Roam, sweet home

All we want for the new year is... a roof over our head. Ali and the twins yesterday. Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi.

All we want for the new year is... a roof over our head. Ali and the twins yesterday. Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi.

As people pop the champagne and usher in the New Year tomorrow night, a young father will be making one wish - to be able to afford a small home for himself and his seven-year-old twins.

The alarm clock goes off at 1.30 a.m. Getting out of bed, Ali* tiptoes quietly through the room using the faint light of his mobile phone to avoid waking his seven-year-old twins who are sleeping soundly on either side of his bed.

Slipping into a pair of slacks and a T-Shirt, he closes the door softly and goes to work, safe in the knowledge that his girls will be supervised while he is away preparing pastry and foodstuffs.

When he arrives back 'home' at Dar Niki Cassar, YMCA's shelter for the homeless in Valletta, at 6 a.m., he gently nudges his daughters awake and as they stumble out of bed he gives them warm milk, intertwines their long brown hair into two plaits on either side, and helps them into their uniform.

While they brush their teeth, he packs their lunch box and drives them to school. Then he dashes back home to wash the clothes, cook lunch, run errands and maybe steal two hours of sleep, before he picks up his girls again in the afternoon.

"I work at night so that I can take care of my daughters myself," he says, sliding his six-foot frame into the lower part of the bunk bed, which serves as the family sofa.

Ali, 30, lives with his daughters in one room with two bunk beds and a single bed. With the help of YMCA Homeless, they have made it homely and optimised every inch of space. One wardrobe doubles as a cupboard for foodstuffs, while the cool draught from underneath the balcony door keeps his carton of eggs fresh.

Ali had never heard of YMCA Homeless before November 24 - his abusive wife insisted he leave their home and "get her rid of the girls". In his car, with just a suitcase packed with clothes, he resorted to his friend for help and she suggested they go to YMCA's shelter, which immediately took them in.

Ali's story started in 1994 when his parents sent him to Malta from Libya to study, but the 17-year-old, relishing his newfound liberty, had other ideas and after a year decided he'd rather work.

Three years later he met Rita*, five years his senior, and they fell in love. He soon moved into her place and things were going well. His partner had a five-year-old son living in a children's home in Gozo, whom she used to visit everyday, but Ali felt it was not right, so he took him home to live with them.

Burdened with the responsibility to make ends meet, Ali worked hard. His girlfriend seemed happy whenever he handed her money, but her affection withered when this was not instantly forthcoming.

One day Rita suggested they should have a baby because she felt this would bring them closer and strengthen the relationship.

"I asked if she was prepared to take care of a child, and she assured me she was ready," he says, clutching his hands together as he recalls his naiveté.

In 2000, Rita gave birth to twins and eager to secure a family life for the newborns, they were married in a civil ceremony on December 7, 2001. The first months of their marriage were no honeymoon, however, as the couple coped with their new reality and struggled financially.

In between working shifts, Ali made an effort to help around the house, cooking and cleaning, but he sensed Rita was getting restless. Her demeanour, though never serene, became aggressive and each time he returned home he faced a volley of abuse and foul language.

"She became vindictive and impatient with the twins, complaining she never had time for herself, to go out. It's not the first time I returned home from work and found the girls in the same spot I left them in the morning, their nappies unchanged," he says, his brown eyes watering as he relived the pain his daughters endured.

When the girls turned three, Ali finally let his family in on his problems and his mother and sister decided to visit. Rita's attitude changed and she suggested that his mother take the twins to Libya for a few weeks so they could meet the rest of the family.

When they left, she kept quiet for three days, then without a word she disappeared. On the fifth day, Ali had to register his visa, but when he turned up at the police station, they said he was being accused of kidnapping the girls, beating his wife and kicking her out of the house. "Speechless, I burst into tears, because I had no idea what was happening," he says, suddenly pricking his ears when he hears a girl sobbing downstairs and excuses himself to see what was happening. Assured his girls were fine, he returns to continue the interview.

Ali was deported and returned to Libya to stay with his parents and daughters. However, although he failed to establish contact with his wife, he managed to return to Malta after four months and when he finally confronted her, she broke down and admitted she was four months' pregnant after meeting a foreigner who she insisted had raped her.

"She begged me to get together again and promised to change her ways. I wanted the girls to be brought up in a family and I knew they were receiving a good education in Malta, so I relented."

Ali recalls how she had asked him for money to abort the child, but he felt it was morally wrong and suggested they bring him up together. A few months later when he returned to get the girls from Libya, he discovered that Rita had given birth and sold her offspring for Lm900 (€2,096).

"I was in shock. How can a woman sell her own flesh and blood? We began to live together again, but her vindictiveness soon took over and I suggested that I sleep on the sofa and we lead separate lives, but under the same roof for the sake of the children," he says, in perfect Maltese.

Soon she was out dating, but after a while she began plotting to get him out so she could move in with her new boyfriend. So she trudged back to the police station and filed another report that Ali was beating her.

The police turned up at the door and ordered him to move out. In the midst of this confusion, Rita intervened and suggested he take the girls with him. Stunned that a mother would relinquish her children, the policeman kept asking her if she understood the ramifications.

"The policeman made her sign a document saying she was temporarily ceding custody of the girls. He read it out to her three times, but she signed it without a second thought," he says, producing the piece of paper to prove his point.

At that moment, the girls walk into the room, still in their Mickey Mouse pyjamas and fluffy slippers. Hearing their mother being mentioned, one of them chips in: "I just like mummy a little bit, but daddy I love a lot," and they both cuddle up to hug him.

Ending the year on a bad note, Ali is not disheartened and he looks forward to a new year that can only get better. YMCA Homeless helped to make their Christmas special and Father Christmas even showed up with gifts, which Ali cannot afford at the moment.

"I was too broke to buy the girls any presents, but I'm saving to one day buy them a Playstation 2, because they would love to have one," he says.

His one wish for the New Year is to have a roof over their head; their very own home which nobody could kick them out of, and to start afresh.

"We'll get there slowly. I won't give up. When the girls hug me and kiss me good night, they strengthen my resolve to go on."

To pledge year-round support to YMCA Homeless or for more information visit www.ymcahome or call 2122 8035. To make a donation of Lm2 (€4.66) send an SMS to 5061 8088, or for Lm5 (€11.65) send an SMS to 5061 9212.

* Names have been changed to protect the people's identity.

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