Harris Bokhari OBE
*as prepared for delivery*
To make a genuine difference in the world, each of us goes on a journey. It is the journey we take and the paths we decide to follow that impact the people we meet. I want to share with you a small part of my journey. But before I start, I want to ask everyone here to please put up your hands if you have never made a mistake in your life.
Ok apart from my mum who is excluded because she is prefect – most of us know that we have made mistakes in our lives!
I learnt many things from my late father in his lifetime but I learnt more after this death about how to implement that knowledge. In the last year of his life, many of you will be aware I had the honour to nurse him, I saw a strong and intelligent man deteriorate over a tough 12 month period and that affected me a great deal.
I remember near the end of his life, people from across the world came to visit him in hospital, from all faiths, and none, different ethnicities, cultures, sexual orientation and ages. I was amazed by the breadth of friendships he had. It was only after he passed away that I reflected on one of the things he said to me which now defines who I am.
He said ‘look at the close friends around you and ask yourself do they represent the world we live in today’. I didn’t quite understand him at the time, but lets just in my younger days if I invited friends to dinner, they would all be male, Asian, Muslim and heterosexual. For some years I didn’t think much about my friendship circles: our religious beliefs, worldviews and to honest our prejudices were overwhelmingly similar. In those circumstances, it’s easy for prejudice to flourish and for ignorance to go unchallenged.
When I look back, I regret some of the views I had in my earlier life about people different to me. Seeing that and consciously changing who I was, is part of my personal journey to becoming a better person. It is not an excuse, it fuels my passion to bring people together so they do not repeat the same mistakes I made and to pass on the legacy of my late father.
I want to share two stories with you. Until recently I had never visited a temple. I had no friends from the Hindu faith. I was never taught to dislike Hindus but in my bubble of friends it almost became a form of unconscious bias based on not knowing the other. But through my work with HRH I developed a close relationship with one of the most gifted people I call my friend, who just happened to be a Hindu. To be push myself to challenge the prejudices I once had, I asked him to take me to his Temple. I have to admit it was out of my comfort zone, but going there was one of the most enriching experiences of my life.
It opened my mind to the fact that sometimes each of us in this room has to challenge our prejudices. The easiest way to do this is to check if our friends, look the same, sound the same, and hold the same views. If we really want to make the world a better place we have to start with ourselves and challenge our unconscious prejudices and I am afraid our conscious prejudices as well.
The second is about never giving up. My father was very close to Dr Rowie Shaw, she was the joint deputy head with my late father and later on became one of the first Jewish female headteacher in the UK. Now Dr Rowie and I had some of the most opposing views on the situation in the middle east, and growing up when ever she saw me on television or read something I said in the paper – she was the first person to call me. She would tell me I made some fantastic points but that I was completely wrong in everything I said. She never gave up on me, she never wrote me off and in fact after my father passed away I can’t think of anyone who has done more to support and encourage me more and the foundation than Dr Shaw. It showed me that you don’t have to agree with everything a person says to consider them be a good friend – in fact it is better you surround yourself with people who challenge your thoughts and yours ideas. I have admit while Aunty Rowie hasn’t changed her views on these matters she has brought my views closer to her and I proud to announce she has agreed to become the new chair for the Foundation and I know dad would be very happy about this.
The reasons I am sharing these stories with you is because I have shared them with the people I have mentored, it is not about me, we can’t right off young people for their mistakes, none of us may want to do this, some of us may do unconsciously. So here is my wake my call to you all. The young people we support through the foundation face many challenges and some have even planned to commit suicide, for the mistakes they have made. We teach them they need to first forgive themselves, we all make mistakes, and we shouldn’t write them off for a tweet they might have sent, or let a statement made in anger to define them forever. We need to have the courage to share with them our own mistakes and how we dealt with them to ensure we become better people. More importantly, it shows them that if we can do it, can they can do it.
One of mentee sent us this message for us to read out tonight – they said:
‘I lacked self-belief and confidence. In all honesty, I didn’t see a bright future for myself. The Foundation, has completely changed my life. In truth, it has changed my whole family’s life – I now have the believe and self confidence to make a change and I know I can shape my own future.’
The foundation has made a difference to so many thousands of young people, raising their aspirations, and helping to learn from their mistakes. We bring young people together all faiths and none – not just Muslim, Christians and Jews – and we have worked with young people from minority faith communities or sects within the major faiths who face some of our greatest prejudices and some who are marginalised – including Ahmediya, Zoroastrians and Jain youth. Bringing young people from all backgrounds together to help them to break down their own prejudices and show them they have more in common.
In conclusion, most of all, I have learnt the most from the Foundation, every day I learn from the young people who teach me and open my mind. I have been on a journey for which I am grateful. Now when I look at this room, it is filled with people from all backgrounds, all faiths and none, all ethnicities, sexual orientations and ages. So I know if I can learn from my mistakes any one can, I am honored to call you my friends.