Ramadan 2022: An empty chair at iftar
It comes when our hearts our heavy, and in need of uplifting. It does not discriminate, nor does it favour. It welcomes with open arms both the heartbroken and the happy. It is the month of Ramadan.
Within this precious month, the beauty and strength of the ummah shines bright. There’s moments that capture it, and fill your heart with warmth. It’s in the space you fill when you stand shoulder to shoulder with strangers, praying long into the night. It’s in the smile in the greetings of strangers, offering you a sweet date, moments before iftar.
We feel a special bond with our loved ones and our local community in this blessed time. We add a twist to family recipes, and serve our parents, as they once served us. We knock on neighbours’ doors and have a catch up whilst exchanging sweet treats. These are the moments which make Ramadan extra special.
To depict Ramadan as a hubbub of excitement, and entirely oozing community spirit, however, would not be a true picture. Yes, for some blessed individuals Ramadan is such, however there are far too many households within our cities and local communities, who do not taste the sweetness of the month.
''There are families who are shunned and cast out from their local community through no fault of their own, often guilty by association and forced to deal the consequences of their spouses’ arrest. It is a difficult truth to stomach that such a beautiful month, a gift bestowed to us by our Creator, is a month which can bring such a heavy burden for us.''
Amongst them are the families that Helping Households Under Great Stress (HHUGS) support. HHUGS is the only UK registered charity of its kind, empowering and embracing those impacted by counter-terrorism and national security legislation, through the delivery of pastoral, financial, and practical support. This has been the case for the past 18 years.
Established in September 2004 by a group of Muslim mothers in response to the increasing number of 'anti-terror' arrests in London, the charity currently works with over 225 families (that’s more than 760 individuals) nationwide.
This Ramadan, these 200 families have felt the emptiness of their father's absence. Life, as they once knew it, is hollowed out entirely now that their main breadwinner is in prison.
The arrival of Ramadan does not revive hope. Its fond memories are bittersweet. It is a reminder of an empty chair at the iftar table. It is a harsh reality check for a single mother as she raises her hands in prayer, despairing over how to make enough to feed her fasting family.
The trauma faced by the children of prisoners at this time is heart-breaking. Exposed to such immense upheaval at such a young age forever changes the course of their lives.
Safa’s father was arrested when she was just four. She hasn’t seen him in over a decade. He was detained in the UK before being deported, and is now held indefinitely abroad. She speaks about her experience of Ramadan after he was detained:
“Having iftar, altogether as a family, as we did in the past, was gone. My father wasn’t there anymore to bring us together to pray salah. He wasn’t there to ask us about our lessons at school and follow up on our learning and progress. My older brothers tried to take on the role of father as much as they could, but everyone was shattered.”
Yasir too was exposed to this father’s arrest at the mere age of 11. His childhood was lost overnight when his mother became a single parent, with five children in tow. For him, the silence during suhoor and iftar was unbearable. He missed having his father around to do things we take for granted.
Although for those left behind, Ramadan is filled with a void of emptiness, a longing to be reunited, Ramadan in prison also brings its challenges.
Stuck in a cell, separated from their children, and trying to make do with what little they are given. Nazia, one such mother, was separated from her six children, “Ramadan was even harder because you would have iftar alone in your cell. I come from a big family and had never experienced having meals alone, especially sitting on your own with a locked door,” she explains.
Walid was separated from his wife and children whilst in prison. His wife suffers from fibromyalgia.
“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.”
For Ayub, who was detained and held under national security measures for almost two decades without trial, the memories were underscored by the pain of separation in prison. He recounts:
“I remember many Ramadans spent with my wife and kids. We would fast together, break fast together. It was a lovely time with them. We would go to the mosque for tarawih, but in prison, wallahi, what kind of Ramadan was it? Ramadan was a nightmare inside the prison.”
Though his wife was not imprisoned, Ramadan reminded her of how abandoned she was by the community and the friends she had once known.
These are just a few cases of how Ramadan is spent for families within HHUGS households. They are shunned and cast out from their local community through no fault of their own, often guilty by association and forced to deal the consequences of their spouses’ arrest. It is a difficult truth to stomach that such a beautiful month, a gift bestowed to us by our Creator, which many of us marvel in and cherish, is a month which can bring such a heavy burden for us.
Ramadan remains as it is, forever and always; a month in which Allah’s mercy descends and where we should strive to be the best version of ourselves, to be generous, kind, open-hearted and forgiving. However, for HHUGS families, it is tarnished with memories that haunt them, a reminder of what was, what could have been and what painfully is their reality now.
But it doesn’t always have to be this way. Whilst Ramadan may be coming to an end we must still endeavour to uplift and empower families impacted. Each of us can take a seat at their iftar table, and fill the void in their hearts and homes.
Jasmin Mohammad is the communications officer for Helping Households Under Great Stress (HHUGS), a UK charity that provides support and advice to Muslim households impacted by counter-terrorism, national security and extremism-related laws, policies and procedures, in the UK and abroad.
The author’s face is not shown in order to protect her identity.
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