‘It’s been such a blessing’
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