An involuntary asylum seeker

Haifa Amg's photo.

Haifa addressing Scottish Secular Society, 2nd June 2016

Haifa Amg does not want to be an asylum seeker. She wants to be a doctor, and was studying towards this in Glasgow. Then the Saudi Arabian authorities took action that made this impossible.

Haifa is one of what must be a small number of women funded by the Saudi government to study abroad, and had a scholarship that paid her fees. Saudi regulations required her to have a male guardian, but in her case this was no problem, since she was accompanied here by her husband Amri, a teacher of mathematics, and their children. What neither of them realised was that Amri would be asked to act as a conduit for unofficial payments from the Saudi government towards a group who were converting a church  into a Wahhabist (which by many definitions would make it extremist) mosque.  This he was unwilling to do. The Saudi government imposed escalating pressures, culminating with freezing their Saudi Arabian bank account, and suspending Haifa’s scholarship. No scholarship, no bank account, no money to pay fees, no longer a student, loss of student visa. Haifa and family were left with two choices; to return to Saudi Arabia, where they could expect savage punishment, or to seek asylum. Unsurprisingly, they chose the latter, and their hearing is in August. The Draconian regulations that apply to visa seekers in the UK forbid them from working meantime. Rather than have the family sent to a detention centre, they have sold all their valuables, and survive on the goodwill of well-wishers.

HaifaGroup

Haifa and Amri at Scottish Secular Society meeting, after her talk

I had the privilege of hearing Haifa address the Scottish Secular Society last Thursday, and here, with her permission, is what she had to say. As you will see, her family is being punished for the crime (and in Saudi Arabia is indeed is a crime) of unbelief, and it is this punishment that has frustrated their plans, and brought them to their present situation. As for the Saudi authorities, they come across as incompetent and inconsistent. Not for the first time, I have the impression of a lot going on behind-the-scenes. A new king came to the throne of Saudi Arabia early in 2015, since when the regime has become even more repressive, and I wonder if there is any connection with the events described here. I also wonder if the London Embassy, which issued Haifa’s scholarship, was aware of her husband’s record of dissent back home; they certainly seem to have been taken by surprise when he would not serve as a tool for their mission of advancing Wahhabism. But it is time to let Haifa speak for herself:[1]

‘It is a mysterious thing – the loss of faith – as mysterious as the faith itself’; George Orwell

That evening, I successfully rejected the idea of the validity of Islam as the true path in my life, when Amri, my husband, showed me a YouTube video on how the Jews perform their prayers.

It was a shocking moment. I got it… Islam is a religion resembles other religions as simple as this!
So there is nothing supernatural about it.

That day was a revolutionary day, I abandoned the Quran, I completely stopped praying.

Let me tell you about the old me.. The devout Haifa.

I was brought up in a conservative environment. My family was considered moderate, they were not very religious in their day, as they were used to have a satellite TV at home, which meant I had access to a variety of international channels. I spent my childhood as normal amongst my family, and life carried on as usual.

At fifteen, the family moved out to another area with a different ambiance, an ultra-conservative environment. The people in the neighborhood, where our new home located, forced my father not to install the satellite dish on the rooftop, it was considered a sin. A sin to have channels, except of course,
the two Saudi official channels that promote Wahhabi tenets. Therefore, I began to change, I became very strict, and with the help of my new friends at school, there was a transformation in my personality, I believed it was an enlightenment.

I worked very hard to memorize the Quran. Many verses of the Quran contain the direct and indirect indications to use violence, and deeply misogynist attitudes. At the time, I came to understand that great mental effort to memorize them was going to be for the sake of God. That God that lived within me a great deal of my lifetime, literally I was haunted by him. I was haunted by the literal truth of the Quran and the eternal punishment,

As a result of this horror, I became to be known with my strict beliefs which were praised and encouraged to have, as they were considered a high level of faith. And they are still promoted.

My brothers insisted to install the satellite TV after a while nd indeed they managed to do so, however my strict religious behaviors developed.

I did not like it.

I did not want a satellite TV at home, so I started to spend my time in a solitary, praying, memorizing the Quran, reading the hadith and studying for my school.

I remember that I prayed A LOT more than normal, I genuinely cried in my prayers to be accepted late at night. I fasted A LOT, and there came a period throughout my adolescence to fast every other day,
as this is the perfect method to fast according to the Hadith.

At high school, I was popular in preparing Islamic seminars preaching Wahhabism and advising the rebellious girls to repent.

