On a summer’s evening in 2008 a bereaved mother made a promise to her murdered son in the silence of her bedroom: she would dedicate her life to working for peace. Five and a half years later she and her husband would receive an MBE in recognition of that pledge.
“It came completely out of the blue,” Barry Mizen tells me over the telephone after this year’s Honours List was revealed. “We don’t know who put us forward. Anybody can nominate anybody.”
Barry and Margaret Mizen lost their son Jimmy a day after he turned 16 in unimaginably tragic circumstances. The Mizens lived in Lee Green, south-east London, and Jimmy attended St Thomas More Catholic Comprehensive School in Eltham. He served as an altar boy at Our Lady of Lourdes church in Burnt Ash Hill.
The day after Jimmy’s 16th birthday, after buying his first Lottery ticket, he and his older brother Harry were waiting in a local bakery when Jimmy stood up to another customer who barged past them.
The customer, a 19-year-old named Jake Fahri, was enraged and threw objects at him, including plastic bottles and an advertising board and then a glass dish which cut into Jimmy’s neck, severing his carotid artery. Fahri walked out as blood poured from Jimmy’s neck.
Harry ran to find their elder brother Tommy and they returned moments later. They discovered Jimmy hiding in the back of the bakery and Tommy cradled him as he bled to death. When Margaret arrived she fainted with shock when she realised what had happened to her second youngest child.
It seems miraculous then that mere hours later she found the strength to make such a fervent promise to Jimmy. How many of us could even contemplate the future and gather such strength hours after horrific heartbreak?
“For us, we thank God. We thank God,” Barry explains. “Margaret had such a sense on the day that Jimmy died that God was saying to her: ‘Margaret don’t worry, Jimmy’s safe with me.’ Our faith is what makes the difference. If we didn’t believe I’m sure we wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing. A lot of the times we speak and we say to each other: ‘Where did those words come from?’… Madeleine, it can only be God.”
There was nothing complicated about Jimmy, his father tells me. “He was pretty straightforward. What you saw is what you got. He was good-natured. He loved life. He’d be whistling. I had a great little relationship with him.
“I’m a shoe mender. I’ve got a shoe shop and Jimmy was my Saturday boy. We’d have a lovely time driving to work and we’d be whistling ‘The Sailor’s Horn Pipe’. We’d try and do that and then we’d just start giggling. I tell a lot of jokes in my family and they all say: ‘Dad we’ve heard this one before.’ But Jimmy would listen to the same joke over and over again and he’d laugh.”
Barry continued to explain in his gentle way how he coped in the days following Jimmy’s death. “Myself and Margaret do daily readings. We use the Magnificat, actually, each daily reading. You know sometimes you pick the Bible up or you listen to a reading or whatever it might be? It was jumping off the page everyday. This was God saying: ‘Barry, this is for you. This is for you.’ This was day after day after day.”
Barry recalls that local people would bring around food. “They would do the housework, anything that needed doing. Teabags: I’ve never had so many teabags in my life! It wasn’t just the parish community, it was the local community. The curry house brought round buckets of curry, the local restaurant great big cheesecakes. That’s the love we are all capable of showing each other, giving each other the opportunities to allow our love for each other to shine, our common humanity.”
Barry tells me of three particular visits among hundreds in the days following his son’s murder. “One was a former parish priest who came to see us. He’d moved away. He came to our house and he just stood and cried – and I wanted that. That was exactly what I wanted. No pious words. He just stood there and cried with me. Marvellous.
“We had a religious Sister, she was the headteacher at the school of one of our younger children. She came around to us. We had a large family and people used to judge us, but she always said: ‘The world will be a better place for another Mizen.’ But she came round to us and said: ‘Do you feel a little bit of joy in your heart?’ And there was a little glimmer of joy. She said: ‘That’s Jimmy. That’s God.’”
A Muslim man who lived and worked locally also visited the Mizens. “On the day Jimmy died he came to our front door. I opened the door and he’s standing there and I’m standing there. We didn’t say anything. We just hugged: two dads sharing their grief.”
