KARACHI: Addiction is a disease which cannot be battled in isolation. The addict is often helpless in the face of their predicament. And yet, drug addicts are often perceived with disdain and abhorrence. Adopting a patronising attitude, society sees them as a burden. When there is a dismal dearth of rehabilitation centres, and little to no support by the state, drug addicts, especially those hailing from low-income groups, are in fact pitiable. It is typically only their immediate family and friends who bear the ‘burden’ while the addict battles their addiction. However, the righteous attitude of those fortunate enough to not be associated directly with the addict themselves certainly persists as a burden on those family members. Farheen’s, the daughter of an alcoholic, is one such story.
Farheen Siddiqui, the third of 11 siblings, was born in a house where addiction had already taken its roots. The family lived in a one-room house in Lalukhet no. 10 and were frequently forced to survive on one meal a day. The father, Iqbal Siddiqui, an unsuccessful actor, was initially an alcoholic. Multiple failures in his career, however, led him to other drugs.
The addict soon found himself abandoned by family and friends. His family suffered the same fate. Addiction itself is expensive, and Iqbal’s was no different. His financial situation worsened and he found himself surrounded only by those who did little to offer him the help and support he needed – bad company, in other words.
Iqbal’s addiction coloured every aspect of his life, and by extension, his family’s. To feed his addiction, Iqbal started a confectionary business at one point but remained unsuccessful. Soon, Iqbal was forced to satisfy his addiction by borrowing money from others and on occasion also stealing. The family suspected Iqbal’s addiction had reduced him to a petty criminal.
One day, the landlord of their one-room house placed all their belongings out on the street. Unable to pay rent, the family was now homeless. Iqbal’s parents accommodated them for a few days but Farheen’s cousins made it clear they were not welcome. Later, Farheen’s maternal grandparents supported the family but they were of humble means themselves and poverty persisted. By this time, the older children had managed to pass their matric exams and were able to help in the house.
Education is key
Growing up, recalls Farheen, education seemed the only way out. She was determined to change what others were adamant was her destiny. While her siblings abandoned their education after matric, Farheen insisted that she be allowed to study further.
The boys found odd jobs in search of income and the girls began helping in the house. Farheen’s ambition was met with resistance by her family. They could barely make ends meet… How could they pay for her education as well, was the argument.
Farheen, the first daughter, after two sons, had managed to pass her matric exams relying on used books, old uniforms and other hand-outs. She finished secondary school in 2000 and managed to convince her mother to let her continue with her intermediate exams. She was permitted to do so on the condition that she bore her education expenses herself and also contribute in the household expenses.
At the age of 15, Farheen began earning by offering home tuitions and by teaching at coaching centres while pursuing her own education. By this time, one of her brothers had begun walking in his father’s footsteps and had also become an addict.
The day before her final intermediate mathematics exam, however,Farheen’s mother found her patience with Farheen’s ambitions waning. Farheen was asked to make bread and she refused to do as she had an exam the next day.
“My father was a drug addict but he never hit my mother,” recalls Farheen. On that day, tired and exhausted by the abandonment by family, taunts of society, having been kicked of their paternal grandparents’ house, all the ill-treatment her mother had borne due to her father’s addiction came crashing down. Reaching for whatever she could find, Farheen’s mother began hitting Farheen. “She beat me so much that I was covered in blood,” recalls Farheen.
However, Farheen took her beaten body and determined spirit and returned to her studies. She sat for her exam the next day and her mother never asked her to contribute in the domestic chores again. “If I had left studying for my exam to make the roti, I would not be able to tell this story today,” says Farheen.
Addiction is a disease
When Farheen and her sisters hit their late teenage years, it became necessary for the family to distance themselves from the father. Iqbal understood that his children were now of marriageable age. It was best for their future that they no longer be associated with him. He left the house and for six months, the family knew nothing of his whereabouts.
One day they received a letter from him. Iqbal said he wished to leave his addiction and begin treatment once again. Having spent most of her life in rehabilitation centres to no avail, Farheen’s mother refused to help him. She did not wish to spend the money she had managed to save for her daughters’ marriages.
A while later, Iqbal knocked on their door again. He said he had begun free-of-cost treatment at a welfare centre but his treatment required moral support from friends and family. Farheen convinced her mother and the two arrived at the centre.
New Horizon was at the time being run by the late Naveed Younus. The first meeting at the centre removed the misconception that their father’s addiction was voluntary. The family realised that their father, who they had thought of as a burden, was actually a patient who needed the support of his family in order to heal. They understood that addiction was a disease. One that their father could recover from.
By 2004, Farheen began attending weekly sessions at New Horizon along with families of other drug addicts. Meeting others who knew what it was like to have a drug addict in the family gave Farheen solace. She realised that there were other families being ruined by addiction, not just hers. The centre also helped them face an uncomfortable truth. The war against addiction could not be won without the love and support of the family. Strengthened by this, Farheen helped her father through his journey to recovery and became more involved at the centre. This was one place she felt held the key to her father’s recovery. She would know – she had visited over a dozen others with her father since she was 10 years old.
In those days, Farheen was studying for her Bachelors in Science degree, besides offering private tuitions and language training in a rented apartment near her home. In the evenings, she would volunteer her services at the New Horizon centre. With time, her association with the centre grew so close that she would spend all her free time at the centre, often counselling the families of recovering addicts.
