'Serial' brings healing to Syed family

Serial's impact felt close to home within Adnan Syed's family #Serial

The home that had once been a lonely refuge for a family was buzzing with activity again this week.

Another reporter had just left down the concrete steps after interviewing Shamim Rahman about "Serial," the world's most popular podcast, which has put her son's once-dormant murder conviction on the minds of millions.

Inside her Windsor Mill house on Wednesday night, Rahman and her youngest son, Yusuf Syed, talked excitedly about their plans to watch "Serial" host Sarah Koenig, a former Baltimore Sun staff writer, talk about the case and trade quips with comedian and talk-show host Stephen Colbert in just a few hours on the "The Colbert Report." In her wildest dreams, Shamim Rahman said, she never thought "Serial" would attract as much international attention as it has, giving the family a sense of hope and comfort in a difficult situation.

"It kind of brought us back to life," Yusuf Syed said.

An offshoot of the nationally syndicated radio program "This American Life," "Serial" has spent the past 11 weeks exploring the conviction of Yusuf's older brother, Adnan Syed, a Woodlawn High School student, who was sentenced to life plus 30 years for strangling his ex-girlfriend and classmate, Hae Min Lee, 18, in January 1999. Baltimore prosecutors say Syed became jealous after Lee began dating someone else, and the state used cellphone records and the testimony of one of Adnan's acquaintances, who said he helped bury her body, to get a conviction despite the lack of eyewitnesses or physical evidence linking Adnan to the crime.

For 15 years, Syed Rahman, his wife, Shamim Rahman, and their youngest son, Yusuf Syed, had felt as if they were alone, grappling with the toll that comes from having a family member incarcerated for life. They said they felt socially isolated within their Pakistani Muslim community in Baltimore County and the focus of stares and whispers, real and imagined. The stigma of being related to a murderer was too much to bear, they said, and they became withdrawn.

Although Adnan and his family have maintained his innocence from the start, a conviction carries the stamp of guilt. Shamim said she felt society had no time to hear her concerns about the evidence that had been presented once the jury came back with a guilty verdict.

That all changed, she said, when Koenig started re-examining the case after a family friend brought it to her, pointing out a possible alibi that had been ignored, the shifting testimony of a key witness, a difficult-to-prove timeline and questions about the work of Adnan's defense attorney, who ultimately ended up disbarred.

"For 15 years we were in silence, and now the whole world can hear our voice," said Yusuf, 25. "It makes us feel like we're not alone. We're not crazy. We're not the only ones who think he's innocent."

People from as far away as the United Kingdom and Australia — where "Serial" has also been hugely popular — have also questioned Adnan's guilt on social media platforms like Reddit and Twitter.

"Before, it felt like it's just me, my husband and Yusuf," Shamim said. "Now it feels like the whole world."

The family says the podcast and the associated news coverage has been cathartic. Friends have greeted Syed Rahman at the local mosque in tears, saying they didn't realize the emotional burden the family carried all these years. Random people have reached out to Yusuf on Facebook with words of encouragement.

"Feels really good," Syed Rahman said. "Decreases the pain, all of the suffering."

The podcast has even opened the door for family reconciliation.

Tanveer Syed, the Rahmans' oldest son, became estranged from the family shortly after the trial, partly because of the stress and strain, Shamim Rahman said. But since "Serial" began airing, she said, he has visited the family almost every week, bringing his wife and three children. The elder son is now in the process of moving to Hagerstown from Philadelphia to be closer to them.

Yusuf said he saw a dream realized just last week when his mother, father, Tanveer and his family all sat together in the upstairs living room at a time when Adnan happened to call from his Western Maryland prison.

"In my dream, I always wanted my family to be here," Yusuf said. "We were all back together."

"Serial" has caught the attention of multiple Reddit groups, comedians who've made YouTube parodies, other podcasts and online magazines that recount each episode, as well as traditional news outlets such as CNN and the "Today" show. Not everyone is pleased with the attention.

A man claiming to be Hae Min Lee's brother surfaced on Reddit last month and expressed his disgust at the fervor many "Serial" fans seem to have.

