even helped us get winter clothes for the kids. But the most important thing was that they were already ready to listen; they didn’t make us feel like criminals.
When you hear of a teenage boy being convicted and imprisoned for a crime, you think of how it will impact the rest of his life. You worry if he will be able to cope with prison and how it will affect his mental health. You hope the experience will change him for the better, not worse. You worry if he will ever be able to pick up the pieces of his life again; will he continue his education? Will he get a job? Will he be accepted into society? What you rarely think of is how his crime will destroy his family.
My son’s arrest has affected us physically, emotionally and mentally. Even our friends and family began to distance themselves from us. No one says anything openly but you can feel the distance and you just know they are scared to speak to you in case they get in trouble. Even my kids said, their friends in the neighbourhood, they stopped playing with them. And when journalists started showing up at our mosque and harassing the worshippers, so much so that the police had to be called in, it became embarrassing for me. So I stopped going to the mosque. I couldn’t bear to face them.
Piece by piece, I felt like I was losing everything in my life. My son. My job. My friends. My community. My wife barely stopped crying throughout the nine months that my son was in prison. She was so worried about our child being there, with all these big men. When we went to visit him, we could see that he was different from all the others. He looked so young and vulnerable. The sight of his frail body haunted us for a long time.
Eventually they released my son from prison, but it wasn’t over. He had to live in a hostel for a long time. He wasn’t allowed to use any form of communication, so although he was supposed to apply for university, he couldn’t. He had to sign in every two hours, even during the night. So he would wake up every two hours and sign in. He wasn’t allowed to go anywhere. He couldn’t come home. It was another sort of prison; they just called a different name.
Then there was the surveillance. There were people watching us constantly. Even the kids, they put them on a monitoring programme, in school, at home. Can you imagine? Small children in primary and secondary school? And the monitoring person used to come on weekends to sit and talk to them for four to five hours. Can you imagine? Five hours of question after question after question. The children used to get tired. They used to complain that they had no time to do their homework; no time to rest before school early the next morning.
They told us my son would be under registration for at least 10 years. So even if we want to forget and move on, we can’t. Life has become like a prison for us. One person in the family made a mistake and now all the children have to pay for it. I asked them once, why my daughter had to suffer for what her brother did? They told me that if I don’t accept it then maybe one day they’ll take all my kids from me. “How will you feel then?” they asked me.
I cannot thank HHUGS enough for all the support they have given me over the past few years. There was a time we felt so alone but HHUGS came forward and made us feel like someone actually cares. I thank God for the day I found HHUGS; a brother in the mosque gave me their number. I still remember the sister I spoke to that first time I called. She was kind and so helpful and since that day, Alhamdulillah they have been the only ones helping me. They helped me with paperwork. You know, they even offered to drive me to prison to see my son. They said, ‘If you don’t have a car, we can take you.’ I told them, ‘It’s ok, I have a car. Thank you.’
HHUGS, they even think about the children. They brought them gifts on Eid. They never thought such a simple thing is not important. And they gave us meat during Qurbani – one brother drove all the way from London with a bag of meat for me – and shopping vouchers every month. I am so grateful for everything HHUGS did to make our lives easier and I thank them from them from my heart.
The world needs hundreds of HHUGS, not just one; one HHUGS is not enough for us all. They are doing such a hard job and my heartfelt prayers are with them.