'We need to act faster. It's a life and death situation'
The Irish Muslim community is 'in grief' over the Halawa siblings' detention; but it is also angry, writes Joanna Kiernan
THE distraught family of the four young Irish citizens being held in Egypt following the storming of a mosque have told how they are being kept in the dark about their place of detention.
Somaia Halawa, 28, who celebrated her birthday in detention yesterday, her two sisters Omaima, 21, and Fatima, 23, and their brother Ibrahim, 17, were arrested last week after they sought refuge at the al-Fath Mosque in Cairo, when a day of protest against the ousting of President Mohammed Morsi called by the Muslim Brotherhood turned violent.
Their father, Sheikh Hussein Halawa, Ireland's most senior Muslim cleric and the Imam of the Islamic Cultural Centre in Clonskeagh, has not heard from his children since.
In an interview with the Sunday Independent at the Clonskeagh Mosque this weekend, Sheikh Halawa said: "As a family and particularly, as a father and a mother, suddenly and unexpectedly losing our four children like this, having them detained by police and armed militias; you can of course imagine how distressing this can be.
"They were a peaceful people, amongst demonstrators.
"We advised them to take refuge in the mosque because it was probably the safest place, but it turned out to be a detention centre, besieged by armed militia and police. They were taken away, three single, unmarried daughters and an under-aged son. The last contact I had was when my daughter Fatima was brought out of the mosque by the police. She said: 'Dad I am now with the police.'"
Speaking of his family's anguish through an interpreter, Mr Halawa praised the Irish authorities' help with the matter.
"I am aware that the Irish authorities are doing their best and they have been working on the case. I was visited by the Minister for Justice Alan Shatter. He came personally and assured me that they are doing their best. They are working on it and I trust their words," he added.
Members of the Muslim community in Dublin have been protesting outside the Egyptian Embassy on Clyde Road since learning of the Halawas' detention.
As members of the gardai looked on last week, demonstrators chanted in Arabic, 'Down, down, the military rule'. Family, friends and community members were all calling for the safe return of the four siblings to their home in Dublin.
But as the days roll by with no news on either their whereabouts or condition, fears are increasing.
"I couldn't have imagined in my worst nightmares that this could happen," the siblings' sister Nosayba Halawa told the Sunday Independent.
"To be honest, I don't know what's going to happen. All we have is the hope that they will be released soon. They moved them and we don't know where they moved them to. How are we supposed to know where they put them? My mum was with them on a summer holiday. She was in the house and was watching everything online. Can you imagine watching your children or your brother and sisters surrounded by people trying to kill them?
"The lawyer and my sister and my mum went yesterday to find my sisters and my brother. All we heard is that Ibrahim is in one place and my sisters are in another place.
"They went there looking for them and they arrived to the door and the lawyer asked to see the list of names, but they said, 'Sorry the person who has the list went for a walk', and claimed they did not know when he would be back and could not contact him."
Nosayba said that at one point during the siege, her younger siblings were offered safe passage from the mosque on account of their Irish
citizenship, but were too afraid to leave without a witness from the Irish Embassy present.
"We called the embassy and the ambassador managed to get a safe passage, but Fatima said that some of the guys outside told them, 'You go out and you're dead! You will not leave alive'," Nosayba explained. "They said that two women had been told the same a half an hour earlier, but when they went out they were hit and they took them away."
According to Nosayba, her siblings, who have an interest in media and politics, attended the protests out of curiosity. "They were there when it happened because Fatima and Omaima do digital media at college, so they were taking photos and all of a sudden shooting was coming from the air," she said.
"They called my father and asked where to go and he said the nearest safe place would be the mosque."
At the Islamic Cultural Centre in Clonskeagh, friends spoke of the four young Halawas as being central members of the Muslim Community in Dublin.
"The whole community is in grief now and they have a lot of anger also," said Osaid Abed, 18, who grew up with Ibrahim.
"They were unfairly kidnapped I would say, rather than arrested and we have no idea why. We know they were in the mosque, they went to Friday prayers and they were unfairly and unjustly arrested and we want them released. We heard that two days after they were arrested 56 prisoners were killed, so that increased our worries."
He added: "They are normal Irish students. They go out every couple of days with their mates and they are all also very helpful. They work in the community and they're very known for their help. We have a very close bond with all of them, because our families are close.
"The Irish Government; we are not seeing enough of them, I'll be honest. I know they sent the Consular in Cairo, but we need them to act faster and especially because anything could happen. It's a life and death situation."
Mohammed Adnan, 19, has known Ibrahim Halawa for eight years.
"One of the things I know about him is that he was very approachable with people, and the interactions he has had with the Muslims and non-Muslims," he said.
"Ibrahim loves his country a lot. He's not a nationalist, but you know what happened before in Egypt and what's happened in Syria and Libya, he was involved in many of these protests that have happened in Dublin."
Hajar Al-Kaddo, 27, is a close friend of the Halawa girls.
"They were there just spending time with family. Two of their cousins were getting married about a week- and-a-half before they were arrested," she said.
"Somaia has just finished her masters in child psychology, so she went over to Egypt about two months before the summer holidays. She was working really hard and had just literally finished it.
"Fatima had finished about a year ago, a media degree, and was looking for work.
"Omaima will be graduating from media studies next year and Ibrahim has just finished his Leaving Cert."
Hajar added: "This is the problem: the minute you hear that a Muslim youth is doing something they are an extremist. We just have to highlight what kind of Muslims we are; we are active in our communities and there's nothing wrong with that.
"They were there, so what? I could be on holidays in Cyprus and the same could happen to me."