Darun Nusra founder breaks silence

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By 2018-01-14

BY Ruwan Laknath Jayakody, Shaahidah Riza and Kavindya Chris Thomas

Following the controversial alleged sexual harassment case at the Darun Nusra orphanage, Ceylon Today spoke to the founding president of the organization that runs it, Al Muslimaath, Dr. Mareena Reffai. "Darun Nusra is part of a larger operation, controlled by 27 committee members, nine executive officers of the Al Muslimaath of which I'm the founding president. Presently, I'm acting as a coordinator of the organization," she said.

She also said, "We receive funds in millions. There is no dispute about it. Our accounts are transparent. People know us now and know the good work we do. We are not funded by the Government, or Saudi Arabia."

Darun Nusra, according to her, isn't an orphanage. Out of the 18 children currently at the institution, only one is parentless and is cared for by a guardian. Most appointments are Court made, through the Department of Probation. "Our idea was to take in any child who could not be kept at home for any reason in order for them to be educated. So, we have children from various backgrounds, coming from all over the country."

Children at Darun Nusra receive their education at Al Asaafeer nursery and international school. Dr. Reffai highlighted two reasons why children were not sent to State schools – issues in admission and transport. Initially, children were sent to several State schools but later, when the institution shifted to Kalubowila, a major transport issue emerged. "We decided that these children have to receive the highest possible quality education. Today, English medium is very important. Out of the 18 children in the international school, only four went below their original grade. We gave them concentrated English lessons, separate classes and tuition. We gave students double promotions. And they showed progress in their education."

However, on Thursday (11), the Gangodawila Magistrate's Court observed that a severe educational rights violation had occurred at Darun Nusra, due to the removal of children from their original education programme and being forced to follow a new curriculum.

Public focus

Public concern was focused on this case as it was alleged that Dr. Reffai was aware of the alleged abuse that occurred at the institute, but turned a blind eye.

She responded: "I don't know if there had been abuse or not. I know that none of the children were raped. When I personally inquired the children, individually, they said they had been touched by the suspect and their shawls pulled. They said, 'he hugged and kissed us', which, I'd rather not comment on. This might be considered as sexual abuse in today's context, I really don't know. The children never said they were touched in the private parts. The children had refused to be medically examined because nothing happened to them. All 18 children go home three times a year for holidays and no one mentioned something like this happened. If the children were being abused, they would've told me. If not me, they would have protested to their parents. For a year or so, I never visited them because there was no need to. There were enough opportunities for them to make complaints."

One girl (14), alleged to have been repeatedly raped, according to Dr. Reffai was sexually active prior to her arrival at Darun Nusra. She had been transferred following a Court case where she had been accused of having an affair with her sister's husband.

Dr. Reffai claimed there are Court reports that prove this.

Despite her claims, Police reports and statements produced in the Gangodawila Magistrate's Court report one girl (12) detailing sexual harassment allegedly at the hands of the only male employee at the institution, Mohamed Sarippuge Mullafer, the husband of the Institution's matron, Zahira. The report records how the suspect forced the girl into a store room and touched her genitalia on over 20 occasions. The suspect also reportedly verbally abused her, forcing her to not report this to adults. The girl's medical examination revealed evidence of vaginal penetration.

During the interview Dr. Reffai accused Manisha Samahoon, an ex-clerk at Darun Nusra and her husband, Ashir Samahoon for attempting to take over the institution.

Addressing the many accusations of allegedly promoting and attempting to cover up sexual abuse at her institution, Dr. Reffai noted: "I'm a religious woman. I'm a maulawiyah. I preach. I would not have done what these people accuse me of. I would be the first to report it!"

Three days before the raid on 22 July 2017, the principal of Al Asaafeer school had called Dr. Reffai and said several children were writing a letter. When inquired about it, the children had initially denied but had later said that the 'driver uncle' was abusing them and they wanted to tell the Police. Dr. Reffai, following this, had asked the principal to bring the eldest of the children to her residence.

"People ask me if I had an inkling of this incident, why didn't I go to the Police? Is this what you do when somebody complains something like this, do you go to the Police immediately? Then it would be a case. And even if there had not been anything, the Police will go to town with it. The children's names will come out. The lives of these children will get destroyed. This is what happened. Now everyone is saying that they were raped. When these children go up to marriage, there is going to be some repercussion. People don't think about it."

The two elder girls had revealed that the 'driver uncle' had abused the younger girls, but not them, after Dr. Reffai questioned them. "They said the uncle hugged, kissed and touched them. I have seen them do that; the children are above six years of age.

And this is a 70-year-old man. He sometimes carries them and puts them into the van. I never thought twice about it. Zahira and their daughter were living at the premises. So if there was something, she would have noticed but she didn't."

Dr. Reffai claimed that the two girls had also complained about Zahira, of how she does not feed the children at the institution. "I thought this was absurd because I knew they were getting better food than myself. Every day, somebody will bring food."

When inquired by Dr. Reffai, six girls had said the uncle had 'touched' them. The rest denied anything of the sort happening to them but acknowledged the accounts of the other six. To Dr. Reffai, these accounts were neither here nor there. "So I called everyone together and said I will ask uncle to leave. Then I told Zahira and her husband to leave the very next day."

