A record number of British Muslims are facing hardship as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic – with demand for help more than doubling within a year and the community falling into poverty at a significantly higher rate than the UK population.
The National Zakat Foundation (NZF) and Islamic Relief UK have revealed requests for financial help soared from around 15 a day before the first lockdown to more than 70 a day during the latter period of 2020.
The charitable foundation said it distributed £3.8 million in grants, a 27% rise from the previous year when £2.9 million was given out. NZF gives out grants from Zakat, the obligatory religious levy collected from British Muslims.
With a second Ramadan in lockdown fast approaching, the national charity says funds are still urgently needed to respond to the continuing high demand for help.
Among those handed a financial lifeline was Lina Al-Rubaye, 21, who had a turbulent life even before coronavirus turned her world upside down.
Born in Iraq, she had a difficult childhood and was forced to flee both her home country and neighbouring Syria when wars broke out. While in a refugee camp in Romania, Lina saw videos posted on social media of two of her close friends being killed by ISIS.
A fresh start beckoned when her family arrived in Bolton in the UK via Germany as part of a UN settlement scheme and Lina began school at the age of 14.
But despite having been popular at school in Syria, Lina became the victim of bullying. “Children would swear at me as they thought I didn’t understand English and they taunted and pushed me.” she told HuffPost UK.
“Once, someone threw a whole bottle of Pepsi over me and although I reported it, nothing was done as they never found out who did it and I could not remember their face.”
“Covid affected me mentally and financially and I felt I had gone back to zero and my mind went back to some very dark places.””
Feeling she didn’t belong anywhere, Lina attempted suicide. “I was traumatised by everything that had happened to me and was very unhappy,” she said.
Haunted by the memory of her friends killed in Syria, Lina realised that even if she had been in the country, she would have been powerless to save them. This led to her to studying health and social care at college so she could at least learn the skills to help save other people.
But at the age of 16, Lina’s life was thrown into turmoil once again when she was raped by a man she knew. She reported it to the police but there wasn’t sufficient evidence to take the case to court. “I felt it wasn’t fair and that I was only treated this way because of my nationality,” she said.
Lina went to university to study nursing, but her mental health problems were spiralling and she found the stress of the 13 hour nursing shifts difficult to cope with. She left university after a year.
“I was suffering from PTSD, anxiety, stress and insomnia and I began self harming,” she said.
Lina, who now lives in Cheetham Hill, Manchester, gave up her studies and began taking shifts as a restaurant waitress to earn money and distract her from her problems.
But just as she was beginning to rebuild her life, coronavirus struck and her “world came crashing down”, she says.
“Covid affected me mentally and financially and I felt I had gone back to zero and my mind went back to some very dark places,” she explained.
“I had nothing to distract me and had to stop going to Manchester Rape Crisis Centre where I was getting a lot of support. They did offer me online support, but that just didn’t work for me.
“I had also been assessed for mental health support by my GP and they were going to work out a plan for me. But coronavirus put a stop to it happening and I’ve not heard anything since.”
Despairing at everything else going on in her life, Lina became stressed by her mounting debts as she could no longer work as a waitress when lockdown began.
“I was working shifts as a waitress as and when I was needed,” she said. “If I had known lockdown was about to happen, I would have worked more shifts and saved up some money. Instead, Covid made my world crash and the debts piled up and I had no money.”
Lina was encouraged by a friend to apply for Zakat – which as the third pillar of Islam requires Muslims to give up 2.5 per cent of their qualifying wealth each year to help Muslims who need it.
Zakat is an obligatory religious levy and is both a spiritual duty for Muslims and a vital part of the Islamic welfare system.
Lina is just one of the Muslims in plight who have been helped during the coronavirus pandemic as startling new figures from the Muslim Census reveal the community has been falling into poverty at a rate 10 times higher than the UK population.
With the vast majority of Zakat typically given during Ramadan, the National Zakat Foundation is now urgently seeking funds to ensure they can meet the needs of the community in the weeks and months ahead.
“This is unprecedented. We’ve never seen anything like it before and it is a clear indication of just how much Covid-19 is impacting Muslims across the country.” said Iqbal Nasim, chief executive of the National Zakat Foundation.
