Wandsworth youth group aiming to turn the tide on knife crime

Tuesday, February 20 2018 was a dark day for London.

The deaths of Abdikarim Hassan, 17, and Sadiq Adan Mohamed, 20, in Camden a little more than an hour apart painted a depressingly familiar picture.

Two more innocent young men killed in a city that had already seen 14 people fatally stabbed since the start of 2018.

Elays Network, a Somali youth group based in Wandsworth, is just one organisation that wants to dramatically reduce that startling figure.

In the wake of the tragedy, the group held a community forum on March 1 at their headquarters in St Rule Street, Battersea to allow residents to raise their concerns and find solutions to a scourge that has needlessly ended so many lives.

Despite blizzard-like conditions, 40 people braved the elements to attend.

Abdirahman Xirsi, project manager at Elays, was pleased at the initiative shown by those who chose to contribute.

“A lot of them were raising questions such as ‘what can we do as a community?’, because they clearly felt it’s not just the police or the social services or the local authority that can solve knife crime,” he said.

However, the news that two people from their country of origin had been taken so violently understandably weighed heavily.

The regularity of this sort of incident in the capital leaves people fearing the worst for their loved ones.

As a new father himself, Abdirahman can empathise.

“Emotions were high, especially from parents who have boys who are the same age as those who just lost their lives. A lot of parents are worried their sons and their children will be next,” the 36-year-old continued.

“Every parent shares the same sentiments because they think, ‘if young kids are murdering each other on the streets in the middle of winter, what could happen now summer is coming and we will have longer days and warmer weather?’”

Abdirahman felt the presence of Robyn Thomas, head of community safety for London Boroughs Wandsworth & Richmond and Inspector Barrie Capper of the Neighbourhood Policing Team, who both spoke at the event, undoubtedly reassured the community and helped people air their grievances directly.

He added: “They were willing to speak to the police, they were willing to speak to the community safety leaders and saying, ‘we know our children, we know what issues they have, so please, communicate with us and let’s find a solution together’.

“When the police and local authority come to an event that is organised by the community themselves, it always gives hope as well as builds that trust.”

Yet there remains a fundamental stumbling obstacle for some people in the community who seek help from the police.

“For some parents, English is not their first language and they don’t know how to reach out to the system,” explained Abdirahman.

“They cannot understand what they can do, who they can reach out to.”

He would like to see information translated into a number of languages to engage as many people in the community is possible, but while that may be a way off, there are several initiatives in the pipeline which Elays hope can make a difference.

The charity already equips parents with the skills to spot signs of trouble in their kids and are planning a workshop which aims to instill a ‘positive parenting practice’. They also want to offer first aid training to people, in case they come across someone who has been attacked.

Abdirahman identified another problem that needs to be addressed.

“If I was a mother, I could encourage my son to stay out of trouble, but if I’m not giving him alternative things to do, that problem won’t get fixed,” he said.

In order to prevent people from getting involved in trouble during the summer holidays, Elays are set to lay on numerous activities, including football tournaments, jiu-jitsu and boxing.

Such provisions are common at the centre. Their sessions include a weekly homework club and sessions where A Level and university students come in and support secondary school pupils.

The adult section has sports and fitness classes for women, BTEC courses and IT apprenticeships, while the elderly also receive care and support.

“We have the Elays senior programme that we run for local pensioners. They come in every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. They have lunch, they have a chat, just to avoid isolation,” said Abdirahman.

“We have two chefs who cook for them at the centre. We help families who are having issues with housing, financial issues. A mini Citizens Advice.”

At a time when Muslims are facing increased hostility both at home, fostering dialogue between people of different faiths (or none) is seen by Elays as vital.

“Once a week during Ramadan, we call the community to break bread,” explained Abdirahman.

“The most amazing thing was that some people who never had a chance to speak to someone who is outside of their religion, comes in, has a chat, has conversations and at the same time people eat a lovely meal together.”

The emphasis on inclusiveness and cohesion promoted by the centre may help deter potential gang members and in turn stop them either hurting someone else or harming themselves.

Police relations with BME communities have often been fraught, but Abdirahman was encouraged by the dynamic following the community forum and feels police powers, like increasing patrols and ‘stop and search’, can be a force for good as long as they are used appropriately.

Despite last month’s shocking news, Abdirahman is confident a brighter future is possible. That starts with local people bringing their own ideas to the table.

“Elays Network has always been an organisation that could be a role model for the rest of the community and other organisations to bring people together and bring positivity out of them,” he said.

“When it comes to knife crime, the community will do an amazing job with a little bit of help from the local authority and the local government, because they hold some of the formula.”

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