How teenagers cope with daily life on the front line

As Lon­don reels from its 119th vi­o­lent death in a year, Amy Walker talks to young peo­ple about their sur­vival strate­gies – and the men­tors who help them

The Observer - - News -

The ref­eree Taiwo Ag­boola, 23, Wal­worth

Ag­boola was stabbed out­side his home when he was 16. “The at­tacker was wear­ing all black, with leather gloves on, and when he rolled up to me I just froze,” he says. Months ear­lier, Ag­boola had de­fended a friend who was also stabbed by his at­tacker – this was ret­ri­bu­tion.

“I was very, very lucky to sur­vive,” Ag­boola says. But his men­tal re­cov­ery was not as speedy, and he was later di­ag­nosed with de­pres­sion and post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der. Threats of a fur­ther at­tack ex­ac­er­bated his prob­lems. “A few months af­ter it hap­pened, I started los­ing my head and want­ing to go af­ter the per­son and any­one as­so­ci­ated with them,” he says.

Then, two years ago, Ag­boola be­gan at­tend­ing men­tor­ing ses­sions with Oa­sis, a char­ity that works in hos­pi­tals to pro­tect young peo­ple from vi­o­lence. “Hav­ing some­one who you can re­late to, who un­der­stands you and doesn’t judge, is so help­ful. Usu­ally I wouldn’t speak to any­one about this stuff, but they hear you out.” Every fort­night, Ag­boola meets with his men­tor, where they dis­cuss his progress. “It helped keep me off the streets.”

Now study­ing for a de­gree in sports sci­ence, Ag­boola ad­mits things could have turned out very dif­fer­ently. “Right now, I’m a ref­eree and I go to uni. I have a lot of things go­ing for my­self. If I didn’t have my men­tor, my sup­port net­work, I don’t know where I’d be or what path I’d be taking,” he says.

The stu­dent Demetri Ad­di­son, 18, Ele­phant & Cas­tle

Ad­di­son spent most of his teenage years get­ting into trou­ble, but his at­ti­tude changed when he started pre­par­ing for his GCSE ex­ams. Around the same time, a boy from Ad­di­son’s school was stabbed to death on the es­tate where he has lived his whole life. “I fixed up. Life was get­ting too se­ri­ous for me to be muck­ing around,” says Ad­di­son.

De­spite his con­certed ef­forts to stay clear of gangs, Ad­di­son ad­mits it is hard to avoid the vi­o­lence. “I feel un­safe when I’m out of my area some­times. It re­ally depends where I am and who I’m with,” he says.

In sixth form, Ad­di­son, who also men­tored stu­dents at risk of ex­clu- sion, met Ciaran Thapar, a mu­sic writer and youth worker, who has since been of­fer­ing him in­for­mal guid­ance. They talk about Ad­di­son’s as­pi­ra­tions and what’s hap­pen­ing on the streets. Some­times Ad­di­son helps Thapar con­duct in­ter­views with drill artists, a mu­sic genre which Ad­di­son be­lieves is a “symp­tom of vi­o­lence, not the cause”.

Next year, Ad­di­son will be­gin a de­gree in so­ci­ol­ogy at Gold­smiths, Univer­sity of Lon­don. “I think my life would have been very dif­fer­ent with­out Ciaran, par­tic­u­larly be­cause of the op­por­tu­ni­ties he has given me,” he says.

In Jan­uary they both at­tended an all-party par­lia­men­tary group round-ta­ble dis­cus­sion, where Thapar spoke about the link be­tween school ex­clu­sions and the rise in knife crime. Why does he find Thapar’s work so ap­peal­ing? “This stuff is what I’m around. Ba­si­cally, it’s life,” says Ad­di­son.

The run­ner Kai Wright, 21, Lad­broke Grove

“I used to hang out with some peo­ple who were do­ing re­ally neg­a­tive stuff,” says Wright, who de­clines to go into the specifics. Four years ago, Run Dem Crew, a run­ning group founded by DJ and writer Char­lie Dark, gave a talk at an assem­bly at Wright’s col­lege. The aim was to en­cour­age young peo­ple to think beyond their es­tates by get­ting them to run a half marathon

“I wasn’t re­ally ac­tive be­fore but I wanted to re­move my­self from the peo­ple I was around in my area. It was per­fect tim­ing that I found the crew,” says Wright. Since then, he’s been heav­ily in­volved with RDC and reg­u­larly runs coach­ing ses­sions along­side Dark.

Wright sug­gests there is a lack of pos­i­tive role mod­els for young men from his kind of back­ground. “I love rap but ev­ery­body loTohkis uis­pat­popraop­pers or peo­ple that dpori­naete­gad­tu­iv­mem­styuff. If there’s no money it­nexv­totlv­headt ,is­pe­boeiple aren’t in­ter­ested,” hens­gaeyms.ployed

Meet­ing Dark, howinevo­erdr,egratvoeashcim some­one to look up etrot.a“iCn­haan­r­laiep’psrox like a dad for me. Heima­ga­treeatlem­ngetnhtor. He teaches me abeocu­at­uesveetrhye-the thing – about how toacb­teual­man and a strong leader in the com­mu­nity,” says Wright.

Af­ter col­lege, Wright be­gan work­ing for a char­ity that sup­ports young peo­ple and chil­dren with com­plex needs. “It’s so amaz­ing to feel a part of some­thing like this. In the past, I was sur­rounded by bad stuff but some­one showed me a dif­fer­ent way and now I’m try­ing to show other peo­ple as well,” he says.

The ac­tor

Dar­nell McCollins, 18, Hack­ney

Be­fore find­ing an out­let in act­ing, McCollins had been on both sides of the blade. As a mi­nor, he was sent to a youth of­fend­ers in­sti­tu­tion for at­tempt­ing to stab a driver who had knocked him off his bike. “It was stupid­ness re­ally, I didn’t know how to con­trol my­self,” says McCollins. Two days af­ter his re­lease, he was at­tacked out­side his mother’s house by a ri­val gang. “I was mov­ing my stuff and they just jumped out of their car and stabbed me.”

Af­ter McCollins re­cov­ered, he moved to semi-in­de­pen­dent ac­com-

mo­da­tion in or­der to leave his neigh­bour­hood. It was here that he found out about Big House, a the­atre com­pany that works with care leavers at risk of so­cial ex­clu­sion. “Big House has helped me with a lot,” says McCollins. “I used to roll with a knife every day and was in a re­ally bad space.”

As a child, he had dreamed of be­ing an ac­tor but had never taken it se­ri­ously. Now, he is re­hears­ing for Bul­let Tongue, a play about the me­dia’s of­ten-neg­a­tive por­trayal of young black men.

On top of train­ing, the the­atre hosts weekly life skills work­shops, on sub­jects rang­ing from fi­nance to healthy eat­ing. “It has helped me screw on my head and just get to it,” says McCollins.

“If I wasn’t do­ing this, I’d prob­a­bly be sell­ing drugs and rolling with my knife be­cause I wouldn’t have any­thing else to do to fill my time. I feel like I’d be lost.”

Kai Wright, top, has taken up run­ning; Demetri Ad­di­son, above left, is study­ing so­ci­ol­ogy; and Dar­nell McCollins, is now an ac­tor.

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