In fact, the political Wahhabi doctrine is nurtured and inculcated at early stages of childhood in state schools. This kind of education is still taught, in addition to mosques where the Quranic lessons and seminars preaching Jihadism take place

The aim to belief in Jihad is to serve the long-run purposes, They inculcate its significance in people’s brains, And when it is needed, it is just activated

So when it comes to Jihad, I truly talked to myself that I would go for Jihad sometime, because the martydom for the faith is one of the fastest ways to enter the paradise. It felt so real, it really did.

Wahhabism is there … in the air!!!

And of course, with the great help of media, Television, radio, newspapers and social media. The government shapes the mentality of the people in Saudi Arabia, and tries its hardest to spread it worldwide, directly and indirectly

When I look it now, all these means contribute to build a radical personality which is a very dangerous to have in a society,

But the truth is I did not know!! My critical thinking was not enhanced or in another word was deliberately ’deactivated’. My mindset was totally controlled to blindly accept what was given without questioning.

Basically I was a victim of fear and horror that are promoted day and night and sponsored by the government, and there was a pang of remorse resulted if I did not pray properly, or even if I happened to accidently hear music which is forbidden

In my society I lived within, it was 100% of the people who believed the way we lived was the true way of life. It was very impossible not to join.

There was no space or time to think for myself. To think of the validity or morality of many things in my belief. No room to critically think about the contradictions I had been experiencing, which were obvious to see but just I needed to open my eyes and before that I desperately needed to open up my mind’s doors. At the time, my consciousness was unconscious.

Indeed, Wahhabi ideology that oppresses people is enforced by the authority. And by the use of scare tactics, they force you to believe it is the true and only way to a normal life. They shape your mentality to just think about what is going to happen to you afterlife. Every moment in every minute in everyday,
you feel that fear from the hell takes you to the certainty of its existence.

My life was guided by fear, and inspired by ignorance, and this strategy still works with many others.

So how come I ended up to be a big fan of Bertrand Russell whose principles and views contribute to build up a new understanding of life on the basis of evidence, science and knowledge?

At the age of 19, I was told that Amri’s family proposed to deliver me to their son, Amri, I did not personally know him but I heard he’s a good guy and a mathematics teacher. I agreed to marry him,
despite the fact I did prefer a Mattawa, a very strict person like I was.

Amri is a different person, he is a rebellious son, he did not pray at the mosque, or show his religious attitudes to his people. He was considered  shocking in his day on account of his advanced views in religion and politics.

Amri spent almost his childhood amongst the doves and pigeons, he loved them. He started with one dove, and ended up with more than 100.

While I was in a solitary to practice my faith, Amri was in a solitary with birds on the rooftop of the family’s house, that consequently gave him abundant leisure to reflect on politics and theology. Those moments of reflections developed his understanding towards the conception of religion in Saudi Arabia
and its close association with the authority.

Indeed, he was exceptional in a society of which Raif Badawi said:

‘The whole society is forced into one singular line of thinking and one simple philosophy under the ruling regime. This line of thinking trusts that everything it believes is the shiny truth’

While I was practicing my religious beliefs, Amri , on the other hand, rejected them. He refused to accept the ideology which prevailed amongst his people. A society that was forced to blindly accept a body of ideas which were unquestionable, and questioning was taboo.

Amri’s enlightenment completely differed from mine. He spent his days at the family’s house,
supporting his sisters’ rights of education. He even managed to buy a computer from his allowance
in order to allow his siblings to learn more and eventually brought the internet to help them expand their mindsets. He used to have debates with his father about the relationship between the religious authority and the government on the way they control people and manipulate them.

Amri was dreaming to study politics. However, at the university he was told ‘these studies were not for ordinary people, if he had someone to pull strings in order to get into the school of politics, he should ask them to help’.

Amri chose mathematics instead, his great pleasure, it is the language of truth as he always says.

His attitudes, however, were unacceptable and inappropriate in politics, religion and his lifestyle too. So in order to tackle these issues, he needed to change. He needed a religious woman to convert the “infidel”. The marriage was an attempt to convert the rebellious son.

Indeed, Amri accepted me despite my narrow-minded views. He used to say to me ‘if I had something I believe was right, I could convince him with logic not by force’

I could not dictate what it was inculcated in my mind to him. We had countless discussions and debates at home about some Islamic stories and historical events, analyzing their rightness, morality, and intrinsic values as some are difficult to believe. And others are unethical to accept to believe in.

I began to change because I started to critically think. Truly, I started to enjoy the discussions, I was heard, and able to voice my opinions. I was able to speak out that rational voice inside my head that encourages me to question and analyze the reality I had been living.

