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Mother’s quest for good out of evil

10 May 2013

Today, Jimmy Mizen will be remembered in St George's RC Cathedral, Southwark, five years after his murder. Christine Miles talks to Margaret Mizen

Jimmy remembered: Jimmy in his school uniform, the picture that Barry Mizen grabbed for a journalist on the day Jimmy died, which became the image of Jimmy which most news outlets ran

Jimmy remembered: Jimmy in his school uniform, the picture that Barry Mizen grabbed for a journalist on the day Jimmy died, which became the im...

"IT'S the one thing we all dread more than anything in life - something happening to our children. We don't think of murder, we think of a child dying through illness, though car accidents, that kind of thing.

"If you had said to me on 9 May: 'If something is going to happen to your children, or one of your children, how would you react?' I would probably have said: 'If anyone touched any of my children, I would want to kill them.'"

On 10 May 2008, that sentiment was put to the test when two of Margaret and Barry Mizen's nine children -Jimmy, aged 16, and Harry, 18 - were waiting to be served at the Three Cooks Bakery, in Lee, south London. While they were queuing, a 19-year-old youth, Jake Fahri, entered, and an argument started.

The boys pushed him out of the shop, and police were called. But the situation intensified: Jake grabbed a heavy advertising sign, and smashed through the bakery's doors. He charged at Jimmy with the sign's concrete base, and, as he passed the serving counter, he hurled a Pyrex food dish at Jimmy.

The dish hit with such force that it shattered as it hit Jimmy's chin. Glass shards severed his carotid artery and jugular vein - they were even found in his spine. Jimmy died, hiding in a cupboard, where he had retreated to to try to escape Jake, in his brother's arms.

THE next day, when pressed by reporters outside Our Lady of Lourdes RC Church, where Jimmy was baptised, and served as an altar boy, Mrs Mizen spoke of her happy memories of her son, and, as a mother, sympathised with the family of the killer. Her response hit the headlines.

"The words came out. I hadn't prepared anything to say, because I didn't know I had to. God moves us in mysterious ways," Mrs Mizen says in Jimmy: A legacy of peace, published last month by Lion.

"How did we cope? I can only say that if I hadn't had God in my life, I wouldn't have coped. Prayer got us through. My husband and I used to cling to each other, and pray. . .That got us through it, and the passion to keep Jimmy's name alive."

On the evening of the day when Jimmy was killed, Mrs Mizen went to the quiet of her bedroom to try to make sense of it all. In her room, she sensed a clear word from God that Jimmy was safe in heaven, and not to worry.

"I would never have wanted him to have died in that way; he was undoubtedly scared. I saw him in the mortuary, and I can assure you he had a scared look on his face, and I'm sad that's how it had to happen, but I can't change it."

She believes that God has helped her. "People have pointed their finger at me: 'You don't feel angry now, but you will.' And I still don't. I believe that's with God's good grace."

She acknowledges that others in the family have struggled, however. "At the funeral, when we carried Jimmy's coffin out of the house, [Danny, Jimmy's brother] ran back and smashed his fist against the wall.

"So, yes, there's been anger, but I haven't seen a lot. I believe the difference is in how Barry and I are. I know from meeting other families, when you see how angry they are, it makes everyone around them angry. I do not want to be like that."

For Mrs Mizen, part of being able to feel at peace about Jimmy is that nothing was left unsaid. "Jimmy had a happy life; he adored his family. I've got seven sons, and two daughters. I told him I loved him; I told him I loved him the night before he died; there is nothing I would have changed.

"He was the kind of boy that everyone loved, his school, his friends, his friends' parents - they all trusted Jimmy, and there is nothing I would have changed - perhaps kept him at home two minutes more that morning, and perhaps he would have been safe; but that's the ifs, buts, and maybes of life."

As a mother, she has drawn consolation from the experience of Mary. "You visualise Mary at the foot of the cross when her son was dying. For me, I know that pain, and I do know that pain because I saw my Jimmy lying in a cupboard in a pool of blood. He wasn't dead at that moment. So I know that point of your son dying, and there's nothing you can do.

"Two weeks before Jimmy was killed, I was in Lourdes; it was my first time abroad. I believe that some of my time spent there was enabling me to cope. At times, I've fallen on my knees, and I've felt Mary's arms around me, as a mother."

She also believes that it was God's plan for Jimmy that he die that day. "For me, Jimmy was not meant to be here more than 16 years and one day." Other family members struggle with that view, Mrs Mizen admits in the book. But by "sticking together as a family" they have been able to process different emotions and beliefs.

"If one of the boys is down, all the family will come round and support them; we can automatically tell if one is feeling low. It's not so widespread now as it was in the beginning, obviously. . . But what we did to start with, after Jimmy was killed: we spent a lot of time round our kitchen table laughing about Jimmy, and crying about Jimmy, and saying this isn't real, but we'd be sharing memories as well. I think it made a lot of difference.

"Because we're not holding on to anger, I believe it's helped my children. We are close, and it's made the difference; and Jimmy's Foundation has made a big difference as well."

IF THE peace that has come to Mrs Mizen stems from that time alone in her bedroom the day when Jimmy was killed, so, too, has the work of the Jimmy Mizen Foundation. "My promise to him at that moment was that I would not let his name be forgotten, because he was a fine young man."

The Jimmy Mizen Foundation was set up three months after the conclusion of Jake's trial, in June 2009. For the Foundation's "Awareness Project", Mr and Mrs Mizen go into schools and pupil referral units to share their story, and to challenge listeners to do an action for peace.

Mrs Mizen estimates that they speak to between 20-30,000 young people a year, with some incredible results. She mentions a boy expelled from a pupil referral unit, who was allowed back to hear their talk. "He's turned his life around," she says.