"TO ME ITS REAL LIFE," wrote the man purporting to be Lee's younger brother, Young Lee. (Young Lee had declined to be interviewed for "Serial" and could not be reached by The Sun.) "To you listeners, its another murder mystery, crime drama, another episode of CSI. You weren't there to see your mom crying every night, having a [heart attack] when she got the [news] that the body was found, and going to court almost everyday for a year seeing your mom weeping, crying and fainting. You don't know what we went through. ... you guys are disgusting. Shame on you. I pray that you don't have to go through what we went through and have your story blasted to [5 million] listeners."

Yusuf Syed said he empathizes with the account, especially when he read just how Hae's mother had struggled with her death.

"I felt bad for him. He still lost his sister, and whatever happens, it won't bring his sister back," Yusuf said. "I think the sensationalization doesn't come from us or from Sarah [Koenig], it comes from the people like the Redditers, the people on Facebook. They're the ones treating it like its just a story."

The Sun made extensive efforts working with Koenig this summer to contact Hae's family over several weeks, but relatives could not be found.

Rabia Chaudry, the family friend and immigration attorney who first emailed Koenig the story idea for "Serial," said she understands the rabidness fans have shown waiting each week for a new episode to be released. But she doesn't understand the certainty many have shown that they know what really happened in 1999.

"I know there's entertainment value in it, and I know if I was not involved in this case I would understand that I would be trying to solve this case," she said. "What I don't understand is that with so many holes in the story, people are so confident of what occurred. That's what I'm weirded out by. Here you have lawyers and people who know the story, and [listeners] are saying 'Get out of the way because we know what's going on.' "

Chaudry has been inundated by requests from friends, reporters and strangers to talk about the case. A consultant who works with the public policy institute New America Foundation, Chaudry said she has received emails from colleagues at national security agencies that she thought pertained to subjects such as the Islamic State in Syria only to find out that they wanted to ask her about "Serial" like everyone else.

Chaudry has posted many of her thoughts about the case on Twitter and her blog, "Split the Moon," which she said has received more than 350,000 clicks since the podcasts began. She said she plans to work with other attorneys to start a fund to help Adnan with legal costs and possibly offer rewards for more information and tips in the case.

Adnan's appellate case remains active in Maryland court. The state attorney general's office has until mid-January to offer its opinion on whether Adnan received effective trial counsel.

The Rahmans say they are forever grateful to Chaudry for getting Adnan's case attention that they hope will spur the appeal forward or unearth other legal avenues that might help free him.

"Yes Rabia is the real hero for 15 years she has always been there for us and her family as well," Yusuf wrote in a Facebook post on Wednesday night. "It was like a hardship was being sent our way but Allah sent Rabia and her family to help us get through this hard time."

This month, the family plans to take a break to celebrate. Family members plan to travel to Pakistan, where Yusuf will be engaged to a young woman named Marwa. The marriage — still two or three years away — has been arranged by Yusuf and Marwa's families. The engagement ceremonies feature two days of events, including a feast the Rahmans have planned for 300 that will include catered shish kebabs, goat korma, rice, saag and cakes and halva for dessert.

"It's hard to handle all this happiness," Shamim said. "Sometimes I say, 'Yusuf, can you knock me on my head — I just can't believe it.' "

Shamim Rahman hasn't been back to Pakistan in more than a decade, and she said she has never told her family members there about Adnan's conviction. In the past, she said, she has made up excuses when they ask why he doesn't have a family.

But now, she said, she feels she can openly talk about Adnan's circumstances because "Serial" has allowed the family to share their belief that their son is innocent, as well as their reasons why.

On Thursday morning, the next-to-last episode of "Serial" was released. Yusuf said he planned to listen to it, as he does each Thursday, early in the morning in bed with earphones on. His mother planned to sit on the living room couch, as she typically does each Thursday, and listen to the episode on her cellphone before discussing it with a friend.

But while they — and millions of others — download the latest episode, at least two people will not.

Adnan's father, Syed Rahman, said he's listened to "just a little" of "Serial." "It's too much for me to take," he said.

Adnan Syed won't be listening, either. His family said he is not allowed to in prison.

jgeorge@baltsun.com

twitter.com/justingeorge

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