Meet Azra, awoken at 5.00am with guns to her head, her life, as she knew it, came to an end and was ruthlessly replaced with a life behind bars, away from her children and miles away from her husband
The shock of a dawn raid
I was just your average homemaker, looking after my 5 children and home-schooling, when my husband called to tell me he was detained in Turkey, where he was away for work. He didn’t even really know himself what was going on at that time, and to this day, he was cleared of everything, but that took nearly another 2 years.
It was still a shock when armed police came early in the morning around 5:00am. I was awoken with several guns to my head, and police telling me to get up. It was only a one-bedroom flat, with 5 children, and I was sleeping in the living room, with the younger children, and the other children were in the bedroom. It is still traumatic to this day for the younger ones, they still feel the effects of it. They were taken out of the living room and taken to the other room with their siblings. I was left in the living room with the police there. I was strip searched and after that, I was arrested.
I could hear the police in the kitchen with one of my younger ones. They asked them, “Do you want some breakfast? Do you want a bacon sandwich?” I found that a bit shocking, I don’t know whether they were trying to antagonise me. They wouldn’t let any of us use the bathroom, without someone being in the toilet with them. That was difficult for me to see, especially for the kids as they were children and, all of them were minors under the age of 16. The oldest one at the time was 14 or 15. With 15 police officers, it felt very claustrophobic and very crowded. I just felt numb, I felt everything was out of my control. I couldn’t protect the children, I couldn’t do anything for them, I couldn’t intervene. They are very close to me; everyone calls them my ducklings because they are always following me around. It was very difficult to have that separation, where they couldn’t come to me. They couldn’t understand it. It was a very difficult day.
Even though it has been 5 years since I came out of prison, my children ask every time I leave the house, “Where you are going, who is going with you, what time are you coming back.?” One of my children had developed extreme eczema, and the time of my arrest, it was so bad she had to go into hospital. The hospital was saying that it can be brought on because of stress. It was so, so obvious it was, because the separation was so severe. And when I was released and I was taking her of myself, her symptoms disappeared after a couple of months, from extreme eczema to absolutely nothing. If I’m upstairs at home, she won’t go downstairs by herself and vice versa, she always needs to know that I am nearby, and I am close. Even though it has been 5 years, and I go outside, she will insist on coming with me, even if I say I am just popping out. You can see that she has that anxiety, and it is clear to anyone that they are still impacted by it. My older children still have a lot of anxiety surrounding it, but through a lot of talking and iman, they will get through it.
Reunited behind the wire
My husband was released back to the UK, but I was still in prison. I was extremely relieved because my children were with my mum and dad at that point. They had no mother and father, they were staying all over the place with family members and at times, it’s lot to ask for to look after all 5 children, so there were stages where they were separated as well. It was difficult for them and for us, so when he did come back, it was relief that there was a parent going to be there for them. Initially it was a huge, huge relief, but then it wasn’t plain sailing. I thought he was going to come back, he wasn’t charged with anything, he was cleared of whatever accusations were made. But he was soon placed under T-PIMS. Despite the fact he is a family man and has children, they literally picked him up and placed him anywhere in the UK – over 130 miles away for two years.
Initially, the children did not go straight to their father, because it would have been difficult for him to suddenly have 5 children with everything else going on. I was still held on remand for around 4 months. My family used to bring my children to prison to visit me. Though my husband was placed in the town 100 miles away, he did get permission to visit me, but it was difficult. They had to close the whole visiting section for him to visit me. You can imagine this huge visiting room in the prison, where I was allocated a specific visiting time. There were 3 or 4 cars arranged for my husband to come down to London to visit me. That was the first time we had seen each other after quite a few years. It was extremely emotional, and the kids weren’t allowed to be with us then. It wasn’t private by any means, with the contact team surrounding us. It was difficult to see him like that, and it was difficult for him to see me in the situation I was in. It was a surreal experience, and up until to that point, the kids had been visiting me regularly and were taken down to where my husband was. It was difficult for them as they didn’t feel like they knew him, he looked different to what they remembered. It was very hard. So initially they didn’t go to stay with him, they remained with my family in London. After another month or so, one of my children went to stay with him.
A few months later, I was released from prison. After that, I was able to visit my husband. It wasn’t cheap so I couldn’t do it as much as I would like. Even though it was nice being all together, you couldn’t really relax because you knew it would come to an end. It was exciting, but that excitement was short-lived, because you knew you had to say goodbye and you knew you had to come back home. It was just a bittersweet moment; you want to enjoy the moment, but it wasn’t going to last. There would be tears in the car, especially the younger ones started getting used to have their dad around again, and they would wonder why they can’t all stay.
I felt like I really needed to be with my husband quickly, as the TPIM lasts for 2 years. We had so much intrusion – it was not going to work for us being separated, dealing with separate groups of authorities independently. And so, I made the decision to quickly organise myself and move to where my husband was.
