It Changed My Life: She lost everything but finds new meaning in helping others
Ms Aneez Fathima is momentarily stumped when she cannot remember the name of the college where her late husband graduated with a degree in computer science.
“I’m starting to forget him,” she says, her eyes turning teary. “For seven years, I couldn’t forget him. My counsellors and friends have been telling me to bury him but it’s so hard,” says the 39-year-old.
Their advice is understandable, for Mr Mohamed Farook left her in the most painful manner.
On April 24, 2009, the then 36-year-old jumped off a block in Bukit Batok East Avenue 3, taking with him their only child Faheem, seven. In suicide notes he left behind, the software engineer said he did it because of health problems and he wanted to spare his wife the burden of bringing up Faheem, who was autistic.
The tragedy upended Ms Aneez’s life, turning her into an emotional wreck. It took six long years before her faith and loved ones pulled her out of her pit of paralysing misery.
Today, she channels her grief into helping others. She works as a para counsellor at Club Heal, a charity offering rehabilitation and counselling services to those suffering from mental illness.
Her biggest dream, however, is to start an initiative giving emotional and psychological support for caregivers with autistic children.
Shy but bubbly, the 1.68m English Literature graduate was born the youngest of three children in Thuckalay, a town in Tamil Nadu, India.
Her late father was a public servant and her mother, a housewife.
“My father was very loving but very strict. He was a very religious man. He never took us to the cinema, and there was no TV at home although there were a lot of books and magazines,” says Ms Aneez who shied away from the company of boys when she was growing up. “The only men I knew were my father and brother-in-law. My father didn’t even allow me to talk to some of my male cousins.”
After obtaining her Higher Secondary School Certificate – India’s equivalent of the A levels – she read English Literature at the Sree Ayyappa College for Women.
Her father was keen on her pursuing her master’s degree when she graduated, but again at a women’s college. However, her brother- in-law, who is a senior civil servant as well as a poet and writer, encouraged her to do it at a co-ed university. “He said he would take care of my father who respected him a lot,” she says.
That was how she ended up at Scott Christian College in Nagercoil.
“My father said: ‘If I hear of you doing anything with boys, I will stop your studies’,” she recalls with a giggle. “I was already 22 but it took me three months before I could talk to a boy. I was so shy.”
An attempt to find her a suitable husband fell through after she graduated, so her father sent her to Kerala instead to sit the highly competitive Civil Services Examination.
Known as the “mother of all examinations”, it determines who is good enough to get into the premier Indian Administrative Service.
Ms Aneez took nine months to prepare for the exam, as well as another one set by the University Grants Commission which would allow her to teach at an Indian university.
She did not make it through the first, but passed the second.
While waiting for the results for both exams, she secured a lecturing job with the Muslim Arts College in Thiruvithancode, a small town in Tamil Nadu.
But she gave it up barely six months into the job: A suitable groom had been found for her.
The marriage proposal came through a family friend. Ms Aneez’s sister and brother-in-law travelled 400km to Jegathapattinam to check out Mr Mohamed Farook, a software engineer then working for Seagate, an American data storage company, in Singapore.
Except for a barely discernible upward curve on the left corner of his mouth, Mr Mohamed Farook received a glowing report from her sister.
She says: “My sister said he had a good smile and seemed to be a good man from the way he behaved with his parents. She liked him.”
His background was a good match too. A computer science graduate from the Adhiyamaan College of Engineering, he had worked in Chennai and Muscat in Oman before Singapore.
“My brother-in-law also told me he probably didn’t smoke because he had very rosy lips. I was very happy to hear that because I prayed for a man of good character: not a rich man or a handsome man but a man with no bad habits.”
The marriage was arranged within a week, and took place on Valentine’s Day in 2001.
They spent five days together before he came back to Singapore to work.
“I was supposed to come with him but my passport was not ready. I had to wait another month but he would call me every day and I would cry,” she says.
In March 2001, she finally arrived in Singapore. Home was a flat in Bukit Batok shared with her husband’s elder brother and his wife.
Plans for her to get a job were abandoned when she got pregnant four months later. Because her pregnancy was a difficult one, she went back to India where her mother could look after her.
“My mother could not come to Singapore because my father was not well,” says Ms Aneez who gave birth to Faheem in India in April 2002.
Mother and son returned to Singapore six months later.
