It was about eighteen months ago when it happened. Eighteen months ago when my friend went missing. It shook me. When somebody you know gets sucked into something so horrendous, something so terribly wrong, something so final, the world shifts; things are never quite the same. Like many of my friends, I have often wondered: what I could have done?
Integrate Bristol's latest media resource, Twin Track, is about two young girls who are groomed into parallel, but equally dangerous worlds. The film brought chills to my bones. The teen drama revolving around the lives of Chelsea and Halima highlights the similarities as both girls are targeted and groomed: Chelsea into the seedy world of drug and gang culture, and Halima into the dangers of radicalisation.
Having seen radicalisation and the influence of gang culture with my own eyes, I cannot emphasise enough how powerful the messages of this film are. And how necessary they are.
While Chelsea is being bullied by her peers, Halima is the one who defends her. Halima sees that Chelsea is spending more time with her 'roadman' of a cousin, Reece, who is her only support and who buys her loyalty by buying her gifts. But Reece is involved with a dangerous, drug dealing gang. Similarly, while Halima is being radicalised, Chelsea notices how she has begun to change; she no longer listens to music, she ignores her friends, is increasingly isolated.
While watching Twin Track, I was immediately thrown into Chelsea's shoes. I'm certain that she had no idea that Halima was planning to flee Syria to become a Jihadi Bride - neither did I, when the same thing happened to a friend of mine. Had I seen this film, had I known what I do now, had I realised that these were the some of the signs and behaviours to look out for, I would have spoken to a responsible adult without hesitation. Had Chelsea known, perhaps she too would have tried to talk to Halima, as I would.
Unfortunately, I was too late. We were all too late.
These hopeful future 'Jihadi Brides' were probably expecting to find a stronger connection to their faith, or perhaps they fell for the romantic image of a dangerous warlord who needs a woman by his side to keep up the struggle. The reality is very different. The reality is hate, control, manipulation and destruction. The reality couldn't be further from the real meaning and message of Islam.
Since watching the film, I have become increasingly involved with the youth led charity Integrate Bristol, an organisation best known for its innovative and creative approach to campaigning against FGM (Female-Genital Mutilation) and its feisty, outspoken teenage advocates, including Muna Hassan telling the Prime Minister to 'grow a pair' on Newsnight in 2012, and Fahma Mohamed launching the Guardian backed petition to Michael Gove in 2014.
As the 'fanny defence league', the young people travel up and down the country delivering peer education around FGM awareness and generally challenging all forms of gender based violence and abuse in a way that breaks down barriers and makes challenging topics easier to discuss. In the past year, they have reached over 5,000 people directly using their own resources.
Integrate Bristol's young advocates are poised to replicate their model of peer education using their new resources about grooming - including grooming for radicalisation. Everyone accepts that if a girl is groomed in this country, to be sexually abused in the UK, that they are victims of child sexual exploitation (CSE). But surely, if a girl is groomed to become a Jihadi bride, to be 'allocated' to a man and sometimes to be a second or third wife, that is also CSE?
People like me, a Muslim boy who felt FGM was not my concern, are slowly waking up to the fact that FGM is everybody's business. Grooming is also everybody's business. Radicalisation is also abuse, and it is everybody's business. And because it is everybody's business, it is our duty to fight it - and to protect vulnerable young people.
For further information or to book peer education around CSE, drug abuse, radicalisation or FGM awareness and Safeguarding training, visit integratebristol.org.uk