All in the family

Hand in hand: Ashraf says his parents’ (bottom, right) love and acceptance made all the difference for him. From left, Ashraf with his mother at his university graduation, and Ashraf in a radio interview. ­— ­Photos: SAM LIM/FRED FOO/ASHRAF

HE was a top student.

Upon completing secondary school, he was received by an institute of higher learning to embark on foundation in law. His parents, a fisherman and a food stall vendor from a small coastal village in Malaysia, were proud of and had high hopes for their bright son. With the good grades he consistently churned out, his future seemed sealed.

Then things took an about turn. Ashraf (not his real name), then 18, was arrested. His parents were shocked. Even the judge he stood before in court couldn’t believe how a student who had always excelled in school was now being accused of rape.

Ashraf regrets that dark point in his life. Through the influence of wrong company, he had met and become intimately involved with a girl. When their relationship turned sour, her family made a police report against him.

In 2013, Ashraf was sentenced to three years in jail and three strokes of the rotan (cane).

Today, 26-year-old Ashraf is a successful financial advisor with a degree in international financial economics and a masters in monetary economics under his belt.

How was this ex-prisoner able to turn his life around?

“When I was in prison, I had a lot of time to think, ” says Ashraf. He understood that he had taken advantage of his parents’ trust in him and let them down.

He wanted to do something to make it up to them, and to regain a better future for himself. He made a request to the Prisons Department to sit for the Sijil Tinggi Pelajaran Malaysia (STPM) exam.

His family brought him workbooks in prison to help him revise. He sat for the exam and passed with flying colours. Then he submitted an application to further his studies at a local university.

Ashraf will never forget the date he was released from prison, August 8,2015. His family was there to welcome him and he had already received a letter accepting his request to further his studies. He had four days with his family before he needed to leave to enrol in the tertiary institution.

“I think in those four days, my parents could see that I had changed and wanted to improve my lot, ” he said. His parents showed him a lot of love and acceptance and even accompanied him to register at the university.

The third of five siblings said the support his family gave him while in prison and after he was released made all the difference in spurring him to be a good student again and do well in life.

“Family... is the closest thing to us, ” he explained. “If they can accept us, it gives us the confidence and hope that society too will accept us. It gives us hope to live our lives normally after being a prisoner”.

His advice to all parents and society is to leave the past in the past and help ex-prisoners focus on the future. After all, he says, the offender has already been judged, and paid the price for his or her offences. Instead, parents and family members should be supportive of ex-offenders in their journey to reintegrate back into society: “Accept them, and give them the opportunity and space to change.”

Without the support of family, an ex-prisoner will likely seek out his old friends and his old life, throwing him back into the cycle that landed him in prison in the first place.

It is a bleak alternative, and Ashraf pleads with families who have rejected an ex-offender to rethink their approach.

“Don’t punish them again for the consequences they have already paid, ” he says, as the ex-offenders will feel hopeless and see no point in turning their lives around. “They will feel, if their own family can’t accept or love them, no one will.”

Frederick Foo, director for Service Development in Malaysian Care, concurs that family support is a very crucial and important factor to help ex-prisoners reintegrate into the community. In his experience as a case worker for ex-prisoners, those who are without family support or are rejected by their families will find it very much tougher to reintegrate back into the community.

He has witnessed and journeyed with some who have faced real mental torture with far-reaching implications when faced with family rejection.

Most ex-offenders, he says, leave prison with a sense of guilt for their past mistakes. They need to settle and address this guilt.

In most cases, they are starting from zero. In fact, sometimes the impact of being in prison robs them of their dignity so that they are even starting from below zero. “It will take a lot of determination, motivation and strength to start over, ” he says.

Without family acceptance, it will be an additional blow for them as they are denied the opportunity to be forgiven and to make amends.

It is also his experience that juveniles below the age of 21 are most likely to be received back by their families, but adults are more likely to face rejection from spouses or their family.

Case workers from Malaysian Care make every effort to help ex-offenders touch base with their family. They will usually travel great distances even, to follow an ex-prisoner to visit their family, learn their family background and understand the underlying issues.

In the case of Ashraf, Malaysian Care staff learned his parents couldn’t afford the fees for his university education, although he had been accepted. So Care staff pooled together money from volunteers to help fund his first semester fees. Care then connected him to the Discharged Prisoners Aid Society, which provides funding for ex-prisoners. This society covered the rest of his scholarship.

Foo remembers Ashraf’s parents as fully backing their son’s endeavour to complete his studies. Despite financial aid, there were times when Ashraf needed additional funds, and his mum would send him the money from her meagre income. She was very proud he had made it to university.

“There was no condemnation, or judging, ” says Foo. In fact his mum always shared her hopes for Ashraf to Foo.

“Their support freed him to achieve his dream, ” he adds.

Through Ashraf’s journey, Foo and his colleagues also discovered inadvertently from their visits to his parents, not only do ex-prisoners struggle with the scars of their past, but family members often feel haunted too.

Foo says Ashraf’s mum took a long while but finally opened up about her fear that her son may fall again. She feared relatives or her community might find out. She wondered often if others were talking about what happened. She would worry about how his prison background might affect his future.

Foo says his parents were very alone in what they were feeling and had no one they could confide in. They couldn’t share their burdens for fear of being judged or being gossiped about.

“That loneliness is a very real struggle, ” he notes.

Foo felt this was a necessary component that everyone should be aware of – the pain that families of ex-prisoners go through. Society shouldn’t add to this weight by their condemnation and unwillingness to give ex-offenders a second chance.

Ashraf echoes this sentiment: “Support ex-offenders. Give them a chance. Don’t discriminate.”

If no one wants to give ex-prisoners the opportunity to find an honest living, he asks, how will they stay honest? They will have no choice but to return to their old way of life, just to go on supporting themselves. They could turn to alcoholism or drug addiction to drown their sorrows.

“Please, ” he says, “Make it easier for them to reintegrate and don’t make them feel ashamed of their past.”

And where family can’t bring themselves to play that role, Foo’s experience has revealed another possibility: a friend or the community.“As I journey with people from prison, I have observed a common need to have someone to listen to them, to have a friend journey with them and share their burden and empathise with them, ” says Foo.

In such situations, when one doesn’t have family support, someone else, in the form of a friend, colleague, neighbour or community can be that encourager in times of need.

Freelance writer and former journalist Sarah Sabaratnam is part of the YouTurn Project media team.

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