20 Jul Remembering ‘phenomenal’ Azra Kemal who ‘saw problems that needed to be solved’ | UK News
Azra Kemal, 24, died in the most horrific of circumstances. Late at night, fleeing a car that had burst into flames on the A21 in Kent, she was with a friend trying to get help when she made a terrible mistake.
As someone who has worked with Azra and became her friend, I know in those circumstances she would have been the one taking control and deciding how best to do things.
Apparently, she even tried to rescue her handbag from the car, so she wasn’t in a panic about the fire. But for some reason she thought she’d have a better chance of getting help, by moving to the other side of the carriageway.
She was on what’s known as the Medway Viaduct – which is a two-span bridge. She climbed over the barriers in the dark, thinking that there was a central reservation – but instead there was a 40ft drop.
Paramedics came to the scene, but couldn’t save her from the impact of the fall.
The accident happened just after 2.30am and she was pronounced dead 50 minutes later.
That’s enough about how she died. She lived an extraordinary albeit short life.
I first met Azra when she agreed to help me with a project for Sky News. I wanted to explore the phenomenon of county lines drug dealing.
I knew Azra’s mother Nevres, a social worker, through other stories I’d worked on in the past, and she often talked of her daughter: the student who’d been kicked out of Mill Hill High School, but went on to get straight As at A-level.
When I met her, Azra was training to be a lawyer at LSE – not bad for the girl who’d refused to go to her local pupil referral unit and, in part, been educated at home.
She was smart, sassy and she knew people on the street because, like her mother, it seemed to be her mission in life to help those less fortunate than herself in her community.
She agreed to help me because she wanted people to understand why kids fell into gangs and county lines drug dealing. “I’ll do it – but you gotta tell it right J,” she insisted.
Azra did the job so well that what was supposed to be a news piece became a mini-documentary and, in turn, I ended up writing a book on the subject, with Azra and Nevres top of the credits.
Over the course of several weeks, Azra persuaded drug dealers and drug couriers to be interviewed about the brutal business. We spoke to children who were being exploited as mules, and their gang masters who talked of sending children out with knives to do their dirty work.
She was phenomenal and what she helped create was an insight into a world the public never gets to see.
It was Azra who opened the door into that world with her empathy, charm and dogged persuasiveness. In a bar in Camden, a character who was at first incredibly suspicious of us was, within an hour, candidly introducing us to all his gang members and discussing dial-up stabbings and the turf wars of north London.
We met a teenage girl who smuggled drugs from London to Southampton and we travelled to Southend with a mother who ran drugs for her son. On arrival, Azra persuaded local kids to talk about the trade and why they didn’t feel safe without carrying a knife.
She was a rare thing. She genuinely wanted to help people. Where I saw the interview and the story – she saw a problem that needed to be solved.
Recently, we covered a harrowing story on Sky News that we called “the lost boy” about a 14-year-old kid who repeatedly ran away from an abusive household and became involved in gangs. Azra not only helped with the interview, she took him under her wing and tried to turn his life around.
She visited people in prison who she wanted to help rehabilitate. Earlier this year, she told me about a prison-based thriller she had started to write and asked for my advice.
I thought about how so many people started writing books, but never got them finished. So I’d told her a phrase I remembered from screenwriter William Goldman: “Write by the seat of your pants,” I said.
“What do you mean,” she’d asked.
“It means just get it down on the page, you can always rework it. But write as if you’re running out of time.”
That sticks now. But Azra lived as if she was running out of time. She described herself as “an old soul”. Her friends, many of them older than her, would go to her for help and advice.
Last night, talking to one of them, I asked how they’d met. She described how Azra had seen her in a bar in tears. An abusive boyfriend had kicked her out of the house. A few hours later Azra was kicking the abusive boyfriend out of the house.
Azra was feisty, but insecure. She was beautiful, but never found the perfect man. She wanted to right the world, but she also got into trouble. Last year another woman glassed her in the face, the scar it left bothered her, but she bounced back.
Her mother Nevres says the house is empty without her, even though a stream of people who loved Azra are constantly passing through the door bringing flowers and sharing memories. They come from all over London and from all walks of life and they feel her loss in so many different ways.
Nevres has not just lost her daughter but also her soulmate. “She was the air that I breathe,” she told me. The pair were inseparable and holidayed together whenever they could. For her mother the loss is immeasurable.
Azra was unique, irreplaceable, taken in a flash.