All was well at first. Faheem was a chubby baby who skipped crawling and started walking when he was nine months old.
“I thought it was a miracle. He could also say several words like milk and mama,” she says.
In 2003 when Ms Aneez’s father died, her mother came to visit.
“My mother noticed that he was not listening and didn’t make eye contact. He was hyperactive, liked to throw things at people and it was hard to make him eat. She was concerned,” she recalls.
After their son turned two, she and her husband sent him for various assessments all over Singapore and in India.
The couple were told that Faheem had developmental delay problems.
Ms Aneez threw herself into helping her son. She sent him for Eipic (Early Intervention Programme for Infants and Young Children) as well as speech, occupational and social therapy. She even learnt yoga so that she could teach him when she heard that yoga could help children with special needs.
Although these helped to calm him somewhat, he was deemed too disruptive for several childcare centres, which told his parents they could not admit him.
When he was seven, Faheem was officially diagnosed as having Asperger’s syndrome, which is on the high functioning end of the autism spectrum. Asperger children have difficulty with social interaction, have restricted interests and are prone to repetitive behaviour.
A psychiatrist suggested that he be enrolled at Bukit View Primary School, which had resources for a special needs teacher.
“It was heartbreaking to hear other kids calling him mad or stupid because he was not stupid. He was very good in Tamil and spelling and could spell ‘stethoscope’ when he was six,” she says.
His behaviour in school stressed her out. “‘You’re Faheem’s mother? Faheem did this, Faheem did that.’ I’d get complaints from parents, pupils and teachers all the time,” says Ms Aneez, adding that the lack of understanding and emotional support often reduced her to tears.
She had a meltdown one day when she was summoned to school. Faheem – after completing his Tamil test accurately and in record time – had gone around disturbing his classmates, and even poked one of them with a pair of scissors. She took him home and cried her heart out.
A couple of days later, on a Friday, she received a call from the school to take her son home. She was told she needed to take him out of school.
Her husband returned home to comfort her. “He told me to be patient and to give him three months because he was working with a US-based company. He said he would ask for a transfer to the US so that our son could get better help,” she recalls.
He then told her to rest, and that he would take Faheem to the mosque.
“I told him not to because people would ask why Faheem was not in school and I didn’t want him to lie on Friday, a holy day. He then said he would go and buy briyani,” she says.
When father and son did not return after a while and her husband did not return her calls, she set out to look for them.
That was when she found out that her husband and son had fallen from the 24th floor of a housing block.
She became hysterical and inconsolable, and was admitted to Alexandra Hospital where she had to be sedated and tied to her bed.
Police later found several suicide notes in his desk addressed to his wife and siblings.
Besides giving her instructions on property and financial matters, he also told her to be brave and remarry.
“He said that he had chest pains and if something happened to him, things would get difficult for me so he wanted to take Faheem with him. I don’t believe it; I don’t think he had chest pains,” she says quietly.
The trauma was so debilitating that she had to see a psychiatrist and be on anti-depressants for several months.
To forget the past, she worked as a trainer in a recruitment company for more than a year. Because she could not shake off the pain, she returned to India where she spent two years with her family.
The love and support of her family and her faith brought her back from the brink. When she received a letter from the HDB telling her that she could not rent out her flat, she saw that as a sign.
In October 2013, she returned to Singapore. She started taking religious classes and also began volunteering at Darul-Arqam, the Muslim Converts Association of Singapore.
There, she met pharmacist Siti Maimunah who she credits for helping to turn her life around.
Madam Siti says: “I got her to tell me her story only after a while. I could feel her pain. She had such a deep love for her husband but I told her that no man in his right mind would do what he did to her.
“She said that if anyone else had told her that, she would have punched them. I told her that maybe God wants her to use her pain to help others.”
The pharmacist took her to attend a workshop at Club Heal. One thing led to another. Ms Aneez started as a healing friend at the charity and felt so at home that she took a counselling course. Today, she is a full-time para counsellor.
“When I came to Club Heal, I could understand the feelings of those struggling with mental illness. They have to fight stigma; they want love and affection. I told myself: ‘This is my place. This is where I should be helping’,” says Ms Aneez, who shared her story at an autism symposium earlier this year.
But her job, she says, is not done. She hopes to learn more about autism and take up courses to help caregivers of autistic children. “I want to give them the emotional and caregiving support I didn’t have.”