“It gave a certain satisfaction to help the families and watch their loved ones recover,” she says with a smile. The tuition centre held no interest for her anymore. She would spend every minute possible at the centre. “I was the subject of destruction by drug addiction, which is why I could relate to the problems and worries of those who came to the centre,” she explains.
In 2005, Farheen got the opportunity
Soon, she was invited to an international conference, the Colombo Plan Recovery Symposium, in 2005.This was her first trip on an airplane. The next year, Farheen was flying to Malaysia to attend a convention on drug prevention. Roughly 250 youngsters from Asia attended that convention.
Taking her experience from the conferences forward, Farheen began her own support groups for drug addicts. She founded the Pakistan Youth Congress which held its first conference in 2009. Around 300 youth leaders, aged between 16 to 26 years, were educated on leadership abilities, sustainable goals and the rights of young persons. The purpose of this conference was to encourage youngsters towards positive goals and hone their abilities so that they could become constructive members of society.
The second conference stipulated that participants would only be given certificates if they undertook out a ‘smart’ project in their communities. The idea was to make the conference more fruitful.
During the three-month incubation period, some of the participants set up the foundation of a rehabilitation centre in Wazirabad, a small city in Punjab. Today, the centre, which started as a 50-bed facility, is one of the largest in the country.
A marriage and a loss
A turning point in Farheen’s life when she expressed her wish to marry Naveed Younus. At the time, Younus was already married and had three children. In addition to this, he was 19 years older than Farheen. “I think I felt a certain kind of security in his presence, which my father had never provided,” she says. “His personality was inspiring and every person who worked in the organisation was impressed him,” she adds.
Younus initially brushed it off as a joke and suggested she find someone her own age. Dejected, Farheen moved to Islamabad. Soon after, however, Younus agreed. The two married in 2008. Though his family neither accepted the marriage nor did they keep any relation with Farheen, they regularly met him. Farheen’s own family opposed the marriage due to the age difference.
Sometime later, the couple was blessed with a daughter. However, tragedy struck for Farheen again when their daughter was just nine months old. Younus was murdered. “It was the month of Ramadan when I received the news on Friday, August 13, 2013, that Younus has been killed,” she recalls. “Apparently, it was an incident of target killing but it wasn’t difficult to understand that it was the drugs mafia that was behind his murder,” she says.
In the months following Younus’s murder, their organisation suffered the worst. Donors were terrified of supporting them. However, it was Younus’s family who came to the rescue and encouraged Farheen to carry forward her husband’s deceased mission.
Sky is the limit
In 2012, the US Consulate had selected Farheen for the International Visitor Leadership Programme. After spending a month in the US, Farheen was offered the Fulbright scholarship. Considering her obligations to the organisation, however, Farheen rejected the offer.
Over a year later, she was offered the Fulbright scholarship again. This time, she accepted and was enrolled in the Virginia Commonwealth University. Her host family, which comprised an aged couple, treated her like their own child. They had a young son, who had moved out as soon he had turned 18.
The son was a musician and Farheen always wanted to learn to play the piano. He promised her to teach her. This marked a new beginning to Farheen’s life. The couple asked Farheen to settle permanently in the USA, while their son proposed tp her for marriage. At this time, however, all that mattered to Farheen was returning to Pakistan and picking up from where she had left off with her social activities. “Another consideration was the difference of religions and culture,” she says.
A year later, Farheen went back to the US for a conference, where she met the family again. The son again brought up his marriage proposal and even offered to embrace Islam. This time, too, she couldn’t be convinced.
On the flight back, however, the plane came under heavy turbulence. “All the while the turbulence lasted, the only thought on my mind was who would look after my daughter if something were to happen to me,” she says. Younus’s family also wanted her to marry again.
Finally, she gave in and agreed to the marriage proposal. Farheen now lives in the US with her husband and their two daughters. They have also filed papers to adopt a Syrian child and will soon travel to Syria to bring him home.
Farheen herself spends most of her time in Pakistan, supervising her organisation and conducting various activities for youth empowerment.
Today, Drug Free Pakistan Foundation, of which Farheen is the CEO, runs an 80-bed rehabilitation centre in Landhi. The US government provides funding for food and medicines while the Government of Sindh has also been giving it an annual grant since 2014.
The foundation also plans to construct a rehabilitation centre in Gulistan-e-Jauhar for women and children by 2020. The land for the centre has been donated by the foundation’s president Muhammad Sohail Yunus, who is also the brother of Naveed Yunus, Farheen’s first husband.
Meanwhile, the foundation is also engaging with Sindh government for funding. However, Farheen Siddiqui also wants to ensure that the institution is financially independent. For this purpose, some parts of the building will be rented out to generate revenue. Besides, the foundation has a volunteer network over 700 youth ambassadors across the country, who have reached out to thousands of people to educate them about the financial, social and psychological effects of drug abuse.
“My father’s addiction to drugs prompted me to serve society,” says Farheen. “I focused on education and strove to accomplish my dreams. But my mission isn’t over yet and it won’t be over anytime soon,” she adds. That won’t happen until society starts treating drug abuse as a disease and removes the stigma attached to it. Until that happens, we have the Farheens to look up to and learn some valuable lessons from.