Muslim foster parents:’ We’d never had a Christmas tree – it constructed them so happy’

News that a Christian child was forced into Muslim foster care caused a furore earlier this year. But, despite the challenges, these households play a vital role in bringing up vulnerable children, says Sarfraz Manzoor

About 100,000 young people go through the foster system every year. In recent years an increasing number of these have been child refugees from Muslim-majority countries such as Syria and Afghanistan, many arriving here traumatised and in need of care.

” We calculate there is a shortage of 8,000 foster carers ,” says Kevin Williams, chief executive of the Fostering Network,” and there is a particular dearth of Muslim foster carers .”

Those featured here were nervous that their narratives would be misreported, an issue highlighted recently in the narrative about a white Christian daughter supposedly” forced into Muslim foster care “. The tale was quoth as emblematic of a greater clash between Islam and Christianity. It has also elicited were afraid that the media blizzard could deter Muslims from promoting at a time when the need for a more diverse pond of carers has never been greater.

Sajjad and Riffat

Just before Christmas seven years ago, Riffat and Sajjad were at home when the phone reverberate. It was the foster agency letting them know that three children they’d never gratified would be arriving shortly. The children- two sisters and a brother- were in urgent need of short-term care. Sajjad and Riffat had been approved as foster carers merely two months more quickly and these would be their first placements.

” We were aroused, but I was also a bit nervous ,” remembers Sajjad, 50. The couple had tried to start a family when they are married, but fertility problems led to six failed cycles of IVF. They considered adopting, but eventually decided to sign up as foster carers.

Both are observant Muslims of Pakistani heritage. Riffat, 46, was wearing a headscarf when we fulfilled, and prays five times a day. How did they cope with the arrival of three white English children raised in a Christian household?

” I will never forget that day ,” recollects Riffat, who grew up in Pakistan and moved to Britain after marriage in 1997.” It truly was like being thrown in the deep aim .” They bought chicken and chips from the local takeaway for the children and the supporting worker told the couple about the children’s bedtime routine.

Once the children were asleep, Sajjad headed out on an urgent shopping mission.” We are Muslims and we’d never had a Christmas tree in our home ,” says Riffat.” But these children were Christian and we wanted them to feel connected to their culture .” So he bought a Christmas tree, decorations and presents. The couple ran until the early hours putting the tree up and wrapping presents. The first thing the children considered the next morning was the tree.

” I had never seen that kind of extra happiness and exhilaration on a child’s face ,” remembers Riffat. The children were meant to stay for two weeks- seven years later two of the three siblings are still living with them.

Riffat has grown are applied to surprised looks from strangers and people asking if the reason she has such fair-skinned children is because she wedded a white man. But she focuses on the positives- including with regard to how fostering has given her and Sajjad an insight into a world that had been so unfamiliar.” We have learned so much about English culture and religion ,” Sajjad says. Riffat would read Bible narratives to the children at night and took the girls to church on Sundays.” When I read about Christianity, I don’t think there is much change ,” she says.” It all comes from God .”

The daughters, 15 and 12, have also introduced Riffat and Sajjad to the world of after-school ballet, theater classes and going to pop concerts.” I wouldn’t see many Asian parents at those places ,” she says.” But I now tell my extended family you should involve your children in these activities because it is good for their confidence .” Having the girls in their own lives has also made Riffat reflect on her own childhood.” I had never spent even an hour outside my home without my siblings or parents until my wedding day ,” she says.

Just as Riffat and Sajjad have learned about Christianity, the girls have come to look forward to Eid and the traditions of henna.” I’ve taught them how to make potato curry, pakoras and samosas ,” Riffat says.” But their spice levels are not quite the same as ours yet .” The daughters can also sing Bollywood ballads and speak Urdu.

” I now look forward to going home. I have two girls and my wife waiting ,” says Sajjad.” It’s been such a bles for me ,” adds Riffat.” It fulfilled the maternal gap .”


Shareen’s longest foster placement is a young boy from Syria:’ He was 14 and had hidden inside a lorry .’ Photograph: Karen Robinson for the Observer

A British Pakistani, Shareen( and her husband Asif, 47 ), began promoting three years ago after three failed rounds of IVF. She has looked after children from many nationalities including Afro-Caribbean, Syrian, Egyptian and Pakistani.

When she first used to read the background reports about the children she looked after, Shareen, 48, was shocked at what they’d been through.” I just could not believe that there could be children so deprived of love ,” she says.” I was exposed to so much pain .”

