The price of marrying a Muslim
It was the moment Hana Basrawi had dreamt about for more than 11 years… and at first she was so nervous she could barely speak.
Then with the simple words “Hello mum” she knew her ordeal was finally over. At last Hana, 21, was finally face to face with the woman who had been in her thoughts every day since she was taken from her home in Britain as a 10-year-old.
Her domineering and controlling father Zuhair had taken her at the height of a bitter custody battle with her mother Suzanne and flown her to live 3,000 miles away in Saudi Arabia.
Now she was home. “When I saw her it was like a miracle,” says Hana. “For a second we just stared. Then we collapsed crying and hugging. The relief and joy was unbelievable. I was so happy. ”
Suzanne had been working as an air stewardess for Saudi Air when she met Zuhair, a Saudi businessman.
She converted to Islam and married him, but after four children and 19 yearstogether the marriage broke down, and in 1998 they were embroiled in a custody battle over their youngest child Hana, who was then living with her father.
And two days before a crucial hearing he spirited her out of Britain after telling her they were going to buy sweets.
She says: “We got in his car, but instead of stopping at the shop we kept going. Even though I was only 10 I began to get a sick feeling that something was not right.
“After nearly an hour we pulled up at the airport. Dad got out two suitcases and when I asked where we were going he said ‘home’.
“I knew instinctively he meant Saudi. He shouted at me when I tried to ask questions and I was so scared I started to shake.
“I asked if we would see Mummy and he said, ‘Your mum doesn’t love you any more’. I couldn’t even cry as he shouted at me when I did.
“When we got to the Saudi capital Jeddah the first thing that hit me was the heat and babble of foreign voices. I couldn’t understand a word. It was the start of a nightmare.”
Mum Suzanne adds: “Things were really bad between us, I became frightened of him, but it never once crossed my mind that he would flee the country and take my little girl.
“It was only when he failed to turn up at the custody hearing that I realised what he’d done and by then it was too late.”
Suzanne, 61, who works as a school cook in Watford, immediately went to the police, but was told that because Hana was a dual citizen it wouldn’t be easy to get her back.
“They promised to do all they could, but I knew in my heart that she had gone beyond their jurisdiction,” she says. “But I was determined I wouldn’t rest until I held Hana again.
“At first I clung to the hope Zuhair would realise the cruelty of what he’d done, but the days turned to weeks, then months, then years.”
Suzanne took two jobs so she could provide for her other daughters, Tanya, now 31, Nadya, 29, and Dahlia, 26. Meanwhile, she repeatedly tried c ontacting Zuhair’s family in Saudi, but they refused to co-operate.
“All they would say was that Hana was ‘happy’ and then hang up, which broke my heart,” says Suzanne.
Over the years, Suzanne posted presents to Hana every birthday and Christmas hoping they would reach her. They didn’t.
In all, it would be three agonising years before she even heard her daughter’s voice again, in a brief phone call in June, 2001.
For Hana, the years were a confusing and lonely experience.
“I was so miserable,” she says. “It was clear from the moment I arrived that women were treated differently.
“When I turned 11 I was made to start wearing a head scarf and couldn’t leave the house without my father’s permission. I had no friends and wasn’t allowed to play outside. Dad was very controlling and verbally abusive and expected me to do all the housekeeping. He wouldn’t even have mum’s name mentioned. He kept telling me she didn’t love me.”
Suzanne felt so desperate she even looked into snatching Hana herself.
She says: “A company in Holland quoted me £100,000, and I couldn’t afford it.
“I even wrote begging letters to Tony Blair, Elton John and other rich people for help… but got nothing.”
By 2002 when Hana was 14 she was so desperate she went to the Saudi police for help…but was sent back to her father.
She says: “I told them he was keeping me there against my will and all they said was, ‘He’s your father, if he wants he can kill you’. When I got home dad locked me in my bedroom, pinned me to the floor and cut off my hair and then set fire to it. He left me practically bald. He took me out of school and I felt even more cut off. He had a terrible temper and I was very frightened of him. He would beat me if I didn’t do what he said.”
Hana went to the British Embassy three times pleading for help, but was told that, under Saudi law, there was nothing they could do.
Desperate just to hear her mother’s voice, she managed to make a few secret phone calls – sometimes just long enough to say, “I love you”.
After years of torment, Hana’s life changed when she was 16 and her father allowed her to get a job as a PA so she could help with the household bills.
“It meant I could make friends and feel slightly normal,” she says. “But all the time I was working out how I could escape.”
In 2009 she finally had her chance. She convinced her father she needed to travel for work, and he signed a form giving her permission to leave the country.
“I told him my boss was seriously ill and needed treatment abroad and I would lose my job unless I went,” she says.
“That scared him as by then I was the sole provider in the house. I hate to think what he’d have done if he’d have found out what I was planning.”
Hana bought an air ticket to Britain but as she was travelling without a valid visa for the UK, there was a risk she wouldn’t be allowed to board the plane.
“I’d decided to risk it and hope no one checked,”she says. “My heart was in my mouth.
“I could hear the last call for boarding and knew I had minutes left. I saw the man at the gate hesitate and then he just waved me through. It was an unbelievable moment.
“At passport control in Heathrow I told them my story. All I had to prove who I was, was my old expired British Passport.”
Hana had confided only in her sister Nadya that she was attempting to escape, and she was waiting for her at Heathrow Airport.
“I walked out of arrivals and heard someone call my name. I screamed when I saw Nadya and ran over and hugged her over the barrier.
“All she could say was, ‘I can’t believe you are here’. We were both in tears. I also cried with relief when I made it outside. There was snow everywhere, it couldn’t have been more different from where I’d come from and I felt so happy.”
The pair drove to their mother’s home and Hana says: “When she came to the door I just said “Hi Mum. I’m back.’ We stood there just holding each other.”
For Suzanne, it was a miraculous moment.
“When I realised it was really her I was so full of joy I couldn’t even speak,” she says.
Hana is still adapting to life in the UK after her forced exile and is hoping to go to university.
“I’ve missed out on so much and want to make up for all the lost years with my family,” she says.
“It’s strange being in a country which is so liberal – I have to force myself not to ask my mum for permission to leave the house!
“My dad was furious when he found what I’d done. Part of me is terrified he will come back and get me.”
Suzanne adds: “After everything that she has been through, and after being so long apart it’s just so wonderful to have her home.”
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