It’s quiet. No words are being spoken; there is only noise in the background. At first it’s hard to decode what the noise is. Then it becomes clear; the cold, shivering noise sounds like teetering respiration. And then he speaks. “My mother says I’m a Muslim because I was born into this family. But I don’t feel like one. My parents are getting divorced and my mom is always stressed. I do things I know are wrong. But it numbs the pain for a while. I feel trapped”. His voice is soaked with defeat. “I don’t know what to do. Help me.”
And then the line goes dead.
Twenty four thousand. That is the number of times the phone has rung on the first floor of an old building situated in London. And 24,000 times (and growing as you read this) there has been a voice that softly asks: “Hello, this is Muslim Youth Help Line, how can I help?”
Established nine years ago in the bedroom of 18-year-old Mohammed Mamdani, the Muslim Youth Helpline (MYH) has grown from a young man’s ambitious initiative to the only helpline dedicated to the British Muslim youth. Mr Mamdani, with pencils and a father willing to pay the phone bill, formed the foundations of the helpline which confronts problems facing the Muslim youth today. The authentic example above, portrayed by actors to protect the identity of the caller, is only one of the 500 enquires that monthly pour into the MYH.
Dressed in a white Asian-inspired shirt and dark blue jeans, Bengali Milad Ahmed is the Head of the Support Services. He is young and dedicated. When asked about the helpline, currently with 100 workers, mostly volunteers, Mr Ahmed makes a clear statement. “Even though we have ‘Muslim’ in our title, it doesn’t make us a faith based organisation,” he says in his mellifluous voice. “We are a faith sensitive organisation. This means we are non-judgmental and we try to take into account the cultural implications of what it means to be a Muslim.”
Many of the conversations that the MYH has with Muslims aged between 16 and 25 are not for the faint-hearted nor are they dinner conversations; stories of sexual abuse, relationship problems and mental health have had people like Fazal Khan, 26, working hard.
Mr Khan is a part of the group which proves to be the backbone of the MYH; the helpline volunteers. For six months, he has been talking and chatting with help-seeking Muslims.
“Naturally there are a few exceptions, but young Muslims have the same problems that other young people might have,” Mr Khan says. “Relationships, drugs, bullying and depression all come to the surface.”
Taking the bull by its horns is never easy. The organisation is dealing with delicate issues that are still considered to be taboo in the Muslim community. In fact, having a helpline to confront the community’s disguised problems is controversial in itself.
“Generally, the most common concerns are mental illnesses and relationships,” Mr Ahmed states and for a reason. Mental illness is considered a highly taboo subject; kept strictly within the four walls of a household and concealed from the outside world. Though no specific figures regarding mental illnesses among the Muslim community are currently available, the MYH states in its most recent report that almost 30 per cent of all conversations involve Muslims desperately battling depression and isolation.
Mr Ahmed admits that the topic of mental illnesses is still a precarious area. “The reason we find mental illness to be a big issue at MYH is because of the perception in certain sections of the Muslim community, where signs of weak iman – faith – are associated with mental illnesses. Many Muslims therefore see MYH as a space to talk about their distress. This is also why we are currently trying to educate and raise awareness through campaigning.”
In 2005, the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS) ran a survey which revealed that about half of all students asked had experienced Islamophobia. For this article, a survey sent out to various universities across England – UCL, Kingston, Southampton, among others – unveiled that 46 per cent of participants believed that Islamophobia was on the rise while almost 50 per cent said they felt unwelcome in Britain as a direct result of hate crime and racism.
But there is a vigorous debate about whether Islamophobia is the root of mental illnesses among young Muslims. While one anonymous survey participant said, “I definitely think there is some correlation between racism and depression,” another one argued, “As I live in a multicultural area I find it difficult to believe there is a clear association between Islamophobia and depression.”
“Here at MYH we’ve had few concerns about Islamophobia. The majority of the time the problems, such as depression, are related to family and culture,” Mr Ahmed explains. “Our popular advocacy website, Muslim Youth, has concerns related to Islamophobia.”
Despite its efforts, the helpline has only touched the tip of the iceberg. Being a small charity, relying heavily on donations means restricted resources.
“The need for the service is far greater than what we can provide at the moment,” Mr Ahmed says. “If we handle 15 calls, we miss about 30 enquiries. And that’s on a daily basis. We need more funding.”
A quick calculation reveals the number 840. That’s how many young Muslims end up listening to a busy tone rather than the aiding voice of a volunteer – every month. Another calculation and a new number pops up.
That’s how many Muslims, on a yearly basis, are going to bed with their anxieties still in their heart.
Leaving the small building, it’s difficult to grasp the reality that thousands of Muslims are relying on an organisation that can hardly take four calls concurrently. Yet, the pleading, broken voice of a young man from a donation ad comes to mind: “Dear MYH. Please. Please help me ‘cos I am suffering every minute, of every hour, of every day. Can you help me?”
As Mr Ahmed leaves for the day, he knows, at least for those able to get their enquiry through, the answer is yes.