In the middle of it all…
“Home has been a complicated subject for me,” writes Rukhsar Barakzai. In a powerful open letter, she tells of her Afghan roots and growing up in the UK.
The government quoted that there will be over three times the normal annual deaths in the West Midlands. A large number of these will be in the Muslim community
Gulam Teladia comes face-to-face with death more than most. As the Vice Chairman of both the Birmingham and National Muslim Burial Councils, he has been supporting and advocating for bereaved families since 2007. In normal times, this can mean working with local and national governments to update procedures and integrate the needs of faith communities into processes surrounding burials. On other days, he and his fellow volunteers will be working with grieving families to unravel the complexities of certification and funeral proceedings. “We are educated, we speak English and still it takes us three or four days just to get the certification and burial done. So, imagine being somebody who doesn't speak the language or know where to go. How could they manage?”
In the process of setting up the councils, Gulam spent a great deal of time working with hospitals, the coroner’s office, other statutory bodies and similar organisations to his own in other cities to help make the necessary improvements to the system. And at the same time, he was, and is, a Senior Service Engineer in the Professional Print – Document Solutions team at Canon, in effect working two jobs. When Covid 19 arrived in the UK, the Muslim Burial Councils became a vital part of the pandemic response and Gulam was on the front line. “In the faith communities, funeral directors were all over sixty years old,” he explains. “They were vulnerable to Covid, so myself, the Gardens of Peace [a London-based Muslim cemetery] and four others nationally started to coordinate.”
What this meant, in reality, was that in Birmingham alone, the death rate could nearly triple in the Muslim community. Moreover, Muslim funeral rites would be impossible to observe in traditional way, where the same sex close family members of the deceased wash the body of their loved one, before shrouding them for burial. This takes place in the presence of an Imam, a leader of worship at the mosque and burials must follow as quickly as possible afterwards. However, during the pandemic families were no longer allowed to participate in these intimate preparations that are so essential both to Islamic faith and the closure of families in mourning. Instead, there needed to be another way. “At this time, nobody had any idea how to handle Covid,” says Gulam. “So, we said ‘okay, the first thing we need is PPE and then we need to get young people trained.”
He put a call out for young volunteers willing to take on the duties of families in washing and enshrouding the bodies of the deceased. Over four hundred young Muslim men and women came forward, ready to be trained and take on this incredibly difficult, but vitally important role for their community. At the same time, fundraising efforts managed to drum up over £12,000 for the purchase of PPE. Gulam convinced NHS professionals to give up their time to train the volunteers in how to use the PPE properly and safe practices in handling the bodies of those who had died from Covid 19. He also worked with the local police to ensure these gatherings could take place. At the same time, however, the Burial Council were already being frequently called upon to collect bodies from the hospitals, so Gulam and his fellow council members were also washing and enshrouding the deceased while volunteers were being trained.
“I was not sleeping,” he recalls. “I was working until twelve, one, two o'clock in the morning. It was difficult.” This continued for many months and his family barely saw him as he protected them by largely sticking to one room in his home. And every day he woke after a long night of tending the bodies of victims of Covid 19, ready to start work, looking after the needs of Canon’s customers. It was hard, but he spoke honestly to his manager and colleagues about his work, and they understood and supported him in any way they could. “My manager helped me in many respects. He told me, ‘You’re helping the community – carry on! If you need any help with anything, just ask.”
Another aspect of the council – and therefore Gulam’s – role during the pandemic was to give comfort to families who could not visit their loved ones in hospital by organising for Qur’an Cubes (a portable device that broadcasts the words of the Holy Qur’an) to be placed with patients, so they can hear readings in their last hours. “There's nobody sitting next to them, holding their hand. And that was the hardest part. And then we bring the body to the mosque for washing, shrouding and prayers before we take it to the cemetery for burial. Some of the families couldn't even attend.”
It is worth noting that when Gulam is asked how he is, having been in a position that most of us would find impossible to comprehend, he simply says, “I am grateful”. He has miraculously worked a full-time job, while spending every spare hour tending to the needs of the bereaved. He has organised a community that was so very vulnerable to Covid 19 and collectively coping with the trauma of their losses. He fought to ensure the dead were treated with the dignity befitting his Muslim brothers and sisters, when their own families could not be there to speak for them. It is nothing short of astonishing. And yet, he cannot help but acknowledge the work of others. “My brother Mohammed Omar who runs Gardens of Peace cemetery, he's chairman of the National Burial Council and was holding funerals from six in the morning until eight o'clock at night,” he recalls.
So, when Gulam was invited to accept a British Empire Medal from the Queen, he was probably the only person who was surprised. The nomination for this great honour, bestowed on those who have been of significant service to their community, was anonymous and Gulam still has no idea who put him forward. However, given how important his work has been to his community and the thousands of hours he gave, and continues to give, in the name of dignity in death, who wouldn’t nominate him? He looks forward to being presented with his medal at an investiture ceremony in May this year and continues his essential work as an advocate for bereaved families.