Luton Islamic Centre, located in the heart of Bury Park, is a hive of activity. Daily there are study classes open to men and women. On Saturday nights volunteers from the mosque serve soup to the homeless on Luton’s streets. The prayer hall, meanwhile, regularly overflows with aid supplies, ready to be dispatched to the desperate and destitute in war-torn Syria. And while many other mosques turn women away at the front door, this one welcomes them, inviting them to participate in the religious life of the community.
Even so, few could have seen this autumn’s escapade coming. Out of the blue, in late September, a local humanitarian charity set sisters attending Luton Islamic Centre a challenge: to put themselves in the shoes of refugees fleeing war: to imagine their heartache and the hardships they face as they flee everything they have ever known in their pursuit of safety. Pertinently, they were asked to consider the burdensome obstacles and afflictions they would encounter on their arduous journey.
Only the most heartless amongst us could have failed to have been moved to contemplate the plight of refugees over the past few years, witnessing the unfolding catastrophe in the Middle East and Europe. But this request was of a more practical nature: when they invited them to put themselves in their shoes, they really meant it. This was not an invitation to merely ponder how they would cope with such an ordeal, or to ask themselves if they would survive. It was a more cumbersome appeal: a demanding adventure awaited them.
They were invited to take part in a unique sisters-only challenge, aptly named Trials and Tribulations, which would well and truly put them to the test. Participants were told to expect the worst: to find themselves out of their depth and out of their comfort zone. It was a tough obstacle course challenge, created to push them to their limits and test their patience. ‘How will you react in the face of adversity?’ asked the promotional material, as if to scare potential participants away.
It was a daunting prospect, but a small band of sisters from Luton and further afield soon answered the call. They were already familiar with the sterling work of Crisis Aid, a small local charity working internationally with people in grave need. If by taking part they could help them to continue their invaluable work, they told themselves, it would all be worthwhile. Not that they were exactly enthusiastic about the challenge before them: thoughts of it filled some of them with dread and others with light panic.
Under a month later—like real refugees they had had hardly any time to prepare—a small group of sisters found themselves standing in a chilly field in the beautiful Surrey countryside, wondering what on earth awaited them. Amongst them was an intergenerational family team, anticipating the challenge of their lives: a mammoth obstacle course, as they put it. As they prepared for their adventure, there was no escaping the pangs of anxiety within, but the ultimate cause helped them maintain their focus. It was a struggle worth taking on, they told themselves, if it helped them raise funds to support vulnerable people in Syria, Africa and Palestine.
Saturday 22 October was the first day of the autumn half-term holidays. Other sisters might have been enjoying a well-deserved lie-in, or at least taking it easy, but for these sisters there was no respite. Most of them had set off from Luton Islamic Centre first thing in the morning for the hour’s drive to the venue, set in almost 100 acres of parkland, teeming with lakes, fields, rivers and woodland in an area of outstanding natural beauty.
A second family team, comprising Leanne and sister-in-law, Touria, certainly had their misgivings for taking part, but hoped to raise £500 each between them to help Crisis Aid provide food and emergency supplies to those in extreme need all over the world: “We are doing this hike in support of all those individuals who have been displaced from their homes and have had to make the extremely difficult journey from Syria to Turkey and then through Europe to Germany on foot.”
It seemed that the one thing that united all of the participants was a sense of reluctance and foreboding as the challenge drew near. In the days before the event, one long-time supporter of Crisis Aid from High Wycombe was having doubts. “This is definitely going to be a trial and tribulation, a real test,” she said, fearing cold and rain on the day. Yet even she was insistent that she had to do it for Syria, for the ummah and for herself. Her primary motivation in taking on the challenge was to support those effected by war.
“I first started collecting and doing work for Syria four years ago when I attended a talk about what was happening in Syria,” said Saima, “The next day I decided to get up and do something to help. It holds a special place in my heart. I know many Syrians and their stories are heart-wrenching, yet the world is silent!”
Despite misgivings, the intrepid participants all shared a sense of determination to complete the challenge. One sister—a source of inspiration to the others—had decided to take part despite several years of poor health, which itself had been a great trial. Though lacking the physical strength of her teammates, she was intent on getting a sense of the hardship faced by refugees fleeing Syria. While it would never be possible to truly experience what they went through, she believed that by walking for 2.5 km over muddy and uneven terrain, encountering obstacles such as barriers and barbed wire, and wading through cold water, she would come to better appreciate their ordeal.
