'A beacon of hope': tributes pour in for murdered teenager Aya Hachem

By Josh Halliday

Five years after her family fled violence in Lebanon, a 14-year-old Aya Hachem sat with her parents at a charity event to help traumatised refugees settle into life in Lancashire.

Hachem was not one to simply settle. She thrust herself into British life. She learned English, excelled at school, and became one of the Children’s Society’s youngest ever trustees aged 16. She seemed destined to fulfil her ambition to become an international lawyer.

Aya Hachem
Aya Hachem. Photograph: Lancashire Police/PA

Her dreams were cut horrifically short on Sunday afternoon. Hachem, 19, was fatally shot from a passing car as she bought groceries near her home in Blackburn. She was not the intended victim of the attack, police said.

As detectives arrested three more people on Wednesday, taking the total in custody to nine, those who knew Hachem expressed their horror at her murder. “This is a family who came to this country looking for a better life and this is what’s happened,” said Mark Russell, chief executive of Children’s Society, where Hachem had been a youth trustee since 2017. “I’m just devastated.”

A growing pile of floral tributes were left at the scene on King Street on Wednesday, where a police cordon remained in place. One line of inquiry being investigated by police is that Hachem was the unintended victim of a botched drive-by shooting relating to a feud between two local groups.

Hachem was the oldest of four siblings in a family who arrived in Britain from Lebanon around 10 years ago. A family friend said her father, Ismael, was shot in crossfire and moved his family to England following conflict in the country. He is said to have received his British citizenship last year.

“It’s so sad, as she came here with big hopes and dreams and then is killed in such a horrific way. We hope they get justice for her,” said Jade Akoum, 29, the sister of 17-year-old Yousef Makki, who was fatally stabbed in Cheshire last March. Her husband is friendly with Hachem’s parents.

Those who worked with Hachem said she spoke little about her family’s experience in fleeing Lebanon. But it seems clear that it motivated her: she was in her second year of a law degree at the University of Salford and vice-president of its law society. Her ambition, said Russell, was to work in international law.

“She was a remarkable young woman, a beacon of hope,” he told the Guardian, after holding a virtual minute’s silence with the charity’s leadership team.

BLACKBURN, 20 May 2020 - The scene in Blackburn where Aya Hachem, a 19 year old law student, was shot and killed last Sunday. Christopher Thomond for The Guardian.
The scene in Blackburn where Aya Hachem was shot and killed. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

“She spoke with such eloquence and such commitment and energy and experience and wasn’t afraid to say hard things and say things as they were, but with immense grace. She’s incredibly bright, energetic, passionate. She was a real advocate for other young people.”

The scene of her murder is just 500 yards from the office where Hachem completed work experience at a local law firm while completing her A-levels in 2017.

Shabaz Ahmed, head of AA Law, said he assumed the then-16-year-old had “been in Britain all her life” as she spoke very good English and got involved in complex legal work. “She wasn’t just making cups of tea,” he said. “She was very, very good, very likeable – and she sent us cakes and a thank-you card.”

Her university tutor, Paolo Sandro, recalled how he had given his students a complex assignment on 31 October last year, not realising it was Halloween. The next morning, he said, Hachem was the only student to show up. She brought with her three pages of written notes after staying up late to grapple with the work.

‘I was so much looking forward to witness the good she would have gone on to do in her life,’ said former tutor Paolo Sandro.
‘I was so much looking forward to witness the good she would have gone on to do in her life,’ said former tutor Paolo Sandro. Photograph: Lancashire Police/PA

“I will never forget her smile when she realised she had now fully understood [the work],” he said. “I was so much looking forward to witness the good she would have gone on to do in her life. It is devastating to think that we won’t see Aya once we are allowed to safely resume face-to-face university life. She was truly a remarkable young woman, and a pleasure to work with for all of us.”

Six men have been arrested on suspicion of her murder, while two women, aged 19 and 26, and another man are being questioned on suspicion of assisting an offender. All remain in police custody. Detectives have been given until Thursday afternoon to question the first three suspects, who were arrested on Monday.