Living under the control of T-PIMS
T-PIMS was very difficult on my husband. You have not done anything and have not been charged or suspected of anything. He had no access to any devices or phones. You are given an extensive list of things that breach your T-PIMS. You could literally have an IQ of Einstein, and you are still going to end up breaching it. It’s almost designed to make you breach it.
From what I remember, some of the restrictions would be, that in the area you are living in, you are not allowed down certain roads. If you enter, they will know that you have entered. It’s not one or two roads, there are several no zone areas. On several occasions, he was lost, and honestly if my husband wasn’t as educated or clued up, if I wasn’t as well, (not everyone has English is their first language or has that capability reading maps the old-fashioned ways), he would have been arrested.
My husband was only allowed a certain amount of money per day and per week. He had to sign at a police station everyday by a certain time. If he didn’t do that, the TPIM was breached. If he wasn’t home by a certain time, it was breached. He also had to make a phone call everyday which he couldn’t forget. It was always at awkward times, where if he missed it, out of simply sleeping because he was up all night, it could have been a potential problem. They were not successful, but they did try to prosecute him for this. Even negligible breaches could end up in the Old Bailey, that’s how on edge we were because of how easily you could breach T-PIMS.
Financially, it was very difficult too as there were many restrictions. You might as well as say “don’t bother stepping outside of your house”. There is no job that is going to allow you to walk away a certain number of times to sign on or to make a phone call to the police station. It’s not like you can go to an interview and say you need to leave at this time and it’s going to take me over an hour to go there and come back. He wouldn’t have been allowed to go on the internet, so if you are thinking about any online work, phone work, customer service, anything that involves getting onto any kind of internet, or any smartphone device, it’s a no-go, you are unable to do it. Even driving jobs, he was not allowed to do that as he is not allowed to drive any vehicle, so you can literally discount 99.9% of jobs. He couldn’t work for those years and the Home Office don’t provide you with money during that period.
I myself am still under restrictions for a further 10 years. I have to notify basically every little thing in my life when it comes to cars, phones, and bank accounts. I just cannot go and do as I please without wondering if I have breached my notification. It was difficult workwise.
He used to get raided on a weekly basis. The carpets were taken off, and the house would be ripped apart. The psychological impact of the raids on him were extremely difficult; as we have predominantly girls, and the raids were frequent and unexpected. Sometimes myself and the older girls wouldn’t be covered properly, in our hijab. Our personal belongings would be rifled through which he found very difficult, in terms of myself and his daughters. It was very invasive and very frequent, and he struggled a lot with that.
It was a stressful period, but regardless of what happened and what life throws at you, especially if you have a family and children, you must make the best of every situation. The children found a sense of peace at that time because at least now they had both parents with them.
Under the Scrutiny of Prevent
We couldn’t spend two years cooped up in the house. We had to continue giving them the best life that we could. As a home schooler you have a lot of extra-curricular activities and different things to keep them stimulated and inspired, which we had to navigate, without breaching the conditions. A lot of the activities we did were very close to the no-zone areas and roads. It was a miracle by Allah that we did not breach in those 2 years. When it came to the kid’s homework, or anything like that, they couldn’t do it in the house. If they really needed to do it in the house, my husband had to leave and obviously there was a curfew he had to abide by as well.
Our main priority was the children, but some battles we did fight, because I personally feel we have the responsibility for each other in general and for other families. There were times, where people would think that we wouldn’t understand our rights and they used to abuse that position. It became a routine of sorts; we learnt how to deal with different people that were involved in our lives, whether it was social services, or local council. Because the children were on a child protection register, it was very intrusive in terms of our parenting, what we were doing with them. They tried to force the children back into school. They tried to accuse me of radicalising my children, though there was no evidence of it.
The children all ended up on a PREVENT programme. They were all interviewed individually and together, while the officers tried to work out their mindset, and tried to poison them against us with the outrageous questions they would ask. My children have never been on social services protection, this was the first time its ever happened to us. The reviews were meant to be every 3 or 6 months, but we used to have them much more regularly, maybe a month apart, and when social services came to the house, PREVENT and police officers also came. Occasionally, there would be the councillor from the local education department to check their home education needs and there would be chairperson, as well as nurses from the health department. PREVENT feels like they almost tried to radicalise you. It’s so strange, but they entice you in a way to have reactions and react to some of the stuff they are saying and suggesting. They antagonise you; I don’t feel like there were genuinely there to prevent or have anyone’s best interest at heart. That’s the only way I can describe them; they were aggressive and definitely not genuine.
They said if my children don’t do the PREVENT programme, they would stay on the child protection register longer, so it was a double-edged sword. It wasn’t really consent. They presented the programme as though they were going to go through the biography of the Prophet (saw), but what the children came back and described me did not sound like the Seerah. They were coming back and asking me, “Who are ISIS? Who are al-Qaeda? What is happening in Syria and Turkey?” The children couldn’t understand because they are not on social media and we don’t watch TV.