“By the end of 2020, UK Zakat payers had provided support to almost 15,000 beneficiaries via the National Zakat Foundation.”
To prevent a shortage of funds to meet demand, the National Zakat Foundation appealed for £500,000 from the Muslim community and Islamic Relief responded by donating £200,000.
Zia Salik, director of Islamic Relief UK said: “Throughout the pandemic, we have been helping people affected by Covid-19 in some of the poorest countries in the world, but we can see that people in this country are in desperate need.
“So many can’t afford to eat, pay their rent, clothe themselves or heat their homes. It’s a real emergency. And we do not have time to wait to respond to these needs.”
For Lina, finding out her application for Zakat was successful was life changing.
She said: “It made me feel really happy and I felt someone had listened to me and cared.
“I was more worried about how I was going to live day-to-day and thought I might just get given some money for that. But they read my application properly and saw I was in debt so gave me enough money to pay it off as well as some to live off until I can go back to working in the restaurant.
“I can now focus on my mental health and it is good not to worry about money.”
For taxi driver Adeel, 59, who lives in Northamptonshire, the coronavirus pandemic meant an abrupt end to his earnings.
Adeel, who has changed his name to protect his identity, came to the UK from Pakistan and received his residency permit in 2017. This allowed him to work, but one of the conditions of his permit was that he does not have recourse to public funds.
He was working as a taxi driver but didn’t have his own vehicle so had to give 60 per cent of what he earned to the company he worked for to cover the costs of the vehicle and insurance.
Before coronavirus hit the UK, Adeel was earning around £40 a day working early shifts and taking people to school and work.
As the pandemic progressed, Adeel began to lose his customers, but still had to pay his fees to the company so was then only earning £10 to £15 a day and sometimes making a loss, so he ended up giving up the taxi.
“Not only was there not enough work as a taxi driver because of coronavirus, I was also worried about my health and being in a taxi with someone who had coronavirus.” he told HuffPost UK.
“It is a very risky job and I was scared for my health as I have rheumatoid arthritis.
“When I wasn’t able to do the taxi driving, it was difficult for me to find any other work as I can’t do any heavy lifting because of my condition.”
Not being able to earn money meant Adeel couldn’t afford his rent or council tax and his landlord had a mortgage to pay. “My landlord understood my situation, but he was retired and could not pay his mortgage without my rent.”
Things became so difficult for Adeel that he began going without food. “I couldn’t afford to buy food so I saved what little I had,” he said.
“Thankfully, as a Muslim, at least I was used to fasting, so I would fast for a few days and just have the little bit of food I had in the evenings.
“It was a very difficult time as I did not have any money in my pocket and could not buy food.
“Due to lockdown, I couldn’t even go to the houses of friends where they might have given me a meal.
“I just prayed to God to sort out my problems or to take me away from this life.”
“This has been the worst year of my life and I was so frightened that I would lose my home as I couldn’t afford the rent or council tax."”
Adeel applied to the Zakat programme through the Green Lanes Mosque in Birmingham and was thrilled to receive support for his rent and council tax arrears.
Adeel, who lives on his own as he is separated from his wife and children who live abroad, told HuffPost UK: “This has been the worst year of my life and I was so frightened that I would lose my home as I couldn’t afford the rent or council tax.
“I was so happy when the Zakat paid to sort out my problems with my rent and council tax.
“It is so hard to survive when you have no money, especially when there is coronavirus making life even harder.”
A study by Muslim Census, a major source of data about UK Muslims, revealed the Muslim community in the UK had fallen into poverty at a rate 10 times higher than the national average.
The report also revealed that job losses among Muslims have been six times greater compared to the rest of the population since the pandemic began.
It also showed that 42 per cent of Muslims surveyed had used their savings to cover their expenses during the pandemic. This is compared to a recent study by AJ Bell, an investment company, which recorded that 30% of UK people have had to use their savings.
As well as facing poverty, Muslim communities are especially vulnerable to coronavirus as many live in extended households where elderly people and those with existing health conditions are most at risk.
Key workers, such as NHS staff and transport workers from these families, also have the additional fear of catching the virus.