Q&A with Zahra Niazi about Foster Care

Zahra has had a decade long ambition to be a foster mum and last year was finally able to become a foster mum for her district in Bradford. She has kindly shared her experience with us about going through the process of becoming a foster mum and how Islam has shaped her outlook and journey. Please continue reading the Q&A below to hear about Zahra's thoughts and experience. It's a heart-warming read, but especially important for any Muslim women that are considering fostering children!

When did you realise your dream to be a foster mum? What motivated you to pursue this journey?

I had a dream in 2016. If you are anything like me, dreams are a rare phenomenon. This dream was so vivid, I was in a cave, and in this cave I was praying.

I became certain that it meant something, so I set out to find out whether this cave existed and if it did, where it could be. Much later, I came to know that the cave was the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. In 2018, I was lucky enough to visit Palestine, I remember barely being able to contain my excitement as I entered the cave and offered two rakats.

When I returned in 2018, I had another dream. In this, I saw myself with two Palestinian boys. They were brothers, and I dreamt that although they were not from me, I was their mother. So, began the quest.

Did you have any misconceptions around foster care before starting the process?

I didn’t understand the difference between fostering and adoption at the time. I first started reading all I could find about the adoption process, I watched videos and attended seminars and heard and saw how transformational it was for those who were lucky enough to find a home with a loving family or an adoptive parent.

I later met a brother called Shadim Hussain who ran a charity called My Foster Family. I heard a very passionate speech from him about the type of children that went into foster care, sometimes unaccompanied asylum-seeking children or Muslim children who had to be placed in the homes of non-Muslim parents due to the shortage of Muslim foster carers. I heard from other foster parents who talked about how rewarding their experience was despite some of the challenges these children came with.

For those exploring adoption or fostering, there are some fundamental differences.

· When adopting a child, you become their legal guardian, this isn’t the case for fostering, where the ‘state’ is the legal guardian. As a foster carer, you need to do all you can to reunite the child with their biological parent. Foster care is a temporary state not a permanent one.

· As an adoptive parent, you receive no financial support, whereas with foster care the child receives an allowance and so do you.

· There are no expectations as an adopted parent to maintain any kind of records or work with professionals, with fostering this is an expectation, so there is a history that can be referred to when that child moves from foster care home to another.

Based on some of the things I learned and by weighing up the risks as well as uncertainty of the future, I decided to take the foster care route. This was further cemented when I mentored a young white man who had been in foster care for most of his life. Money was never a factor in my decision making.

Did you face any additional barriers as a Muslim woman through the foster care process?

No, all services I spoke to were desperate for Muslim families to come forward. Nationally there are around 4,500 Muslim children who go into foster care and many which are in non-Muslim households.

I did initially think that being single and living with my parents would count against me including working full time. I made the decision to purchase a house in 2022 with enough spare bedrooms to take on 3 children. The social worker that was allocated to me took the time to get to know me, my circumstances and was very frank about my chances of fostering and what could impact it. Considering this, my social worker recommended I take on short term fostering, which was something I hadn’t thought about as an option as I didn’t know that there were different levels of care.

Short term fostering involves caring for children for short breaks such as weekends or a week at a time.

How did your friends and family react to your decision?

My family, like most South Asian families, expected that I would get married and have children by the time I was 30. They realized very quickly that this wasn’t going to be the case.

My immediate family were quite supportive, but my mother was worried about how I would be able to handle work, run a house and care for children. (Hats off to all single women, who make this look effortless!)

I knew however, being an aunt of 14 children, having worked with children with special educational needs and being a formative primary/secondary school teacher that I would really thrive.

What is your understanding of fostering and Islam?

I read about the complications of adopting and fostering males as they were seen as a ghair mahram once they had reached the age of puberty, though there was no restriction in adopting or fostering a male, the woman would have to observe ‘purdah’ from him and similarly for a man who fostered (or adopted) a female child. Under exceptional circumstances, if a male child was breastfed by the adopted/foster mother they would be deemed as their mahram when they had reached puberty and beyond.

