‘She had no fear’: friends and family to tread last walk of Zara Aleena

Walking was something Zara Aleena did reflexively. She had a car but would tramp the two miles between her mother’s and grandmother’s homes in east London most days, with little sense of danger.

Whatever the hour, her blue Peugeot was almost always left in its spot on her grandmother’s driveway. With trainers on and her party shoes stashed in her bag, she enjoyed the freedom of her own two feet.

In the early hours of Sunday morning, a friend tried to get her into an Uber but she was insistent: walking was what she liked best.

Until that night, there had been few signs that her fearlessness was misplaced. But shortly after 2am, while walking to her grandmother’s house in Ilford, Aleena, 35, was attacked and killed.

Jordan McSweeney, 29, from Dagenham, has been charged with murder, attempted rape and robbery and was refused bail on Friday.

Aleena, who was 1.55 metres (5ft 1in) tall and slight, “like a little fairy”, as one friend put it, was also fearless.

Her maternal aunt, Farah Naz, told reporters on Friday: “She was quite different to the rest of us because Zara didn’t have any fear.

“Whenever Zara walked, that was home for her because she knew everybody.”

Sherit Nair, 46, a friend who lives in Gants Hill, Ilford, said Aleena would often drop in on the walks she took between her mother’s and grandmother’s houses.

“She was sweet and innocent, she didn’t view the world in a horrible way,” he said. “She didn’t really understand the dangers of the world.

“Even though she had a car, she liked to walk places. She only really used her car to help her mum and nan, to take them to the shops and things.”

On Saturday, Aleena’s family and friends will walk the route she would have taken home. Mourners dressed in white will walk from the site of the attack on Cranbook Road to Gants Hill, 10 minutes away, to “bring her back to where she belonged safely”.

Her death has shattered friends and family and made them determined to make the streets safer for women.

Her best friend, Lisa Hodgson, 35, said: “Something needs to be done so women are safe.”

The two friends often went for long walks together. Aleena loved animals and would stop to feed cats on the way. “She loved cats, especially black cats, and she used to rehome them,” Hodgson said.

Hodgson last saw her on a weekend away in the countryside near Reading earlier in June. Aleena loved getting out in nature and they walked a friend’s dog. “I’ll always cherish that last weekend together and those memories,” Hodgson said.

Walking feels very different for Hodgson now. “Nothing frightens me usually, but I’m scared now. I was walking home yesterday and a man came near me and I just jumped automatically.”

Hodgson wishes she had made plans with Aleena that weekend. “She wanted to meet me that weekend and I said: ‘Can we meet next weekend instead?’ I wish I had met her that weekend.”

In her final message to Hodgson on Friday evening, Aleena wrote: “Miss your beautiful face this weekend xx can’t wait to see you next weekend xxx.”

This weekend they had planned to go to the beach – to Brighton or Bournemouth – if the weather was good. Instead, Hodgson will be walking in Aleena’s memory.

The pair met as teenagers while studying sociology, business and psychology together at a further education college in King’s Cross and soon became inseparable.

“When I met her we both had that instant connection. We had so many similarities. We both had big hair, were both short and both so talkative.”

They lived on different sides of the city and would chat for hours on the phone when they could not meet.

“We would tell each other every detail, like when we got up and got dressed. It sounds silly but every little thing. If I didn’t hear from her for two days we would speak for hours to catch up.”

Aleena made time for lots of friends. Chantelle Cole, 29, who lived nearby, said Aleena “was amazing, always smiling”, and listened for hours while Cole chatted through her problems.

She was always quick to offer help. “Being a single mother, if I needed to go out and do something, she would help babysit.”

Putting others’ needs first was a common refrain among Aleena’s friends. Nair said: “She was selfless, she always put her family first, then her friends. She was the last in her thoughts.”

While Nair was revising for his tube driver theory exams in 2019, she was there for him. “She would come round and test me and push me. I wouldn’t be a tube driver if it wasn’t for her pushing me.”

Aleena’s own ambition was strong but slow burning. She was determined from the age of five to become a lawyer, but combining a law degree with work and family caring responsibilities meant it took “longer than most people”, her friend Nair said.

“If she didn’t pass the first time, she’d go back the next semester to do it again,” he added.

She had recently passed her legal practice course and Naz said her niece was “the happiest she had ever been”, having begun working at the Royal Courts of Justice five weeks before she was killed.

Hundreds of people were expected to turn out on Saturday and tread the walk they wish Aleena had been able to take to safety.

Through tears, Naz said: “We will never get through this, but [the walk] will help us.”