With Amri, there was a different world, a world (which was our home in Saudi Arabia) where we could discuss anything, anytime no boundary lines. It was indeed what was meant by the freedom of expression.

With Amri I could not wait to trip the ‘mind’ fantastic. He changed my attitudes towards life with logic and love throughout the years,

and that moment in that evening was the point when I said enough is enough. Enough of favouring the comfortable myths over the facts.

Amri was an excellent and passionate mathematician teaching high school students. We together produced handbooks in order to facilitate the maths curriculum and to make it enjoyable too. The students loved and enjoyed them and started to change their attitudes towards math.

Our goal from that was to make the students think differently about the philosophy and the facts behind the numbers and equations, as we do with our own children.

Exactly like Bertrand Russell, said

‘I should make it my object to teach thinking, not orthodoxy, or even hetero- doxy. And I should absolutely never sacrifice intellect to the fancied interest of morals.’

Amri also worked hard in order to develop a new educational system at school. It was a challenge but he really enjoyed it.

Unfortunately, he was forced to transfer from  school to another, because he failed to show his Islamic beliefs in public. Persecuted even by the educated society, but he carried on his career as he loved.

Amri’s ambition did not stop at teaching, he wanted to fulfil more, so he applied at the educational ministry in order to get a scholarship to complete his postgraduate overseas. He was interviewed and successfully passed, waiting for the application to proceed.

at the time during the Arab Spring and its revolutions, Amri expressed his views to his colleagues about
the promises and the positive changes the Arab Spring might bring to Saudi Arabia.

Afterwards, and out of the sudden, his salary was suspended for three months, and then he was sacked without any justifications, his dream to study abroad was over because his job was over

What a harrowing experience!! After years of contributions and hard work, he was fired. We did not know what to do. Amri’s dream was crushed. I knew how important it was to him, I could do nothing but support. We were devastated but we must find a way.

I forgot that I got excellent high school qualifications, so Amri reminded me, encouraged me, and fully supported me to think about our family’s future very seriously. I felt dizzy, trembled and then I fell sick for a while as it seemed to me there would be a very challenging life ahead, but I was ready somehow,
I needed a push. Amri was the only one who changed my attitudes towards my own life, so I would do the impossible to support.

What was the major I wanted to study abroad? specifically in the UK? At the time, I did think of two things, medicine or cooking!! ‘Yes these what I wanted to study’. I said. But my priority would be sure for medicine as it is my dream,

At the time, It was very difficult to find an offer at a medical university, so I applied for a culinary art management at the University of West London, imagining that once I finished my studies I would be able to open an organic restaurant somewhere.

I set a plan to manage to get English qualifications, but Amri asked me to be in 10 weeks.

“I said what?!!! Are you serious? I cannot do it, I cannot speak English, all I knew was my basic English grammar at high school, and this has been for a long time ago”

It was an imperative necessity to do so, there was no option but this, so I must do it for my family.

I needed to meet the deadline, the English test!! Without a soul knowing what we had been doing,
I studied at home practicing reading, listening, writing and speaking all at home.

And that day had come, the exam day ‘the exam was on Cambridge university standards’ Oh .. It was intense that day!! I managed to get the required English qualification exactly as I planned and I obtained the university’s offer too,

We could not apply for the visa within our country, fearing that if the authority found out what we had been planning, they would prevent us or they might arrest Amri. So we escaped to Egypt!! Amri somehow knew about Egypt as he went there during the Arab Spring. We could enter it without a visa.

We spent a while in Egypt in order to get British visas. Indeed, we managed to obtain them
and were supposed to stay there until we would be able to travel to the UK according to the visa entry date.

Out of the blue, the Egyptian military staged a coup over the elected president. We witnessed people protesting in the streets and a state of emergency was declared. It was definitely unsafe for us to stay there, so we fled Egypt to Morocco. There, we spent one month and then travelled to the UK at last in August 2013.

When we arrived in the UK we had savings in our bank accounts, but no income, so we needed a sustainable income. Therefore, I applied at the Saudi embassy to get a scholarship as all self-funded students do once they arrive in the UK, but I was rejected.

I was refused to get the scholarship unless I could meet conditions and terms which were not applied on my classmates at the university at the time, and indeed I successfully met them and because my position in the UK was much stronger than to be in Saudi Arabia, I successfully secured a government-sponsored scholarship after a while.

