Meet the Zayed Award winner striving for peace after son died standing up to extremism

Latifa Ibn Ziaten vowed to campaign for tolerance and harmony after son was murdered in terrorist incident in 2012

Latifa Ibn Ziaten, a Moroccan-French activist, won the Zayed Award for Human Fraternity last year. Photo: Higher Committee for Human Fraternity

A tireless campaigner for peace says the death of her son in a terrorist attack in France a decade ago fuelled her desire to create a better world for others.

Moroccan-French activist Latifa Ibn Ziaten, 62, has dedicated her life to helping young people turn away from extremism to honour her son, Imad, who died while bravely standing firm in the face of violence.

Imad Ibn Ziaten was the first of seven murdered by Toulouse terrorist Mohamed Merah in March 2012.

The army paratrooper, 30, was shot at close range after refusing to follow demands to lie down and imploring his killer to put his gun down.

Merah, 23, born in France to Algerian parents, had claimed to belong to Al Qaeda in exchanges with officers trying to persuade him to surrender.

Merah was later killed in a police siege.

Rocked by her son's death, Ms Ziaten went to the social housing units where Merah grew up in search of answers.

What she found disturbed her, but ultimately set her on the humanitarian path she walks every day.

Overcoming hate with love

Latifa Ibn Ziaten shows a photograph of her son, killed by Mohamed Merah, to France's then-president Francois Hollande.

She was told by a group of teenagers the man who took her son's life was deemed a hero.

“Don’t you watch TV, madame?,” she recalls them telling her. "He’s a hero, a martyr for Islam.”

She decided to fight back – not with anger or hate, but compassion and love.

“When a young person falls into this trap it is because they are suffering," she told The National.

"Suffering starts at a young age – maybe in school or at home – maybe they were never held or loved and that is when they turn towards hatred.”

Ms Ziaten established the Imad Association for Youth and Peace just a month after her son's death, using it as a vehicle to promote tolerance, harmony and dialogue.

Since then she has worked with young people, migrants, prisoners and communities in France and abroad to stop them from being radicalised and to reintroduce them into society.

Her dedication to the cause was recognised in the UAE last year, when she was awarded the Zayed Award for Human Fraternity.

She used the $1m prize to further invest in her work.

Mother's quest a poignant tribute to son

Ms Ziaten hopes her association is a fitting tribute to her son and the values he stood for.

“Imad gives me the courage to continue,” she said with tears in her eyes.

“I hope he is proud of me because of everything I do. All the help I bring to the young today is to see him growing in their eyes.

"He died while on his feet so I need to see the youth on their feet. Everything I do, I see Imad growing through the association and I hope he is proud of me.”

The determined mother is seeking to deliver a ray of hope for society after being submerged into darkness by grief.

“If I didn't see positive results, I wouldn’t have continued,” she said.

“In France, there is more hatred. There is a lot of fracture within the youth and politicians are not helping."

She said bringing happiness to others touches her heart and brings her to tears.

“It calms my pain because pain cannot be healed easily.”

She said receiving the award has been an important moment in her quest.

The awards are announced each February on the International Day for Human Fraternity and celebrate those making a profound contribution to improving lives.

They were established in February 2019 to mark a historic meeting in Abu Dhabi between the head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, and the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, Ahmed Al Tayeb.

“The Zayed Award helped me a lot in order to continue my journey,” she said.

“It was very important to move forward towards the goals I was working towards. I was able to help the migrants and to donate a certain amount and my word is reaching more people.”

“I don’t have financial problems thanks to the Zayed award. It helped me work with youth and even with adults.

“It touched me that I could help people during the pandemic. I was able to do something for humanity. I was able to help a lot of students who had nothing – because of this prize, I was able to help them,” she said.

Ms Ziaten spreads her uplifting message on the streets where young people congregate, in their homes and even gyms as they work out.

“You need to go to them and talk to them from your heart. A young person today needs love and some kind of trust and he needs to know that you are thinking about him,” she said.

“He needs a role model to take him out of this. Especially here in France, we have a lot of problems but I have a lot of courage and I want to continue. I don’t want any young person to fall to extremism.”

Ms Zaiten knows she cannot afford to ease up in her mission to protect future generations from hate-filled ideologies.

“I don’t have even a single day for myself. I dedicated my life to the youth. When I leave the house in the morning, I don’t know when I come back. I know that many of the people I visit may sometimes end up in jail and I am afraid for them and that is why my work cannot stop,” she said.

“Young people want to talk. They are asking for our love and want our help. They need to hear this message of love and that they are the future and this is what I am here for – to give them strength and empower them."

Always in her thoughts and her heart is her son. Her loss has brought great sorrow but also filled her with the strength and resolve to go on for the sake of others.

To Imad, she said: “I love you. I would like to take you in my arms and to see you.

"The love of a son is very hard to forget. He is in my heart and because of him that I am continuing. Imad is my love, he is everything to me. He is an extraordinary son. A son who was happy and we shared so much.

"He was more than a son – a confident, a friend, a brother, my right hand who is not there anymore but the strength within me is still there.

"He is with me everywhere, he gives me the courage to continue till today."

Updated: January 29, 2022, 12:31 PM
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