Abdul Shohid, Youth Offending Officer
Abdul Shohid asked me to meet in the park that encircles St Matthew’s Church, just off Bethnal Green Road. Gangly, teenage boys in stripy tracksuits from the nearby estates huddle on and around the metal benches. They are totally rapt in themselves, chatting, laughing and enjoying the final squeeze of summer warmth.
Shohid grew up in the nearby Goldman Close where his family still live. As a youngster, he was one of thousands who came out of their houses to watch the funerals of the infamous Kray twins, and he recalls the spectacle of the black cortège leaving the church and feeling proud at being able to witness the moment – recognising the association of the gang with his neighbourhood. Yet these days, he is a Youth Offending Officer working with young people who find themselves on the wrong side of the law.
“I have pretty much grown up in the shadow of this church,” Shohid explains. “It’s part of my childhood and part of the person I am. I used to hang out here with friends just like these boys,” he says, referring to the ones in front of us, “A lot of important events in my life have taken place here. I went to St Matthias Primary School off Brick Lane, and we would be brought to St Matthew’s Church once a week and sing hymns, which I really enjoyed. Once I even took communion, but things have changed now. At the time, we were the only Asian family here. Everyone else was white working class then, that’s who I grew up with.”
Working mostly with young British Bengali offenders, Shohid believes that a lot of the problems they face stem from what is happening at home. In unmistakably East End tones, he reveals the lesson he has learnt over the years is that – commonly – the more difficult the home life, the more difficult the young person.
“Many of the parents of these young people came to London from Bangladesh as children, so they didn’t get a very good education and there was also a lot of racism as well. Many of them found themselves having to work to support their families at a young age and they don’t have adequate tools to deal with the issues that their children are facing today – such as crime, drugs, violence, unstable homes, contact with police and gang-related activities.
Generally, the young people I see have poor educational levels. With the focus upon grades and pressure on schools to increase their position in league tables, young people who are considered trouble simply get left behind. Those with behavioural or emotional problems are kicked out of school and sent to the Pupil Referral Unit. The Unit does a great job, but once you have thirty to forty young people who have all been thrown out of schools from across the borough in one place, then – well, you can imagine – that this is not a good place for anyone to be.
The Youth Offending Team usually encounters a young person between fifteen to eighteen years of age. By then, they might have already done an array of things – from getting into fights and selling drugs to stabbing people. I supervise Community Service or Reparations, which may involve the young people picking up litter from parks and painting walls to sweeping up – that sort of thing. But my main work is “Intensive Support and Surveillance” (ISS). This is an alternative to custody, so the ones I see have done quite serious stuff, which may include Grievous Bodily Harm, selling Class A drugs, gang fights and fraud. ISS is a bit more interesting and productive for the young person than Reparations. I set goals and targets with them, which involves creating a weekly timetable. They may be put on courses and need to see specialists such as Mental Health and Substance Misuse Workers. I ensure that they stick to their timetable and, if they miss three appointments, they go back to court.
I block out what they have done – I have to. If I think this boy in front of me may have nearly killed someone, then it becomes difficult to empathise with him and help him to mend his ways. I need to develop a relationship in which there is a sense of trust and the young person feels they want to engage on a personal level. This is one of the most difficult parts of the job. If they don’t get along with me and choose to recognise where they are coming from, then the chances of us working together and, ultimately, of getting their life back on track becomes extremely difficult.
The success rate of this work is relatively low. We only have a few hours a week with each young person, and then they have to go back to their troubled lives and deal with their issues in their own time. In Tower Hamlets, we are working against years of life experience so the chance of having an impact on the majority is slim. By the time they get to us, it’s usually too late and it’s difficult to change their thinking and behaviour. More resources and time are needed – because it is better to intervene at this stage of a young person’s life than wait until they go to prison, where they will cost the tax payer and society substantially more. Yet in this time of austerity, the extra help that these young people could get is no longer available.
I too was once involved in gangs and drugs, but I managed to get out of it. I went to university, got a degree and then a Masters. I had an urge to broaden my life experiences and I lived in Botswana for a while, helping young people to achieve more. For a lot of the young people I work with here, getting them to go to Oxford Circus is a stretch – so anything else is almost impossible, but I still say to them that it is possible to break away from all of this.”
Shohid (right) with his elder brothers, 1985
Shohid (right) with his dad and brother Mojid
Shohid and Mojid, 1989
Shohid (centre) skylarking on the beach with friends from Botswana
Shohid (sitting centre) in the bush in Botswana
Shohid stands at the tomb of Peter Renvoize, notorious gangster of Bethnal Green
Photographs copyright © Colin O’Brien
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