‘It’s been such a bless­ing’

The Observer Magazine - - GRAHAM NORTON -

News that a Chris­tian child was ‘forced’ into Mus­lim foster care caused a furore ear­lier this year. But, de­spite the chal­lenges, these fam­i­lies play a vi­tal role in bring­ing up vul­ner­a­ble chil­dren. Sar­fraz Man­zoor hears why it can be the best of both worlds

About 100,000 young peo­ple go through the fos­ter­ing 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 es­ti­mate there is a short­age of 8,000 foster car­ers,” says Kevin Wil­liams, chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Fos­ter­ing Net­work, “and there is a par­tic­u­lar short­age of Mus­lim foster car­ers.”

Those fea­tured here were ner­vous that their sto­ries would be mis­re­ported, an is­sue high­lighted re­cently in the story about a white Chris­tian girl sup­pos­edly “forced into Mus­lim foster care”. The story was cited as em­blem­atic of a greater clash be­tween Is­lam and Chris­tian­ity. It has also pro­voked fears that the me­dia storm could de­ter Mus­lims from fos­ter­ing at a time when the need for a more di­verse pool of car­ers has never been greater.

Sa­j­jad and Rif­fat

Just be­fore Christ­mas seven years ago, Rif­fat and Sa­j­jad were at home when the phone rang. It was the foster agency let­ting them know that three chil­dren they’d never met would be ar­riv­ing shortly. The chil­dren – two sis­ters and a brother – were in ur­gent need of short­term care. Sa­j­jad and Rif­fat had been ap­proved as foster car­ers only two months ear­lier and these would be their first place­ments.

“We were ex­cited, but I was also a bit ner­vous,” re­calls Sa­j­jad, 50. The cou­ple had tried to start a fam­ily after they 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 met, 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,” re­calls Rif­fat, who grew up in Pak­istan and moved to Bri­tain after mar­ry­ing in 1997. “It really was like be­ing thrown in the deep end.” They bought chicken and chips from the lo­cal takeaway for the chil­dren and the sup­port 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 worked un­til the early hours putting the tree up and wrap­ping presents. The first thing the chil­dren saw the next morn­ing was the tree.

“I had never seen that kind of ex­tra hap­pi­ness and ex­cite­ment 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 used to sur­prised looks

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