It’s a war on turf wars in London’s crime-ridden East End
PUBLISHED: 12:00 23 February 2012 | UPDATED: 15:14 23 February 2012
Carmen off shift
A convention on street gangs and racism has been staged in London’s crime-ridden East End at a new community centre which runs a mediation programme to end turf wars.
It brought together ex-gang members, their victims and community leaders at Whitechapel’s £5 million Osmani centre, officially opened last week, to show today’s youth they can make it in life without turning to violence.
Raz Ahmed was 21 when thugs attacked him with a machete and hockey stick outside his parents’ chicken takeaway on the Isle of Dogs—and left blind in one eye.
He spoke at the convention alongside Rana Miah, a one-time member of the notorious Brick Lane Massive street gang that emerged in the 1980s.
“My left eye was hanging out and my nose was severed,” Raz recalls. “I had a seven-hour operation when surgeons put my eye back inside and later fitted an artificial lens.
“Since then, I have to return to hospital continually for facial surgery.”
But the trauma hasn’t put the bright 23-year-old off striving to improve his life. If anything, he says it has spurred him on.
“A month after the attack I went on a trip organised by Osmani Trust to Gambia where we visited a centre for the blind,” he explains.
“It brought tears to my eyes—these were people totally without sight and having basic need of shelter, food and warmth, yet they were working hard.
“I thank God I have sight in one eye.”
He is now a qualified support worker at an East End hostel for homeless adults while also volunteering at the Osmani centre whenever it needs him.
His experience is the direct opposite of Rana Miah’s, who was 12 when he joined the Brick Lane Massive “for the fun of it” before things got worse as he grew older.
Rana now admits: “We got into selling drugs and got involved in robberies and violence over turf wars.
“The drug dealing and the money we got was to entertain ourselves and go places because we were from poor backgrounds.
“I had lots of convictions and was even banned from London for two years when I was 16.”
Today, he’s a respectable father-of-three with his eldest daughter at university, but feels life was stacked against him growing up in poverty in the East End of the 1980s.
“I told my careers officer at school I wanted to go into politics or law,” he recalls. “He said ‘you’re wasting your time because your people are just good at cooking or catering’. It was as blatant as that!”
Rana continued drifting with his gang-mates until they realised they weren’t getting anywhere.
It led them to setting up their own youth organisation and 400 turned up at a Tower Hamlets council meeting demanding facilities.
It was a community in action that worked. They were given a temporary cabin on a housing estate.
From those modest beginnings in 1987 has emerged today’s Osmani Trust 25 years on, which has now opened its £5 million centre with its glass-walled lecture theatres.
A team of 38 professi0nal advice and youth workers and 70 community volunteers keep the centre going seven days a week. In the evenings, they also use the sports hall of the school next door in the evenings for boxing, badminton, basketball and football. There are health and fitness courses as well as educational and employment support.
The gang mediation project, one of many community programmes, visits schools to help ‘deglamorise’ youth conflict before youngsters get involved.
It is drawn from experiences of people like Rana Miah, who had to work his way out of street crime without such help.
“We were just killing each other, just ruining our lives,” Rana explains.
“We had to give up our drugs and badness because our younger brothers and sisters were mimicking our bad ways, but three times worse.
“We might have been doing acid and smoke weed and stuff like that.
“But then heroine came to the area and then crack. These kids were junkies committing random crime. We felt responsible for that.”
The community programmes are coordinated by the centre’s senior manager, one-time college drop-out Abu Mumin, who understands about growing up with street violence and discrimination.
Abu was a kid in a council block in Poplar when he first experienced “Paki bashing” in the 1970s.
“Every week we had our windows smashed,” he recalls. “The local authority had to put grills across our windows.”
His dad ran a small grocery shop in Brick Lane, just 200 yards from where the National Front had its stall “in the days when people enjoyed Paki bashing.”
But as a teenager, it didn’t lead him into street crime, thanks to youth workers back then who broadened his outlook.
“My message to today’s youth?” He pauses, then responds to the question: “Don’t be too defensive—recognise your neighbours.”
They have a good role model in the 42-year-old community leader who once dropped out of college until his mum made him go back and get his degree.
The father-of-four provides solid community leadership. If he can do it, he tells them, so can they.