“It will be a test of endurance and will be expected to face trials and tribulations throughout the challenge,” she said beforehand, “even if to experience only a fraction of what the Syrian mothers and children experienced when they migrated from Syria to Turkey then onto Macedonia, Serbia and Germany.”
Though few of them had ever considered taking on a challenge of this kind before, they had bravely accepted their mission to put themselves in the shoes of those fleeing war and natural disaster. They wanted to experience a little of what it is like to face the trials and tribulations of a difficult journey across hostile terrain, encountering obstacles that would test even the fittest and strongest amongst us.
And so now they stood together in the cold autumn air, a brisk 12 degrees Celsius, awaiting their fate. They had been asked to dress as they normally would when going out in public, to reflect the experience of refugees fleeing disaster. For most of them that meant a loose-fitting jilbab and khimar, albeit with a sensible base layer and trainers. Soon they would discover some of the difficulties that might entail in the face of water, mud, obstacles and awkward terrain. They were about to take on a challenging 2.5km obstacle course, with all of its tunnels, fences, tyre walls, climbing nets and balancing bars, not to mention fallen trees, steep river banks, deep ditches, hills and streams. At that moment, the best they could do was pin nervous smiles to their faces and hope for the best.
Finally, at 11.00am, they set off, led on their way by a sporty instructor with a commanding voice, dressed for the role in heavy boots and combat trousers. They had been told that they would have to struggle to overcome the hurdles, difficulties and discomfort placed before them, and in the process, learn all about themselves. That became clear almost immediately, as they negotiated a deep water-filled ditch, edging down its steep sides and up the other bank. Soon they would be crawling on their hands and knees through a tunnel, then clambering over a fence.
“We were totally unprepared,” said one participant, “We’d been given very little information about what exactly to expect. But then, if I’d known what I was getting myself into, I definitely wouldn’t have signed up. I’m so glad I did.”
After the muddy ditches came a trek along the course of a river, wading through icy water. No easy task in a jilbab, which some had lifted clear of their ankles by tucking it into the top of their tracksuit trousers underneath. Their instructor thought they were mad turning up to take on the course dressed like that.
“Yeah, it wasn’t exactly practical,” acknowledged one of them, “but it really helped us appreciate what it would be like for women refugees, fleeing in those kinds of conditions. I wouldn’t change it. I learned a lot.”
The obstacle course demanded a lot of strength, stamina and determination. There were walls of tyres to climb, huge climbing nets to scale and tall fences to hurdle. Elsewhere they would have to crawl on their hands and knees through cold muddy water under sharp barbed wire, like refugees evading border patrols. But worst of all were the pools of freezing cold water they were expected to plunge into on that cold late autumn day and splash on through to the other side.
In all of these experiences, this small band of adventurers learned so much: about the value of sisterhood, about reliance on Allah, about believing in yourself. They took inspiration from one sister in particular, who had joined them despite failing health. “My wonderful sister!” exclaimed one of her teammates, “Masha’Allah, you were inspirational to say the least! Even through the freezing cold, you pushed yourself through every challenge you were faced with!”
When they finally reached the end, soaked through and shivering from the icy cold, the sense of achievement they felt was incredible.
“Completing this challenge today was such an amazing experience to say the least, Masha’Allah!” said Touria at the end, “Truly it was a great team and imaan building task, extremely trying at times but so much fun.”
Saima agreed. “I think we need to do this every year Insha’Allah,” she said, “but with more sisters!”
While taking on the challenge, they had seen themselves as ambassadors of Islam, setting a good example and demonstrating the best of manners. Despite personal difficulties, they were consistently polite and cooperative, helping to build bridges and knock down walls. Between them, the participants managed to raise £3000 for Crisis Aid through their efforts, eclipsing all expectations. Not bad for a day’s work, conquering inner fears.
“I would encourage many more sisters to take part in it,” said Touria, despite the aches and pains, “Alhamdulilah, there’s such a great sense of achievement after having completed it, but also knowing that we did this for the sake of Allah made it that much greater and, Subhan’Allah, doing this in thought of all those people who have been displaced from their homes and having to make these extremely difficult and dangerous journeys all the way through Europe, has truly made me so grateful for everything I have. Having only experienced a fraction of what our brothers and sisters have had to go through, I will Insha’Allah never forget this day.”
That was a sentiment shared by all of the participants. It had been a difficult challenge, filled with numerous trials and tribulations, but they wouldn’t have missed it for the world.