Hannah Bourazza is chief safeguarding officer at youth charity XLP and heads up their mentoring project. She tragically lost her son Nathaniel to knife crime six years ago. Hannah shared of some her story with editor Ruth Jackson.
Ruth Jackson: What’s your role at XLP?
Hannah Bourazza: I head up the mentoring project. We get referrals from schools, social services and police for kids who are on the fringes of society.
We train up volunteers and then match them with a young person, who they’ll work with for a year: someone they can talk to and share their life experiences with; someone who is committed to supporting that young person and sometimes touch base with the families as well.
One of the key things is to try to get the kids back into education or training if they’ve been excluded and they’ve not been engaged with it. Most important is to show them that whoever they are in life they can make something from their lives.
With the safeguarding part of my role I link in with social services and the police, and make sure that our staff are skilled and educated in how to work safely with, and support, young people.
RJ: Where does your passion for young people come from?
HB: I just love being around them and hearing what life is like for them. Being a mother constantly surrounded me with kids. My house was like a youth centre! Literally, every time I walked into the house there was another young person there; my kids were always very sociable. It started in church, because I was part of the youth leadership and worked with young kids, and then I transitioned on to the youth and just loved the energy.
RJ: You have three children. Tell me about your youngest…
HB: Nathaniel was very sociable from a young age. His passion was football, and he was always kicking a ball at home, in the house, in the garden, in the park. He was captain of his school team and got scouted for Charlton, then he ended up at Southend. Nathaniel was there for at least a year, and as he started to grow he got a lot more injuries. Once he hit 14 he had a growth spurt and it interfered with his ability to play because he was getting a lot of injuries. He spent a lot of time in physio, so it was recommended that he take some time out just to heal. I saw him really mourning for it because he loved it so much.
It’s really important to allow people to grieve properly
RJ: On 1st August 2012 something happened that dramatically changed your family’s life for ever…
HB: Yes. Nathaniel had just turned 16. He’d got a place at Dartford College and had really turned a corner in life. We prayed as a family for him, and about what life would look like beyond 16, and then a couple of days later he stayed over at his friend’s house.
I got a phone call in the early hours of the morning from my daughter who said that Nathaniel had been hurt and I needed to get there. A telephone call like that felt like time had stopped. I remember going to my drawer and pulling out my XLP T-shirt, which says “I refuse to believe this is a lost generation”, and I put that T-shirt on.
I saw the police tape, so straight away I knew that something horrific had happened. My daughter approached me and there were police officers everywhere. I saw her coming over with a couple of officers and she said: “No, leave it to me.” Then she informed me that Nathaniel had been stabbed and had died.
RJ: What was your initial reaction?
HB: Disbelief. After those words sank in I needed to see my son. There was loads of activity and the house was cordoned off. It was guarded by a police officer and they wouldn’t allow me in, even though I was adamant I was going in there to see my son. I remember saying to one of the police officers, who then became our liaison officer: “Have you seen Nathaniel? Are you sure?” And he said: “Yeah. It’s been confirmed.” So I said: “If you go in there and notice that he has a birthmark under the right side of his chin, then I’ll know it’s Nathaniel.” He went in, came back and confirmed that it was Nathaniel. It was like the world had ended.
RJ: How has Nathaniel’s death affected your family?
HB: Nathaniel was always the life and soul of the party. Every time the family was round he was always telling jokes. He was lively. He had so much energy. There’s definitely a deficit; there’s a hole. As much as we remember him and celebrate his life – what he means to us – it is just not the same.
A lot of our kids are walking with weapons because they’re fearful
RJ: How do you reconcile your faith with the tragic loss of your son?
HB: It’s a process that takes time. In the midst of everything I know that it’s God who is keeping my head above water, who’s given me the strength to do what I do. God is evident. I look around and I see him everywhere, and that’s helped me in terms of dealing with this tragedy and being able to move on, and to want to move on.
RJ: How do you go about forgiving the people who took Nathaniel’s life?
HB: I think one of the things for me, which I realised pretty quickly after Nathaniel died, was that these were young people who had a specific lifestyle and didn’t have the same network of friends and family around them that Nathaniel did. Looking at it from that perspective made me feel compassion. Yes, I was hurting, and I was angry. It didn’t take that away. But I didn’t want to carry the burden of unforgiveness, because I see it in many others where when you don’t let go you can’t move forward, and that becomes a huge burden that you carry through life.
RJ: Do you still refuse to believe this is a lost generation?
HB: Absolutely. I think God doesn’t give up on us and I can’t afford to give up. When I think about Nathaniel I think about the legacy he’s left. He’s got so many friends who are consistently around me and haven’t forgotten him.
Every year on his birthday, and on the anniversary of his death, they all meet up and celebrate Nathaniel, and they celebrate life. It touches my heart when I see them, and when I get the messages that they’re meeting at the graveside, which for them is a place of coming together. Some people might feel it’s a bit morbid, but for them it’s remembering; bringing the memories back and celebrating Nathaniel.
RJ: What advice would you give to those supporting people who are going through grief?
HB: I think it’s really important to ask them what support they need rather than coming in and offering unhelpful words or advice. Be there in the background. If someone needs a hug, then hug them. Give them the space to get angry, allow them to feel the feelings that are going to come up, and give them the time and space to be able to heal.
It’s about giving young people a sense of hope
RJ: What were some of the unhelpful phrases you encountered?
HB: That you’ll get over it. That God’s got it under control. That he’s going to turn your mourning and sorrows into joy. All of those clichéd words which, when you’re first in the midst of grief, are not helpful because all you can think about is pain and sorrow. You don’t want to think about laughter and joy, and that God’s in control and it’s going to work out for his good, because right there and then you can’t see that.
It’s really important to allow people to grieve properly.
RJ: Why do you think knife crime is on the rise?
HB: There are so many reasons. We have a youth culture now that is fearful. A lot of our kids are walking with weapons because they’re fearful of going from one area to another. Maybe, like Nathaniel’s friends, they’ve seen a friend stabbed and it’s becoming more normal. They’re normalising death and they’re normalising having to carry a weapon.
A lot of the time it’s a simple disagreement that just needs sitting down and talking through. The outcome could be completely different. It’s about giving young people a sense of hope that there are going to be jobs and a future for them, that they don’t have to become another statistic. It is giving them hope in education.
A lot of kids suffer because they get permanently excluded, then they feel like they might as well turn to a life of crime or try to navigate life for themselves without the support structures in place to enable them to work life through in a more positive and effective way.
RJ: How can we help?
HB: I think for churches, and definitely for those leading young people, it is about naming it. It’s like the elephant in the room. Let’s sit around the table and ask kids what their experiences are like. What’s going on in your community? How do you feel about knife crime? Getting them to unpack it and giving them a platform to talk about it is so important.
It’s looking at how we can help. Is it that we need to get some mentors in place to support the young people? We’ve found mentoring so effective - when you take a young person and sow into their lives. We’ve seen so many wonderful stories come from the kids who have been mentored.
Then look at organisations that are working in this field. How can we support them to do what they do well? We’re just one organisation and yet there are thousands of kids who need support. Each and every one of us has a role to play.
Finally, it’s about asking God. If you’re unsure, ask God: “What do you want me to do? How can I help? How can I be a person of integrity in all that’s happening around me and not bury my head in the sand?”
Premier has launched an initiative to encourage people to pray for our young people around issues like knife crime. Visit peaceonourstreets.org.uk for free resources and prayer pointers.