I managed to change my major to medicine after successfully completing my A-levels, as the Home Office suspended the University of West London from issuing international visas. So we moved to Preston, while the Saudi government funded my pre-medical course at the University of Central Lancashire, but during the second semester of it, I was instructed not to continue within the University of central Lancashire,

I was confused, shocked and angry, an academic year to be lost just like that. All because the educational department at the embassy did not investigate, that the course was not complied to the current system, According to the paragraph seven in its regulations and terms, and therefore they asked me to fail in the exam in order to retake another course within another university in accordance with the system.

At the time, my dream to study medicine became a nightmare. What on earth was I going to do?!!!
It was impossible to find another medical university in the UK within a short period of time.
So I was instructed to apply at the University of Glasgow for a pre-medical course. And as the Saudi government has a mutual agreement with the university of Glasgow for a medical degree, I successfully obtained an unconditional offer in the course based on an interview and a higher English qualification.
The embassy proceeded my application at the University of Glasgow afterwards.

Meanwhile, we had very hard times dealing with the Saudi government. Amri was electronically elected via elections held online to be the chair of Saudi Students Club in Preston. Amri’s duty was to assist Saudi students in their academic issues.

He was instructed to continue efforts started by his Saudi predecessor of converting a local church into a Wahhabi mosque, ‘they wanted Amri to complete the purchase’ He was also asked to stand up every Friday prayer to call for donations from the local Muslims in order to support activities held in the mosque. Amri felt uncomfortable and therefore he informed the government about these suspicious behaviors.

Surprisingly they responded to Amri, just to follow the current system. Amri realized that he had to end his duty, as this was not what he was supposed to do, to be used and manipulated in order to achieve interior motives. Within one month, he resigned and his resignation was officially accepted.

After the resignation, money began to appear in his British bank account, without his consent or prior knowledge. The money was transferred by the Saudi embassy in London. Amri is concerned about the money-laundering issues associated with terrorism, as the money might be used to train or equip jihadists in the UK. With the use of Wahhabi ideology, this money might be used to help drive terrorism.

Amri indeed made a stand. He did not submit to their orders to do what they wanted. Instead he requested an official statement from the embassy to clarify why the money was deposited into his bank account. Amri was trying to safeguard himself not to breach the law in the UK.

Therefore, the government started to abuse us as a family by using their totalitarian methods. They gradually began to oppress us, step by step.

They began by frezzing my home bank account which we used to save money into, so I could not access to it anymore, and when I phoned the bank to unfreeze it, I was asked ‘to come back home to sort it out’

Then, they suspended the monthly allowance my children and myself should receive according to the scholarship agreement, and Amri was told the embassy would take their money back by deducting it from my scholarship. Besides, he received phone messages that if he did not listen to them, my scholarship would be affected as a result.

Two Saudi nationals were sent to our home’s doorstep in Preston, shouting threats that they would take revenge.

My children witnessed this incident, they felt insecure, haunted, that those two people might come anytime to attack us. They were haunted by every single sound they heard at night. And there was no way to calm them down but to sleep with them in their room.

Could you imagine that feeling of horror every night you go to bed; you don’t know whether you wake up in the morning or not, feeling unsafe..uncertain?

After a while, he was invited to travel to London to discuss this matter at the embassy, and Saudi officials threatened and blackmailed him that they would prosecute him back home.

Amri had been asking for an official statement, what are they really concerned about he is wondering?!
Is issuing this letter a real issue for them?

Finally, after these attempts failed to discipline him,the Saudi authority refused to pay the tuition fees to the university of Glasgow despite the fact that they  had confirmed the scholarship prior to the commencement of the course. They had even provided me with an official letter to confirm the scholarship to the Home Office in order to obtain the visas.

They cancelled the scholarship because it is the only and the shortest way to get Amri back to Saudi Arabia to punish him.

So this is it. This is our experience as Saudi citizens under the repressive system. Manipulation..Abuse and with the use of scare tactics they impose what they want on their citizens.

1] I have very lightly edited the English when it seemed to me unclear. The unedited original is on Haifa’s FaceBook page, at https://www.facebook.com/haifa.sham.7/posts/250280668669734

About Paul Braterman

Science writer, former chemistry professor; committee member British Centre for Science Education; board member and science adviser Scottish Secular Society; former member editorial board, Origins of Life, and associate, NASA Astrobiology Insitute; first popsci book, From Stars to Stalagmites 2012

Posted on June 5, 2016, in Education, Politics, Religion and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. What a precarious position to be in. I hope the UK authorities show some humanity and some backbone – neither being a characteristic they are known for.

    Like

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