Mrs Mizen also goes into schools as part of Release the Peace, launched last year with Grace Idowu, whose son David was stabbed in July 2008.

"Some see us as a black mum and a white mum; we just see ourselves as mums. Grace feels very much like me, not wanting retribution for what happened to her son. She is a Christian, an Anglican. David's story is very sad. He was stabbed, and he lived for 20 days. They had to amputate his legs to try and keep him alive, but sadly he still died. We share that, but also the hope that comes from that."

Young people who do an action for peace through their school are invited to an annual concert, run by the Foundation, as a reward. They also get to meet the Peace Car, which has been signed by celebrities who endorse the Mizens' message of peace, including Boris Johnson and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. They also want to establish peace ambassadors in each borough.

"It's trying to get young people's mindsets so that they don't want to be on street corners causing trouble, but they'd rather be doing something. So they get a little reward. . . It's also telling our young people that they have a voice. If we want to bring change, my voice is one voice, but their voices are many and can help bring the change in society that we need."

The Mizens are also founding members of Families United, through which families of teenagers who have also been killed campaign together.

The Foundation also supports the Café of Good Hope, in Hither Green, Lewisham, which opened in December 2010. "It fulfils a big part of the aims of the Foundation. We wanted to help young people at first by me and Barry talking, but now it's hands on: we take them on work experience, apprenticeships; we help them gain NVQs, and we employ young people under the age of 24."

A second café is at OneSpace, a community centre run by churches in Kidbrooke, Greenwich. The aim, Mrs Mizen says, is to "get more cafés, take on more young people, and train as many young people as possible."

Her son Tommy designed the café in Hither Green; her son Billy runs it; and her eldest daughter Joanne sometimes works in it. "I'm really proud of my boys, and how much they've achieved, because the café was their idea," she says.

There have also been Jimmy Buses - minibuses for youth and community groups in Lewisham - and the campaign City Safe, through which the Mizens have helped to secure venues throughout the capital which are designated safe places for young people, if they feel threatened or intimidated.

The Awareness Project has also facilitated visits to prisons; and Mr and Mrs Mizen have visited prisons as part of the charity the Sycamore Tree, and the Forgiveness Project.

As part of the Foundation's work, they are almost ready to launch a new project, where they can offer return visits to prisons and Young Offender Institutions. "We feel it's not enough now just to go: we want to set up another project where we go back and see how they've got on after we've been in, because we leave them fired up, we leave them cuddling us, crying with us, and sorry for what they've done. . . We are nearly there with that."

IN MARCH 2009, Jake Fahri was given a life sentence, with a minimum of 14 years, for killing Jimmy. "Had we not got justice," she says, "I like to think that God would have worked enough in my life to have helped me cope."

Is letting go of anger different from forgiveness? "My understanding of forgiveness, for one thing, doesn't mean that it doesn't matter. What happened to Jimmy does matter. But - as Desmond Tutu said, I think - 'Forgiveness is the best form of self-worth.' It's about being selfish in a way: I forgive because it helps me. I let go of the anger because it helps me."

Would she like to meet Jake one day? "Because I know the pain that my children have been through, it would be a family decision if I ever meet Jake; if I could ever meet Jake," she says.

"What I would like to say to Jake is: 'What made you into the angry young man?' Jake lived 500 metres from us; his mum and dad have their own house; dad's got his own business; mum's a school secretary; there was a 14-year-old sister; she's probably 18 now. So, from nursery, primary, excluded at secondary, rape allegation from a 13-year-old girl - he has a history of so much, and I can't see why. I'd love to find out why, but I doubt I ever will.

"His family still live 500 metres away, but I never see them; they live in another road. After Jimmy died, I used to drive past their house every day, not to do anything, but to kind of follow Jake's last footsteps. . . I did it for a couple of years. I couldn't make sense of it; so I had to let it go."

She feels that there is not enough support for families early on. And she says: "If we have to do more and more for young people who are in gangs, because the gangs are their family, then we need to be doing more."

 ot surprisingly, therefore, "It just gets busier and busier; so I don't have time really to think about future plans."

Nevertheless, there is another continuing legacy: shattered by the loss of Jimmy, many of the Mizens lost jobs and businesses after his death. Danny stepped in to support the family, by taking over his father's former business. But Tommy, for instance, went bankrupt. Mrs Mizen is hoping that sales of the new book will help.

The family carries on, united to remember Jimmy. Along with the memorial service commemorating the fifth anniversary of Jimmy's death, and what would have been Jimmy's 21st birthday, yesterday, the event "Jimmy 21" is to take place - 21 days of fun and community-building events, from tomorrow until 31 May.

ON ANOTHER aspect of the legacy of Jimmy's murder, one journalist wrote that the reason why the Mizens caught the attention of the media, in 2008, was that their story woke up Middle England to the reality that it is not just young people in gangs who get killed in teen violence; all children are at risk.

"Every time a young person loses their life, it's a young person who was part of God's family, and we do need to stand together. I do think our churches are a little bit too cushy. We need to . . . actually walk the talk and get out there and do something."

If the Church struggles to respond in relevant ways, she says, they should "call in people who can help. I'm here for one; Grace is there for another. I can name lots of other people. It's not so much we've got the answers, but that we won't give up."

She misses the fact that she is no longer "just a mother". "I didn't ask to be given a platform, but I'm very grateful for it. Take me back to 10 May 2008, and I absolutely don't want it; but I have it, and I will use it for the common good.

"My plans go off the radar: I want peace everywhere."

Jimmy: A legacy of peace by Margaret Mizen with Justin Butcher is published by Lion at £8.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.10).


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