Award for Brent schoolgirl who rescued her best friend from Iraq

Harisa Bhatti, 17, won a Sir Jack Petchey award for her courageous efforts to bring her best friend

Harisa Bhatti, 17, won a Sir Jack Petchey award for her courageous efforts to bring her best friend home to the UK - Credit: Archant

A schoolgirl who won a battle for her best friend to return to the UK after she was taken abroad against her will has been given a prestigious charity award.

Harisa Bhatti was just 16 when her best friend, who cannot be named, was taken to Iraq against her wishes while they were studying for their GCSEs at Kingsbury High School in Princes Avenue.

Harisa wrote to her friend every day, but secretly feared she would never escape her ‘perilous situation’ in the war-stricken country, where she was denied an education and isolated from her friends in the UK.

Speaking exclusively to the Times, Harisa, who is now 18, said: “She just wanted to get back to normal civilisation and she was missing her friends.

“She was gone at least a year and I just wanted to be there to listen to her and tell her to be strong. She would keep a brave face but sometimes she would break down.”

But last week, after a courageous 18-month campaign which saw her lobby her teachers and the authorities to bring her friend home, Harisa was presented with a Jack Petchey Foundation Achievement award which recognises leadership and the contribution young people make in communities across London.

After collecting the award of a golden medallion and a £200 grant, which she has donated towards a collection of classic literature for her school library, Harisa said: “It was just such a relief when my friend came home. At one point we didn’t think she would come back at all.

“So this isn’t my victory, this is her own victory because she managed to survive everything.”

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After returning to the UK, Harisa’s friend moved to a different school to take her exams, but Harisa, whose experience inspired her to take A-levels in government and politics, sociology and law, remains a constant emotional support to her.

Anette Woodrow, a teacher at Kingsbury High School, said: “When you think about what true friendship is, I would highlight Harisa as a true example of this.”

Harisa said her friend’s situation is not “uncommon” and “happens all over the world” but said her message to any young person facing a similar situation is: “Nobody’s situation is permanent and as long as you stay strong and have faith you will overcome.”

Cllr Ruth Moher, Brent Council’s cabinet member for children and young people, said: “Where a serious risk comes to our attention from whatever source, we work very hard to quickly bring together colleagues in schools, social care and the police to consider the cases of any young person who it seems might be taken abroad for reasons such as forced marriage, extremism or female genital mutilation.

“We’ve been able to help in several such cases in recent years, though obviously it would be wrong for us to describe individual cases where this might lead to the young person being identified.

“If a young person is at risk - from whatever source, even if that’s occasionally their own family - we strongly encourage people to not keep silent, but to come forward and tell us about their concerns.”

Anyone concerned that they or a friend is at risk of a similar situation can anonymously contact Brent Council’s Family Front Door service on 0208 937 4300 or email

Click here to read about other award winners from Brent.