Following this, the children had wanted Dr. Reffai to call Manisha to come stay. According to Dr. Reffai, Manisha refused towork, claiming her husband did not want her to work as the matron.

On the next day, Kohuwala Police and Commissioner of the Probation Department arrived at Darun Nusra. To Dr. Reffai's surprise, Manisha's husband Ashir Samahoon was also present.

Police officers took down statements from all 18 girls which were read out by the officer of the Commission. The statements, according to Dr. Reffai had the same accusations of maltreatment and abuse from the suspect. "Everyone had said they had been taken to weddings, and asked to work and cook. This is an obvious lie. None of them said they were raped. They said the uncle had touched, hugged and carried them. To me this seemed as if like they were trained. I told the Police to do what was necessary. I told them to take the CCTV camera footage at the premises for their inspection."

According to Dr. Reffai, the CCTV cameras were installed to stop the children from stealing. "Everyday these children would have a biryani lunch, an apple and wattalappam. Then soon after, we found them stealing raw dry fish from the kitchen and eating them. They have this habit of stealing. That's the way these children are and that's their background. They would steal other's clothes. The CCTV cameras were installed in the living room areas where some of the beds were put in. But there weren't any cameras in the girls' rooms or in their changing rooms. If the Police report is produced, we would know what happened. It's our committee members who took the children for medical tests and the doctors had not told them anything serious was detected, except for that one child."

CCTV footage

Ceylon Today contacted the Kohuwala Police to ascertain the current situation of the CCTV footage report and learnt that the footage was referred to the Government Analyst's Department for inspection of evidence. SI Pushpakumara who conducted the initial investigation, now attached to Kahathuduwa Police, told Ceylon Today, despite what Dr. Reffai is claiming, the girls accused the suspect of inappropriate touching. The suspect allegedly watched the girls change clothes through the cameras and touched their feet at night when they were in their beds. According to Pushpakumara, the footage spanned over 100 days.

Dr Reffai also said, "The reason why this incident has become so complex is because the Samahoons wanted to frame me." She added that even the Police wanted to paint her as a criminal who abetted the alleged abuse. She accused certain officers of the Kohuwala Police, for intimidation and attempting to solicit bribes. She asserted that even the matron had been threatened on several occasions. She noted, "The officer had told Zahira that they knew it was Manisha who was behind this. If they pay him, they could frame Manisha and arrest her. However, when this was brought up at Courts by her counsel Vidura P. Manchanayake, the Police officers had withdrawn from it. It was almost poetic justice."

Ceylon Today contacted Attorney at Law Vidura P. Manchanayake, counsel for the suspect and his wife who denied Dr. Reffai's claim. He noted that no such thing had occurred when he was appearing for them. Ceylon Today inquired SI Pushpakumara who also denied it. He noted that such a rumour was created during the early stages of the Court case in order to quicken the bail procedure of the suspect.

Manisha, according to Dr. Reffai, had run Darun Nusra for two weeks. During this time Manisha had written to Dr. Reffai on two occasions, signing as manager of the institution. "How a mere clerk, sign as a manager is beyond me."

Subsequently, Manisha was sacked from Darun Nusra and Al Muslimaath. Ceylon Today spoke to Ashir Samahoon who said: "Due to an ongoing Court case regarding the alleged abuse of children at Darun Nusra, we are not in a position to comment on whatever has been stated by Dr. Reffai."

Dr. Reffai claimed that in the fallout, there had been a string of temporary matrons at the institution who were sabotaged by certain forces. "One such case is the assault charges that were brought against one matron. This matron was on leave when this assault had allegedly taken place. She had left on 27 November 2017 and the child who claimed to have been assaulted was hospitalized on 11 December, following the initiation of holidays. This particular girl (13) had been approached by two unknown individuals who had taken her and admitted her to the Kalubowila Hospital. To my knowledge she was never transferred to Lady Ridgeway. We spoke to her uncle who said the doctors discharged her saying nothing was wrong."

According to Dr. Reffai, the matron had never assaulted the children.

Psychoactive medication

When Ceylon Today told her that the girl in question had been administered psychoactive drugs, Dr. Reffai noted that this was after the 'traumatic incidents' of last year. "The medication was prescribed by the counsellor at the Kalubowila Hospital. She started the treatment for four children, including this girl. These children did not need this treatment. We did a lot of counselling even before the incident.

"This particular girl was disturbed to begin with. She hated her parents and it projected towards others. She was kept in a separate room at times. She was not violent. She disturbed other children during studies. She could get along with others but she created problems. After medication, her teachers noted that she stopped being abusive to the parents. But she was hyperactive and showed erratic behaviour. We had individual classes for her as well."

Dr. Reffai, noting that she disagreed with the drug treatment, attested that she had not looked at what the prescribed drugs were. She also noted that the institution was ordered by the Probation Department to not take the girl back. The girl in question, as per the orders of the Gangodawila Magistrate, is to be transferred to a separate orphanage, registered under the Department of Probation and Child Care Services.

When highlighted that being the founding president she had neglected the children at Darun Nusra, Dr. Reffai responded: "Even if I went and visited, they were not going to tell me. I don't know if it could have been avoided. I'm a coordinator, not the president. It should have been the president and the vice president who should have seen to that. I'm not the owner of the organization. The owner should be the president."

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