One 12 -year-old boy she promoted, who had been diagnosed with ADHD, couldn’t sleep each night.” He would transgress the lightbulbs and chuck them in the neighbours’ garden. Whatever he could find in the room he would open up and unscrew and he would not come home at curfew day ,” she remembers.” I would have to call the police every evening .”

The key to coping, she says, was to try to understand the reasons behind the challenging behaviour.” You have to look at the person’s history ,” she says.” No child is born to take medications or join a gang. It has happened because nobody has cared for them .” The son ended up staying with Shareen for eight months.

She has also fostered children of Pakistani heritage and says there are some advantages.” Two Pakistani children fitted right into the house because they understood our culture; we feed the same food and shared the same language, but when I had white children and I was out with them, people gave me funny looks .”

Shareen’s longest promote placement arrived 3 years ago: a boy from Syria.” He was 14 and had hidden inside a lorry all the way from Syria ,” she says. The boy was deeply traumatised. They had to communicate via Google Translate; Shareen subsequently learned Arabic and he picked up English within six months. She read up on Syria and the political situation there to get an insight into the conditions he had left.

” It took ages to gain his trust ,” she says.” I got a painting dictionary that presented English and Arabic words and I recollect one time when I pronounced an Arabic word wrong and he burst out laughing and told me I was saying it incorrect- that was the breakthrough .”

The boy would run home from school and whenever they ran shopping in town, he maintained asking Shareen when they were going back home. She found out why:” He told me that one day he left his house in Syria and when he had come back, there was no home .” Now he’s 18, speaks English fluently and is applying for apprenticeships. He could move out of Shareen’s home, but has decided to stay.” He is a very different person to the boy who first came here ,” she says,” and my relationship with him is that of a mom to her son .”

Fostering has, she says, helped her to be more resilient, patient and confident.” I used to worry about who was doing better than me or earning more money ,” she says.” But after satisfying these children, those things merely don’t matter to me anymore .”

Homayun and Parvin

‘ We thought we had done well and “its time” we paid something back to society ‘: Homayun and Parvin. Photograph: Karen Robinson for the Observer

Two years ago Homayun, who came to the UK from Afghanistan in 1979, was watching the news when he saw the footage of a three-year-old Syrian son washed up on a beach in Turkey.” I thought to myself that we had done well in this society. We had been educated, get employment creation and we also had a spare room. It was day we paid something back to society .”

So he and his wife, Parvin, 44, applied to become foster carers. The process took 12 months and, at the start of this year, they greeted two boys from Afghanistan and Kuwait- now 15 and 12.” We would have welcomed children from anywhere, including Britain ,” says Homayun,” but I was especially interested in caring for children from war-torn countries because that was the experience I had been through .”

Homayun, 51, owns a garage business and the couple have their own son, 16.” My father was an activist and he was under house arrest ,” he says.” We fled to Britain a few months before the Russians invaded the country. I know what it is like to live in a country that doesn’t have liberty, human rights and a right to education- I had that in common with the sons we were promoting .” His Afghan foster son had travelled from Afghanistan to Iran and then to Turkey, where he had boarded a barge to Greece. From there he travelled to France before finally reaching Britain. His Kuwaiti foster son had been smuggled on to a plane utilizing false identification. When he first gratified them Homayun was struck by how quiet the children were.

” They would not speak and it took a few months to bring them out of themselves and get them to open up .” The sons did not speak each other’s languages and are dependent upon Google Translate.” It was very challenging and difficult at first ,” says Homayun.” But now the younger boy goes to school on his own, and uses public transport .”

Although they share the same Muslim background, he would never force his own faith on his foster children.” If I had a Christian child and they wanted to go to church, I would take them to church. If I had a Jewish child who wanted to go a synagogue, I would make sure they go there .”

Homayun also encourages them to talk to their families back in their own countries. In Afghanistan the mothers talk to their son regularly via Skype.” They want him to receive something here that he never had there- an education ,” he says.” Leaving Afghanistan is a gamble; sometimes it pays off and other days it doesn’t and parents can lose their children.”

Both sons now call him Uncle or Baba and are starting to speak English well.” If they can leave my house and go and attain something in “peoples lives” ,” says Homayun,” something that they could not have done in their own countries, that would be a satisfying task done .”

Homayun chose to foster as a style of giving something back to society, but in fact both he and his wife found that the experience has enriched all of them in ways they could not have predicted.

Their son, who has autism, is now learning to share and communicate, and has started spoke of sentences.” He enjoys having the two boys in the house and they run cycling and play football ,” he says.'” Fostering has done the whole household so much good .”

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