The story of Ibrahim Halawa, an Irishman imprisoned in Egypt awaiting trial for four years, dominated headlines and newspapers throughout his time in prison, but particularly in the last year as his time away from home was close to ending. A month after returning home at the end of October/beginning of November, Ibrahim gave a talk in UCC to members of UCC Amnesty International Society & the Students’ Union on November 27th. The UCC Express were fortunate enough to sit down with Ibrahim before his talk, to ask about his time in Egypt, and how his adjustment back to the ‘outside world’ has gone.
UCC Express: What kept you going through the four years?
Ibrahim Halawa: As much as you know that the postponements of trials are useless, you’ve been through them so much and you don’t get a result out of them. But waiting for each trial, still, gave you the hope that ‘maybe next trial, maybe next trial’ so pushing through that was very helpful. A lot of the Irish support, knowing back there that – that visual at the airport when I first arrived back – I always imagined that, in my cell, how it was going to be, how the people were going to be there. I didn’t expect it would be as nice, if I’m honest, as much of a homecoming and beautiful. That, for me, I always had in my head, and that I had to stay sane, I had to stay sane for my family. Reading books, talking, a lot of writing as well, that was a lot of the stuff that kept me going through prison.
Express: How has the transition been, coming back to Ireland, because it’s only been a month or so?
Ibrahim: Yeah, it’s actually very hard, people think “oh-” I get messages all the time, “oh it’s great to be home, isn’t it?” and it is great to be home, but it’s just so hard because I’m not used to a bed, I’m not used to- if I hold a glass cup, I have to be so careful because everything was plastic in prison, so for me to hold a glass cup was actually very very frustrating for me. To be from a small world, a small cell, for four years and then you’re suddenly brought out into this outside world, and you’re four years behind and you’re expected to cope with it, it’s also not very easy.
Express: Your family were a big part of the campaign, keeping it alive, how’s it been for them, particularly for your sisters?
Ibrahim: You know my sisters have actually surprised me as much as they surprised a lot of the Irish people, because it was my quiet sister that actually led the campaign, so it was very strange for us as a family. But it actually brought us together and it made us stronger as brothers and sisters and as a family. And then my mother got cancer so that brought us even closer together. So for them to finally see a result after four years, and they’ve tried everything- at the end of the day, yes I was sitting in a cell, it was hard, but they were campaigning 24/7, trying to talk to anyone that would hear their voice. So for them to just see me walk through that airport, I saw them: they were all smiling and crying and, y’know, until this day every day my sister hugs me and she’s like “I can’t believe you’re back,” or my mom, she can’t believe I’m back as well, so it’s just a big relief for the whole family.
Express: Being here, I know we only got one side of the story, and I know it was obviously frustrating for you, but for people here it was frustrating that it kept getting delayed. It seemed like there was a “lax” approach from the government to getting you home: is that true at all?
Ibrahim: I would say that there’s a lot of people behind the scenes in the government who actually worked very hard but they didn’t find a result. The people who were at the front, the officials at the very [top] of the government, they just didn’t want to listen to my sisters. Because my sisters knew the Egyptian system, and they’ve been through prison, so [the government] didn’t want to listen to them when they would tell them “do this, don’t do that, take the politics high, don’t keep it on the down-low” so for them to be able to not listen to my sisters…afterward the government was changed, and they listened to my sisters, and they worked as one hand. Even a simple word of reassuring my family that everything was going to be okay is what we got from the new government. I’m not saying, I’m not detracting from anyone who was working from behind the scenes because they all worked hard for me, just the officials could’ve worked harder in the old government. But the new government worked hard and I’ve seen that and that’s why I’m here today.
Express: Is there anybody you want to highlight?
Ibrahim: Of course, Lynn Boylan MEP, Darragh Mackin, my lawyer, Amnesty International, Reprieve, all the amazing Irish people who really backed me up and believed in me and believed in my case.
Express: Since your return you’ve had a few interviews with like the Late Late Show, with Neil Prendeville here in Cork, and the tone has been a bit hostile. How have you dealt with that? Even the approach, like I think Neil Prendeville was asking your opinion on various things that were kind of irrelevant to your case, or Ryan Tubridy brought up the negative comments, how has that been?
