93-year-old Renee Black felt her legs give way and her companion Sadiq Patel, 46, quickly unfolded a portable chair and helped her sit down. They wanted to quietly pay their respected to the 22 innocent deaths by suicide bomber Salman Abedi.
Renee’s face furrowed as she wept for the children, teens and parents killed or injured in the blast as they left an Ariana Grande concert at Manchester Arena on Monday night.
One in particular broke her heart: eight-year-old Saffie Roussos, who was the youngest of the victims. Renee turned to Sadiq, crying: ‘I’m 93. I’ve lived my whole life and that girl has had no life whatsoever.’ Sadiq knelt by Renee’s side and gently placed a comforting hand on her arm, before covering his face with both hands as he, too, broke down in tears.
Before leaving the Albert Square two hours later, these two friends were being held as the unwitting symbol of hope and unity as moving images of them comforting each other went global.
‘When I look at Sadiq, I don’t see a Muslim and when he looks at me he doesn’t see a Jew. He is one of my dearest and most caring friends. I don’t know what I’d do without him,’ says Renee.
‘When we were walking through Albert Square I kept asking Sadiq: ‘Why is everyone looking at us?’ I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about us being there together. All I could think about was that poor little eight-year-old girl. God’s been good to me. I am at the edge of life now, while hers should have been spread out before her.
‘I was rather upset and Sadiq tried to pacify me. I said a little prayer for Saffie and Sadiq said ‘Amen’. We both wanted to pay our respects. There are no differences between us.’ And when Sadiq takes up the story, you realise Renee is absolutely right. There isn’t. His grief and shock is raw and palpable: ‘When I heard the news about the atrocity on Monday night, I turned on the TV and I was so devastated I couldn’t sleep, thinking: ‘How could anyone do this?’ ‘ he says.
‘I have two daughters. They are 14 and 18. I’ve dropped them off at public places and picked them up later and I felt such grief for those parents whose children will never come home again.
‘It was heart-wrenching, my stomach just churned and churned. It was beyond my comprehension. The Koran does not teach this. These terrorists may claim to be acting in the name of Islam, but it is not the Islam I know. Islam means peace.
‘The next morning I heard 19 people were dead, then 21, then 22. It was appalling to think someone had deliberately targeted young people at a pop concert.’
‘We almost didn’t make it and nearly gave up. We were driving left, right and left again, but we turned a corner and the town hall was in front of us,’ says Sadiq.
‘I squeezed the car onto the pavement between two BBC vans, hoping we wouldn’t get a ticket, while we spent ten minutes laying our flowers and saying a prayer.
‘As a Muslim, I felt quite nervous about going to Albert Square. You are never sure how people might react to you, because these radicalised terrorists have tarnished the Islam faith.
‘I was worried we might attract attention, but I was surprised by how much. The atmosphere was so sombre and quiet and we both felt very emotional. Renee was really upset thinking about the poor children who died.’
‘For both us it felt incomprehensible that someone could take all those innocent lives in the name of faith. It’s certainly not a faith either of us recognizes.’
Their display of interfaith harmony, tolerance, compassion and defiant celebration of what unites people rather than divides them, quickly went viral, travelling the world via international news networks.
Both Sadiq and Renee have seen the social mix of their home town shift immeasurably over the years. ‘When I moved into this district, I was one of the few Asian people, now Renee is one of the only white people left, but we have so many similarities in life within all faiths,’ says Sadiq.
‘It’s unusual for a Muslim man in a robe with a hat and beard and a Jewish lady to be friends, but let’s celebrate what we have in common with a vengeance. We all share the same things births, marriage and deaths, so let’s reflect and tolerate each other’s differences.’
Sadiq was the only Muslim at the funeral of Renee’s Jewish partner Harry when he died three years ago and, likewise, Renee was the only white woman at the funeral of Sadiq’s mother Amina last year.
She remembers: ‘There were hundreds of men there. I was the only woman and the only white person, but everyone made me feel welcome and spoke to me.’
Sadiq, meanwhile, says he was ‘humbled’ by the fact Renee broke the Sabbath (Saturdays are traditionally days of rest and religious contemplation) to attend his mother’s funeral. ‘That was iconic for me,’ says Sadiq. ‘Renee has never broken the Sabbath for one day in her life.
‘I love Blackburn. There is nowhere I’d rather live. I have brought up my daughters to integrate into British society, just as I have. As Muslims, I ask them to dress modestly and respectfully, but it is up to them if they choose to wear the scarf or listen to pop music.
‘Would I have let them go to the Ariana Grande concert? If they had wanted to, yes. I, too, could have been among those grieving parents and I share their grief.
‘I don’t know what turns a young Muslim into a radicalised extremist or a terrorist. It is something I cannot comprehend and every time they commit an atrocity I think: ‘No, no, not again.’ It is not the Islam I know and each time I work harder for harmony, going out building connections between churches and mosques.
‘After Monday’s bombing, I just had to pay my respects to those innocent victims as a Muslim and as a fellow human being. With our flowers, I left a handwritten card which read: ‘Words can’t describe what happened or how we are feeling. But one thing is for sure, we are in this together. We feel the same grief as you do.’
‘Last Wednesday as we walked through Albert Square, we may have looked a bit different, but as Renee said to me, wondering why everyone was staring at us: ‘We are just a man and woman walking to the town hall.’
‘We never expected those pictures to go round the world, but I really do hope people will look at them and see that two people from different faiths can come together in harmony and stand united.
‘Ours is just one example of the thousands of friendships and acts of kindness we don’t see.’