We recently had the privilege of hosting Nicola Benyahia at ODARA. In summer 2015 Nicola’s son, Rasheed, left the family home in Birmingham to begin a journey that would eventually see him join ISIS in Syria.
Only a few months later, the 19-year-old would be killed fighting in Sinjar, an Iraqi town bordering Syria. He died a jihadist, the tragic end to a descent into radicalisation.
Nicola’s talk was incredibly emotional, not least due to the trauma of a mother losing her son, but also because of the way things unfolded. Rasheed paid the ultimate price of extremism, a fate made worse for Nicola by the guilt she felt at not being able to spot the signs of radicalisation.
To hear her story is to feel nothing but sympathy for Nicola. The gradual, unseen shift of Rasheed, a gentle-natured, intelligent student from a loving family, to a brainwashed jihadist made us all realise how something like this can happen.
Nicola said how, as a young teenager, Rasheed became obsessed with the news surrounding the Islamic State. He held strong views on the conflict in Syria and other current affairs, becoming more vocal in his opinions, ironically, just as his willingness to share other things with his parents all but disappeared.
In hindsight the signs were there. Rasheed became very focused on the progress of ISIS during a family holiday to Turkey, and he seemed to buy into the false notion that they were fighting anti-Muslim forces.
But, understandably, Nicola dismissed it as the behaviour of a normal teenager. But just as Rasheed’s views seemed to be reaching an emotional peak, they disappeared.
He suddenly seemed happier, content. Rasheed even bought Nicola a gift – a diamond necklace – with the money he had saved as an apprentice engineer. He gave it to her accompanied by a note:
“To Mama – no matter how much gold and how many precious stones are used, it’s never enough to show how precious you are to me. Love Rasheed xx”
And then he was gone.
Rasheed had traced a route from Birmingham to Syria via Turkey. Nicola now believes that his calm demeanour before he fled reflected a new conviction: his decision had been made, and he didn’t want any volatile behaviour drawing suspicion.
As the days turned into months, Nicola only heard from Rasheed via hurried texts and calls. The contact was intermittent, often weeks apart, and gave little indication as to his well being.
In the days prior to his death, Rasheed sounded anxious on the phone. He even seemed to express regret, moments that gave Nicola hope that he may have been seeking a way out. It was not to be.
Following his death, Nicola tried to find reasons why he chose to leave home, never to return.
Looking back, Nicola remembered heated family arguments about ISIS and the Caliphate, as well as disagreements about Rasheed’s desire to go to Islamic study circles unfamiliar to the family. Syria was also a hot-button issue, and Nicola now believes that the conflict, among other subjects, may have made him susceptible to recruiters.
Whatever the case, Rasheed is gone. In the three years since his death, Nicola has started Families for Life, an organisation that supports families who fear their son or daughter may be a target for radicalisation. Her organisation offers a variety of services that provides support to suit everyone, including face-to-face counselling, telephone or Skype counselling and outreach work.
Speaking to the BBC in 2016, Nicola said: “My son was a victim and I am going to end up being a victim. I refuse to be a victim to ISIS. We’re going to start talking about this.”
No one should feel as if they have to keep their worries to themselves. It can often be hard to discuss these challenging issues, even with family and friends, so that’s why we’re here for you at ODARA. No matter what you’re worried about, we’ll listen to you in a judgement-free space. And if you don’t feel like talking, we will always offer a safe haven (and a spa) for you to relax in.
If you’re concerned about the issues raised in this blog, or if anything else is worrying you, then please get in touch using the contact details at the bottom of the website.
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