Ibrahim: It’s been very stressful for me, because I’ve always done what the Irish people were always telling me to do, help others in need, so growing up that wasn’t a big issue for me, so when I did that- because apparently I did that in my country of origin, y’know my dad’s country and my mom’s country – so when I did it there, and because I got imprisoned for it, or because I got imprisoned with people who some think are from the wrong group… I did it for the right cause, it’s not the politics I did it for, I did it for the right cause. So for me to go back and not just be able to rest from the four years I’ve been through and to have to justify everything that I’ve been through, and tell people, y’know, I’m just a normal guy, that is pretty hard for me still.
Express: That goes into my next question, you’re only back a month and a bit, and you’re only 21, 22 – do you think people expect a bit too much from you?
Ibrahim: Sometimes I feel that, and sometimes I actually feel that I have to give the people that really expect a lot from me – because they’ve helped me through the four years, and I have to do that. But sometimes I need to find my own self first in the outside world to be able to put myself in the position after four years, where I’m four years behind, so I need to fit myself in a position where “okay, this is my track right now, this where I have to start.” I just need a starting point and hopefully I’ll be able to give people what they expect of me.
Express: I know this is maybe a hard question, but going back four or five years, where did you see yourself now?
Ibrahim: Just, graduating college, maybe having a lovelife. Just living the normal life of a normal person who’d go through college, and then graduate and then start working. The adult life. And I missed that. I missed going from the kid life to the adult life; whether it’s getting your license, or whether it’s just going out on a night out with your friends without your parent’s permission or something. That for me, I missed all of that. But I’ve learned another whole other side [of life], which is the humanitarian side, that I would’ve never learned if you told me in any college in Ireland at that time. And it’s an experience. There’s really two sides to it, you can’t weigh it on a scale at the end of the day, because I’ve gained things and I’ve lost things.
Express: One of the things you’ve said quite a lot since you were back was that you planned to work with the homeless. Do you have any info on that?
Ibrahim: Yeah, definitely. Walking through the streets of town, the amount of homeless people around town is insane. At every door you find a homeless person sleeping, and there’s cold weather at this time of year. Going around in the rain I think about them a lot of the time – what are they doing right now, how are they sleeping? And they all sleep in a sleeping bag which gets soaked so it’s nothing helpful at all. And for me, in prison I met a guy that said “I want to apply for my family to come and live with me in prison,” so I was like “are you insane?!” who’d want that for his family, he was like “at least here we have shelter, and food. They don’t have that outside.” And the food in prison was terrible! For him to say that…wow, he must’ve been rock bottom, man, he needs help. So I just want to help a lot of people
Express: Another thing you’ve talked about is helping people who’ve been imprisoned abroad, maybe falsely. Can you tell me anything about that?
Ibrahim: I actually want to work from two sides, y’know, because I was imprisoned falsely but also imprisoned abroad, so my family had to pay for lots of tickets, going and coming back, so it was very expensive for the family. So I said that even if there’s convicted criminals who are abroad we might as well bring them back so they can do their time in Ireland, for them to be visited by their families, see their family more often, because I couldn’t see my family more often. For the falsely imprisoned people I’m going to study their cases, help them a lot in any thing – I felt how it is and I don’t want people going through what I went through.
Express: Anybody who might find themselves in the same position that you found yourself in…is there any advice you would give to them now? Maybe something people can keep in the back of their heads that, should they find themselves in a similar position, that can keep them going?
Ibrahim: First thing, I’m a strong believer in God, so believing in God for me was very essential. But as a humanitarian, when you’re put in that position, I kept pushing for the next day. And eventually that next day came after four years. Just push – find something you find yourself comfortable with. Whether it’s talking to someone, whether it’s reading, whether it’s drawing – whatever you have in that position that’s available at that time, use it up. You can use a small amount of essentials in prison that really become so valuable for you, so you can use that up and make it through, because I pushed and I pushed, and I lost hope a lot of times, but I said “I will make it” so here I am today. Always look forward, don’t look back.
If you want to keep up to date with Ibrahim and his work, you can follow him on Instagram: @ibrahimhalawa_one. A special thanks to Kelly Coyle and UCC Students’ Union for their help in arranging this interview.