How have Jimmy’s eight surviving brothers and sisters coped with their grief?
“Our MBEs are very much dedicated to them, as well as the thousands of people who have helped us and continue to help us, but for our children, for them especially. The attention is on mum and dad but they’ve had to cope with the horrific loss of their brother. And how are they coping? I’m aware that sometimes when I look at them that they haven’t slept the night before… One has witnessed his brother being killed in front of his eyes and another watched his brother as he bled to death. So again I don’t really know where they are individually. I think they’re all OK. They are really fired up to do stuff within the foundation.”
The Jimmy Mizen Foundation was established by the Mizen family as a vehicle for spreading peace in local communities. The Mizens visit prisons and schools, speaking to children about the importance of peace through Jimmy’s story, without “finger-wagging”. “Visits entail affirming young people, encouraging young people, changing them,” Barry says.
The Foundation also manages the Café of Good Hope which is run by the Mizen family and aims to create a community spirit in the local area and to provide work experience for young people. Jimmy’s older brother, Billy, is a trained patisserie chef who makes sandwiches and chocolates.
Throughout our conversation Barry insists that while facing the consequences for our actions is important, retribution is not the solution to violent crime. He tells me: “We don’t feel that this ever harsher punishment works as a deterrent. It doesn’t stop the young people doing what they’re doing. And bear in mind we meet them in prison. We hear their stories. They cry on our shoulder. We talk to young boys who have committed murder.”
But does it not help the Mizens with their grief that Jimmy’s killer was caught and punished for his crime? “Jimmy’s killer was given a minimum tariff of 14 years,” Barry says, “so he will serve at least 14 years and then he can apply for parole. He won’t just walk out at the end of it. He’s got to show some sort of change in behaviour. Does it help? I think it does. Would we be different if that hadn’t happened? I don’t know. I just don’t know that.” I ask Barry if the passage of time has dimmed the pain.
“This word ‘closure’: it’s quite a modern word. There isn’t closure. We have all had trauma in life and it changes us. It changes our perspective in whatever way. When you have a child born into a family you can’t remember what it was like without them. And when you lose a child it changes you again. Does it get easier? Now and again we’ll get caught out, something happens – I read something, I see something, I hear something – and suddenly it really hits you. But not as much as it did in the early days. The early days for me, the grief was a physical pain. I could feel a tightening in my stomach. It felt like it had been folded in half or bent in half, and folded up in a vice. It was a real physical pain. I got instant relief when I prayed the Hail Mary. But I don’t get a physical pain now or haven’t for quite some time. So obviously you do change.
“Jimmy’s in my thoughts. Every word I speak, every thought I have, every action I do, Jimmy is in there somewhere. What happened to Jimmy: that’s who we are now, doing the thing we do. Is it like picking at an old wound? I don’t think it is. For us to be able to talk about Jimmy it’s great. He was a fine, fine young lad…Yes, it changes. Yes, there is some healing in there, but it will always be part of my life.”
Talking to Barry challenges you to think again about what forgiveness even means. Perhaps it’s a term we use too flippantly.
“There are so many people that think they know what forgiveness is,” he says. “It comes up on telly: ‘A forgives B.’ ‘Oh, that’s nice. Let’s all go home.’ Everyone’s happy.
“What is forgiveness is a very good question and I don’t know if I know exactly what forgiveness is… I will say for me forgiveness isn’t about saying what you’ve done doesn’t matter. When people hurt us it matters to us… For me, forgiveness is I don’t want to do to Jimmy’s killer what he did to Jimmy. I don’t want to do to Jake what he did to Jimmy. And I thank God for that. I don’t want retribution. I don’t want revenge.”
Barry continues softly: “I do believe there’s a wind of change coming, the way we live our lives, the way we are with each other. Because in the end if I want to live in a more peaceful compassionate society then I have to be more peaceful and compassionate. Therein lies my peace as well.”
Follow this link to find out more about The Jimmy Mizen Foundation