Education is key to battle against street crime in Leeds

A young participant in a Street Safe workshop learns basic first aid skills.
A young participant in a Street Safe workshop learns basic first aid skills.

“I carried a knife to protect myself. I wouldn’t use it. But I would pull it out to scare them.

“Gangs walk with knives and hammers and they target you on the streets. So I’d walk out with something small to scare them off.”

Young people at the StreetSafe workshop in Harehills with session leader Sean McDonald and Dennis Brooksbank, of the Red Cross.

Young people at the StreetSafe workshop in Harehills with session leader Sean McDonald and Dennis Brooksbank, of the Red Cross.

These are the words of Faheem, a 14-year-old Leeds schoolboy who was a contemporary of tragic teenager Irfan Wahid, a bright and popular 16-year-old who died two months ago after a street knife attack.

It’s not an easy admission to make, but it gives an insight into the inherent fear – and not bravado – which drives so many young people to carry weapons of one sort or another.

Faheem is one of the youth organisers of an upcoming peace parade which will start in Harehills. The event, to be held in July, was born partly out of a desire among the young people of the suburb to honour the life of their young pal ‘Iffy’, but also to reclaim the community from those who would brand it a street crime hotspot.

In the build-up to the peace parade – and in the aftermath of Iffy’s passing – a series of events and workshops have been organised to reach out to the area’s young people.

The YEP was invited to one such workshop, a StreetSafe session organised by the Leeds Muslim Youth Forum at Bilal Mosque in Harehills.

Among the attendees were many young men like Faheem and his friend Waleed, who had earlier told the YEP that he used to carry a hammer wherever he went, “to defend myself from gangs”.

He never used it and in the wake of Irfan’s passing and a personal epiphany he has stopped carrying it.

The street-crime workshop, led by former policeman Sean McDonald, is pretty hard hitting.

Grisly images of knife crime victims’ injuries are flashed onto a screen, and at first, I’m not too sure if they have the desired effect.

But when the conversation turns to the loss of Irfan, and how it could have been prevented, the group becomes more directly engaged.

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A first aid session – where the youngsters are taught about basic-life saving skills by the British Red Cross – draws a particularly enthusiastic response.

Anti hate-crime volunteer Sean says the aim of the workshop is to give young people an idea of their rights and also their responsibilities when it comes to weapons.

“There are ways of protecting yourself that don’t involve weapons,” he tells the lads. “The best is talking to each other and de-escalating issues.”

“I was a policeman for 30 years,” he adds.

“I am from the council estates in Leeds.

“So I have seen the effects violence can have on people, particularly when it comes to knife crime.

“I am not going to tell you what to do. All I will do is give you the information you can work with to make your own choice.”

Among those observing the session is Amjad Hussain, a former youth worker with young offenders. He believes there is a real shortage of education around the “underpinning reasons” of the culture around knives, guns and gangs. And he says it’s time the issue was brought to the forefront of classroom teaching.

“I think more needs to be done from the council and the police perspective, and in schools and mosques,” he says. “That’s where we need to nip it in the bud.” He adds that a lack of funding is also a crucial factor.

“If we had a package there that could be used as a deterrent, young people would get the message, and understand it’s not just about carrying knives, it’s also about using knives and who it affects.

“It shouldn’t have to be that someone loses a life and then things like this get together. But it only happens when a life is lost – and that’s a shame. This is something we should be carrying out throughout the whole year and in the curriculum.”