Leeds church tries to stop deportation of Syrian activist

26 June 2015

SARAH FISHWICK

"Known and loved": Raja Khouja and Mahmoud Alhassan 

"Known and loved": Raja Khouja and Mahmoud Alhassan 

CHURCHGOERS in Leeds have launched a campaign to halt the deportation of a women's-rights activist from Syria, and her husband, who are seeking asylum in the UK.

Members of the congregation at All Hallows' led a demonstration on Monday outside an immigration centre in Leeds, in support of the activist Raja Khouja and her husband, Mahmoud Alhassan, who have been part of their community for more than four years.

Ms Khouja, who is 56, fears for her life if the Home Office goes ahead with plans to deport them to her husband's home country Saudi Arabia. She says that her work, trying to improve the status of women in the Arab world, has put her in direct conflict with the Saudi Mutawa - the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.

She has received emails and phone calls threatening death, imprisonment, and mutilation if she enters Saudi.

She and Mr Alhassan, aged 67, were holidaying in Britain in 2010 when the Syrian civil war flared up, making return to their home in Damascus impossible. They have been seeking asylum in the UK since 2011, but the Home Office has rejected the threats against her as being hearsay.

Sarah Fishwick, who, with her husband Robin works with the church-led Leeds Asylum Seekers Support Network, says: "If she goes to Saudi, she is in mortal danger. . . Raja and Mahmoud came to us as part of the Great Hosting Scheme, in which people give a night's stay to destitute asylum-seekers who are homeless, but they stayed for over a year.

"Despite being Muslims, they came with us to All Hallows' fairly regularly. People in the church know them and love them. We are praying that we will get a positive resolution to this."

This week, the couple, who are currently held in the Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Centre, near Bedford, were waiting for news of an application for a judicial review of their case. If it was rejected, they faced the possibility of immediate deportation.

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Mrs Fishwick said that Ms Khouja had remained upbeat despite her uncertain position, and almost daily reports from family in Syria about atrocities, bombings, and deaths, including the fatal mutilation of a young cousin after he refused an order to shoot demonstrators.

"She is a really amazing person. We live in a housing community of about 20 families, and all the kids absolutely love her; mine adore her. She loves playing with the children, and, despite all this going on, she manages to be really cheerful and loving."

The Executive Secretary of the West Yorkshire Ecumenical Council, the Revd Dr Clive Barrett, has urged people to email the Home Secretary, and Qatar Airlines, which is scheduled to return the couple to the Middle East.

He said: "We call on the Home Office to stop the removal, release them from detention, and give them leave to remain until they are safe to return to their home, Syria. They are much loved and respected here. . . We are gravely concerned for Raja's safety were she to be removed to Saudi Arabia."

A Home Office spokeswoman declined to comment on their case.

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