Umm Abdillah | Radio Islam Programming | 21 May 2015 | 02 Sha’ban 1436
Last week, a video made by a charity group “Live Updates” ‘an aid organisation working in the heart of Syria’ went viral. It pinged across the interwebs and eventually got passed along to Whatsapp chat groups, where it left South African’s wondering: Who is this woman? The voice in the video is distinctly young, and the accent distinctly South African. It features a woman covered from head to toe in black garments traversing farmland in Idlib, and making an impassioned plea, while the wind billows around her, that SA aid organisations top donations made by their British counterparts to Syria. It is peppered with Quranic verses and sayings of the Prophet (S) hinting at the fact that this is a woman educated in the classical Arabic texts. Take away the background props, and it could be audio from any religious programme in SA. But just who is this sister, what is she doing in Syria? How did she get there? Is she planning to come back? How is she avoiding capture and being termed as a rebel? How is she coping with the slander that she is an ISIS operator; and what is her day-to-day life like?
Early this week she opened up for candid interviews to various SA media houses. umm Abdillah has been chatting to Maseeha Saloojee over the course of this week to get a feel for her life in Syria. She posed a pointed set of questions to get further analysis from Muallima Maseeha on the devastating situation in Syria that has claimed as many as 310,000 lives since 2011. Some answers were off the record.
We share edited parts of their conversations, and selected audio of a telephonic conversation below.
UMM ABDILLAH: What most of us know about you “Maseeha of Bela Bela” (before the video), is from a scathing letter you wrote to Advocate Zehir Omar in January this year. He alleged that you ran away from home to join ISIS. From our conversations, it’s clear that’s far from the truth. Tell us a little about your background?
MASEEHA: I’m 25, from a town known formerly as Warmbaths in the Limpopo province. My amazing parents taught me the importance of my Islamic faith from a young age, so I’m very passionate about propagating it altruistically. I schooled at an Afrikaner school with Afrikaans as a first language. I left school after grade 8 to spend the next few years studying to complete my Aalimah course, and also Hifz in 2011. I did my matric in 2012 and taught at TMS in Laudium for two years while doing Qiraat’ Hafs under Qari Binyamin. While teaching there, the Syrian War broke out. Visiting Syrian Ulama made us aware of the humanitarian crisis faced by Syrians, the need for educators and assistance to Syria. Then last year again, SA scholars who visited Syria highlighted the dire situation in Syria and needs the Syrian people faced. I was not only interested, but my heart yearned to help. I arrived in Syria in January this year, 2015, Alhamdulillah.
UMM ABDILLAH: What made you physically make hijrah? As I understand it, you’re teaching and involved in aid work. That being laudable itself (and a dream for many of us as Shaam is blessed land) why didn’t you deem an SA aid organisation involved in Syria as an option to work for? We have enough, don’t we?
MASEEHA: The answer is twofold: Firstly, that daily life (wherever we live) takes over, and we naturally forget about these people; and secondly, because it’s easier to serve them while I’m here. If I was back home, I may have been busy and occupied in other tasks that would’ve kept me away from serving the Syrian people. Perhaps my father wouldn’t have been able to take me over, or maybe my husband wouldn’t have had the time. I’m here, so now its impossible not to focus on the crisis in Syria.
UMM ABDILLAH: You mention in the letter you wrote in January, and I quote “I had married here in order to facilitate my way with regards to a mahram, as I did not want to travel in a way contrary to what Allah has prescribed”. What prompted you to add this in your letter?
MASEEHA: I wrote that to clarify that I got married with my parents' permission and I just didn’t run off as was alleged.
UMM ABDILLAH: It makes me very angry that ISIS, the entire ISIS saga has hijacked the Syrian narrative from those who are suffering and in need. It makes me equally angry that South African (Muslim!) journalists have made it all about ISIS too, in a cheap and tacky bid to get scoops and retain headlines!
In January this year, the UN put out an estimate that 220,000 have died in the war. Thousands of children have been arrested and tortured in Syrian prisons. By April 2015, a month ago, an opposition activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported the number of children killed in the conflict was 11,021, while at the same time 7,049 women were also killed. These figures! 28,253 foreign opposition fighters have reportedly been killed. The government passed a law in 2012 making it illegal to render medical aid to anyone suspected to be an opposition member and Amnesty International found that doctors and medical staff also took part in torture of patients! 88% of recorded bombings and attacks on hospitals and 97% of killings of medical workers are attributed to government forces.
