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Abdul Shohid, Youth Offending Officer

September 19, 2013
by Delwar Hussain

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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11 Responses leave one →
  1. September 19, 2013

    We all make mistakes in life especially when we are young . It’s frustrating to see
    That you are not able to work with the troubled ones at a earlier age . Surely
    There are signs even at year 4. 5 6 7 ? Your doing a great , I am very happy to hear that
    You are there trying help these kids

  2. tanya permalink
    September 19, 2013

    Really moving piece. And inspiring to hear Abdul’s life experinces and work at a time when the world seems more selfish than ever.

  3. September 19, 2013

    What a fine young man doing a great job. No matter how difficult their lives may be, all those with whom he works must benefit from their contact with his integrity and passion for the goodness of life.

  4. September 19, 2013

    What an Inspiring young man.

  5. September 19, 2013

    Good to see those who need guidance are getting support from committed and non judgmental individuals.

    ”Yet in this time of austerity, the extra help that these young people could get is no longer available.”

    Wanted to ask which services have been cut for youth? Do you think the riots we saw in August 2011 were linked to the problems youth face in the country and the lack of services available?

  6. Shohids Bro permalink
    September 19, 2013

    Shohid for Mayor!

  7. Tanzil permalink
    September 19, 2013

    Respect to both the author and the interviewee. Really interesting stuff on rehabilitation and particularly interesting on how you have to detach what the guys have done in the past, despite them being affected by it, to what you are doing with them now. Love to see our lot getting involved in this kind of work and there should definitely bee more resources and investment by the crooked government put into these alternatives.

    Big respect again man.

  8. September 19, 2013

    Truly inspiring

  9. Steph permalink
    September 19, 2013

    Individuals like Abdul should be cloned so that one half can stand for election and the other remain on the ground. Real individuals having lived real lives; trying to hand a lifeline to those in need (willing or otherwise!) by example, compassion and resilience.

    I try to help similar individuals (many from the same part of London town) further down the offending trail in a adult prison. Who was it that said you judge a country by how it looks after it’s most vulnerable? We all are culpable for looking the other way and staying largely mute at the absence of resources/support for youth, the old and sick.

  10. Bricklanemafia permalink
    September 20, 2013

    hear hear Steph.
    Shohid’s honesty is most refreshing in this world of double speak.
    More please!!!

  11. chris permalink
    September 20, 2013

    As a resident of Goldman Close it’s good to hear Shohid’s views and experiences on the wider community and the problems these young people face. A refreshing change to hear of someone trying to do something positive for the benefit to the community as a whole.
    Unfortunately we find ourselves in a time where too many people want to take what they can from the local area without giving anything back. I’ve witnessed first hand the change in the local demographic and can confidently say it’s not a change for the better.

    Unforunately here in the UK we do not take premptive measures to stop some young people being crimminalised. As a previous poster stated we all make mistakes in our lives and unfortunately the knock on effects in later life can be a real hinderance.

    A positive article on positive works…….. big up Shohid

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