When Sanjay Thompson headed home from school every day, he would have to get past the local gang members congregating outside the gates, hoping to pick up new recruits for their drug dealing operations.
“They were always trying to persuade you to chill with them, to kick back,” says Sanjay, dressed in an outsized baseball cap and low-slung jeans as he talks to the Financial Times at Yoh, a youth organisation based in Hackney, London’s most deprived borough.
The gangs, which use children as young as nine to distribute drugs on the grounds they are less likely to be stopped by police, inveigled many of his friends into joining up, tempting them with money and acceptance in a tight-knit social group.
But Sanjay, now 22, is one of hundreds of young people whose chances of staying out of their clutches were transformed by the work of Yoh, a group supported by Global Fund for Children, the FT’s Seasonal Appeal partner.
For an organisation operating in the most poverty stricken areas of the developing world, GFC’s decision to work in Europe’s leading financial centre may seem perverse.
London, though, plays host to intractable social problems including child poverty, gang violence and youth unemployment. Like the rest of the UK, it is seeing funding for social projects shrink at a time of government cuts.
Yoh prides itself on its willingness to enter Hackney’s most crime-ridden areas in a bid to give young people a better start in life.
Ergel Hassan, its co-founder, had his commitment to this strategy tested after he was stabbed twice in the course of his work. But he is adamant that it is an essential factor in winning the trust of the area’s most alienated young people. “We engage with people on their own turf to build credibility with them,” he says.
With high levels of truancy among young people, Yoh uses every trick in the book to attract them to its centre in the Haggerston ward of the borough. On visits to the area’s housing estates, staff might “accidentally” kick a football towards a group of youths to encourage a kick-around, or stage a fake argument over immigration to prompt a reaction from surrounding children.
Another tactic might be to casually mention the centre’s impressive array of PlayStation, Nintendo and Xbox equipment installed as a way of getting them through the doors. Once there, the centre’s youth workers gradually guide them towards opportunities in training, employment or education.
Many hide their vulnerability through outward shows of defiance that take time and patience to overcome.
“If you ask them their name straight out, you’ll get ‘Sniper’ or ‘Knuckles’,” Mr Hassan says. “Six months later you discover it’s Michael or Steven.”
The centre receives some government funding, but this cannot cover the long hours of relationship-building required to crack the hardest cases. That is where GFC’s contribution has been invaluable. “The difference is they came in and said: ‘What do you think is the problem?’, and backed us up with funds,” Mr Hassan said.
GFC works with other organisations in the capital, including Rewrite, an innovative project that uses drama and creative writing to help immigrant children integrate into the UK by building their skills in English.
At a session in the crypt of a church in Southwark, a south London borough with high levels of immigration, children recently arrived from Africa and South America are playing a lively game of Bomb, where they must avoid being the one left holding a ball when the countdown ends.
John, a chatty 13-year-old Ecuadorean who has attended the programme for six weeks, is forthright about the scheme’s advantages. “I learn English and I make new friends,” he says.
With a less confident manner, Halima, a shy Somalian 11-year-old who arrived in the UK in 2011 with no English, haltingly describes the gunfire that provided the soundtrack to her early life. Asked why she came to the UK with her father, brother and sister, she quietly says “bad men with guns came to my house”, but does not elaborate further.
Eleanor Cocks, the project co-ordinator, said GFC had been the first organisation willing to fund administrative time for longer-term fundraising and marketing. The effort has already paid off: contacts made via the global charity have brought funding for Ms Cocks’ youth drama workshop for two years, from City Bridge Trust, the City of London charity.
As Halima and John begin a fast-paced round of Bomb, the differences in their manner rapidly fall away – particularly when John bends the rules to his advantage. In a refrain familiar to parents and teachers in any part of the world, Halima cries out with unexpected fluency: “John’s cheating! It’s unfair!”
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