As my preferred age was 5-11 years, this was something I had to be aware of, but it also was another reason why I felt fostering would be better suited to me as a single Muslim woman.

Tell me about how your faith helped you in your journey.

When I first started learning about Islam in my early 20’s, I remember reading the Seerah of the Prophet SAW. I cried so much and felt love swell up in my heart. The Prophet SAW was an orphan himself (SAW), who was nursed by a ‘wet’ mother. I remember reading this powerful hadith where the Prophet SAW said that the person who cares for an orphan will be like this with Him (SAW) in Jannah and he held up his two fingers, interlinking them. This quote till this day fills me with hope.

For around 10 years, I have been sponsoring a Palestinian and Pakistani child and I have received their progress cards annually. I knew that although sponsoring a child was a noble thing, it wasn’t enough.

Prior to taking the step in becoming a foster parent, I was gifted a book called ‘The Secrets of the Divine’ by A. Helwa. I call this my white rabbit hole moment, as it set me down a road of self-exploration in a way that other books on tazkiya (self-development) and tasawwuf (science of the soul) hadn’t - into a world of neuroscience, body-mind connection and attachment theory. For the first time, I dared to dream of a world where everything was possible for me, including having a loving family and bit by bit I saw it emerge in the real world and with it, I finally understood the real meaning of tawakkul (trusting in Allah’s plan).

What are you looking forward to the most?

I’m looking forward to having a family, for children to run around in my house, cooking for someone else other than myself, to love and hear their laughter, and every time I think about the Prophet Muhammed SAW interlinking his two fingers together – I smile.

Why do you think there is a lack of Muslim / ethnic minority foster parents?

Some Muslim families live in intergenerational households, so sometimes it isn’t appropriate or there isn’t adequate space to foster. Some Muslim men and women simply don’t want to care for anyone else, but their own biological children as there is such a drive culturally to ‘have your own’, and others aren’t armed with enough knowledge about fostering and therefore don’t think it would be a viable option based on their current circumstances.

Some would be too devastated to ‘let go of a child’ if that child had to leave, and the fear of that pain means they choose not to. Although in my opinion, they probably, for that very reason would make the best kind of parents.

In truth, anyone can foster and there are lots of different types of fostering models that would suit a wide range of people and whatever their family unit looks like.

What advice would you give to Muslim women who have not considered foster care or to those who are thinking about it but are too scared to take that first step?

Taking the first steps into fostering or adopting – especially if you are alone is very brave. The process itself can be intrusive and mentally and emotionally taxing, so make sure you understand the process, and be mentally prepared for what it will demand of you. This will range from your medical history to your previous relationships.

I would always advise to have supportive people around you. Some conversations with your social worker during the application process may trigger old wounds, or past traumas or experiences that have never been properly processed. Recognise that this might happen and plan for that.

Fostering in my opinion is a good alternative to adoption – especially if you are not sure that caring for a child full time or until the age of 18 years is something you are able to commit to. Every child deserves a strong and stable home, and this requires you to be firm on what you want.

Finally, I would advise that there is nothing lost in taking the time out to find out more. You might have specific questions related to your circumstances, or you might want to understand what your options are. That first step is usually less scary than we think, there is no obligation for you to complete the process if you decide it isn’t for you.

What more needs be done to encourage Muslim women / minority ethnic women to consider foster care and why is this important?

If there are Muslims out there who have a spare bedroom and have the mental, physical, and emotional energy to care for a child, then it’s worth considering. Further education and awareness of fostering, the different models and options would help people understand how flexible it is and how well the children are matched to your personal circumstances.

I am reminded of how our religion teaches us that we are one ummah, and are likened to that of a body. That when we feel one part of the body hurting, another part of the body also feels the pain. We need to only think about the thousands of Muslim children who are left without stable adults in their life who can adequately love and care for them, and recognize the part we can play in that. Also, by highlighting stories of successful Muslim foster parents, and their journeys, perhaps we can truly inspire others to do the same.

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