Tell us a little about how this happened? How has ISIS claimed or been given a greater spotlight than and those suffering under President Assad? And why SA journalists “who are all about the ISIS” need to look deep into their hearts and realise its about the people who are affected, tortured, injured, abused, homeless and starving, not ISIS!
MASEEHA: I remember first hearing about the term ISIS when they took over Mosul last year. And since then, that’s all that people associate with Iraq and Syria. The media spin of those opposing Islam is tragic. They've used the break that ISIS has given them to turn the Muslims of the world completely against Syria. So now Muslims automatically associate Syria and Iraq with ISIS. Neither my husband nor I have ties with the party known as Dawlah or ISIS, nor do we wish to be part of them.
Most people just assume Syria is just made up of ISIS. In the 4 months I’ve been here and in all the areas I’ve travelled within a 4-hour radius, none are controlled by ISIS, or have any ISIS affiliations. ISIS are more headline grabbing than the innocent and needy.
UMM ABDILLAH: Do you ever plan on coming back to SA? You told me something different the other day from what you wrote in your email in January?
MASEEHA: I did initially mention I wasn’t planning to come back, but I meant for as long as the situation remains how it is, and I am more needed here. If SA needs our assistance more, I will gladly be there to help.
UMM ABDILLAH: So what prompted a decision to marry a ‘foreigner’? I believe he's not from SA? I’m being naughty here. Our SA guys aren’t good enough? Do you think an SA man wouldn't have accompanied you? Or, perhaps that they wouldn't want women to "steal" the show in the so-called ‘frontlines’?
MASEEHA: *Laughs* There’s plenty that can be said about this, but I don't want this discussion to focus on me so much as focus on the fact that Syria is more than ISIS, and charities are very needed here. If there had been someone from SA who had proposed with the same mindset, I wouldn't have minded. Alhamdulillah, I couldn't have asked for a better husband. His family is not here, but they are like my family: supportive of him without wanting this life we’ve chosen for themselves.
UMM ABDILLAH: Tell us about a day in the life of Haafizah and Muallima Maseeha in Idlib? You couldn’t talk to me the other day because you were invigilating for exams where you teach?
MASEEHA: I teach Quran recitation and memorisation in the mornings from around 8am. It's at an equivalent of in Islamic school. Usually I’m done by 11.30 am. We visit camps in the afternoon, aiding widows and children where and how we can. It’s now school holidays for 2 months. I was doing the pre-Ramadan testing. I had a program today even at the camps, that was well received, alhumdulillah.
UMM ABDILLAH: It’s too easy for aid workers and journalists to make the story about them and not their subjects. How are you actively ensuring this doesn’t happen? Some would say that making a video where (the “from South Africa” font was in ANC colours!) is bringing unnecessary attention to yourself, and it would have been better if you contacted aid agencies directly, if that is your motive?
MASEEHA: Well, it was a publicity stunt. I haven’t received much joy from SA aid organisations, or any positive responses from them to help us, so through the video I made, even you contacted me! This way South Africans realise there is something they can do for the people of Syria.
UMM ABDILLAH: How are both earning your keep?
MASEEHA: I had a good job in SA, Alhamdulillah. There was enough money left over for me to fund myself for a while. My husband works with an aid and da’wah group too, from which he gets a monthly salary. It’s obviously not a lot, but enough to live comfortably, Alhamdulillah.
UMM ABDILLAH: I’m really concerned that some people still think you’re actually there because you’re pro-ISIS and may idolise you perhaps? viz. your decision to leap, and what some would call your bravery?
MASEEHA: I’ve stated my anti ISIS stance repeatedly. I grabbed an opportunity that presented itself, but not everybody is as fortunate. I don’t even know if this is being accepted by Allah, so people anywhere can be helping with charity work, raising awareness about the war and making dua for the Syrian people. The least we can do is make dua.
UMM ABDILLAH: Finally, tell us what you miss most about home?
MASEEHA: Food! I miss my mothers cooking. I also miss being able to relate to people as we would at home. Here, language is an issue, there are some cultural barriers.
The interview played out tonight between 6-7pm and will be available to download here, insha Allah.