Linking the youth, shaping the future

“I’m not happy about this at all”, says Jakir playfully. “They’re never this early for football sessions with me!” Kamal adds, “Not only that Jak, they’ve been looking forward to this – in fact some of them didn’t sleep last night. They spent it pestering me!”

Its 7:00am on Thursday morning, Jakir and Kamal, volunteers with Newham Youth Link are talking about their youth group – with whom they are about embark on a 4-day residential. The youth group consists of 22 young men aged 14-18, they are all Muslim and from a mainly South Asian background. Many of them have just finished their GCSE’s and are waiting for their results; they board the minibuses with expectations of an action packed weekend.

Their journey, by minibus consists, of the usual playful banter tinged with the occasional practice of “tooth pasting”. Tooth pasting, if you don’t know, is an art whereby the forehead and cheeks of a sleeping person become the canvas for the artist. The youngsters compete with each other over who can produce the most outrageous designs – Damien Hirst would surely approve of such youthful expressionism.

They are an exuberant bunch, perhaps a little too boisterous for the quiet town of Middleton-upon-teesdale that they have arrived in. “They are not allowed to leave the center unsupervised” informs the site coordinator. Appearances have, perhaps, misled him; though these boys look like they just stepped out of “da hood” (limps and all!) they wouldn’t hurt a fly. On second thoughts, one hopes that they wouldn’t hurt a cat.

They unpack and gather for the first session with Tahajjud, who is their team leader for the weekend. One of the original founders of NYL, He has spent, along with the other volunteers, the last two weeks preparing for this residential. They are aiming to get a balance between enjoyable and educational activities. This in itself poses an interesting problem for the staff as the young men they are working are, at times, a little too playful.

“We would like you to share something that you consider to be a personal success” requests Tahajjud. “It can be anything, anything halal of course”. One young man, curiously nicknamed Monkey, volunteers “the day I learnt how to ride a bike”; cue laughter all around. Kamal tries to direct them towards a serious mode of thinking. “How did you feel when your Dad let go of the bike?” I don’t remember responds “Monkey”. Someone else suggests perhaps it’s because he spent time with Dad, a discussion then ensues around working parents. “They work hard to give us things” says one, another counters by indicating that his relationship with his parents is different because of the fact they were not around.

The young men enjoy group discussions and will talk at length about the usual things – Music, Football, the opposite sex – and some things that could be considered unusual for them. One of the staff recalls another interesting session where the young men discussed the banning of the hijaab in France, asked about the fiqh of marriage and discussed the relationships that they had with their families.

Another person contributes his success. “Being able to behave myself this year”, He says rather mischievously – it seems that he is alluding to relationships but given that it is haraam to reveal ones sins, he doesn’t divulge any further details other then to say that He spent a lot more time studying this year. Amidst further entertaining exchanges the session comes to a close.

Discussing haram things throws up an interesting problem for the youth workers. How do they deal with teen issues without alienating the youth through holier-than-thou-lecturing? NYL uses a simple model – in a public discussion young people are asked to contribute their thoughts using the third person – “What should I do, I mean what should my friend do if a girl asks him out?” The benefit of this is that some of the more embarrassing problems can be dealt with in a manner where everyone can benefit from the answer.

In private, all of the NYL youth workers make themselves available to discuss any deeply personal issues. On one occasion, some of the under16 football team approached Kamal for some drugs’ related advice. Their intention was to prevent some of their friends against pursuing an interest in Marijuana. It wasn’t a coincidence that, that year, NYL had re-branded the football project “Football Addicts” and delivered tailor made sessions for the youth group.

In another incident, one of the young people phoned Tahajjud to ask him what time Tahajjud prayer was. When asked if everything was ok and being reassured about confidentiality, the young man disclosed his love for his girlfriend who had just left him; in that vulnerable moment he was seeking Islamic advice on what to do his emotionally difficult situation.

Thursday evening rolls in, the youth group meet Jeff, an ex-soldier who will be one of their hosts for the weekend. There is an immediate bond between Jeff and NYL when he asks in a strong northen accent “do you mind if I call you brother”. This helps to put them at ease, as it apparent that their presence in the county has increased the ethic minority content twenty-fold.

“Its freezing!” cries one of the young men as he lands in the cold water. It’s Friday morning; most of the youngsters have not slept as yet; they spent a portion of the night “chilling”, the other portion it seems was spent tooth-pasting their sleeping friends. Jumping into cold water forms part of their first activity – that of gorge walking. This particular exercise involves diving into pools of cold water, while remaining fully dressed. Some of them offer their excuses – “its cold, I’ll get my clothes wet”, before sheepishly revealing their fear of water. The young men are gently coaxed by the staff into trying to overcoming their fears. That is, before the others drag them into the water without offering any soothing counselling.

It’s now Friday evening, where we find an intriguing scene unfolding before us. It’s a maths class, one of the pupils puts his hands up, the boys at the back gasp. “Oh my gosh, did he just do that?” One of them retorts he must have an invisible crane or something, the other students burst into laughter. The teacher intervenes – “if you haven’t got anything good to say then don’t say anything at all”. He receives a predictable response, “What, who are you to tell me what to do?” The teacher replies, I didn’t say that your Prophet (SAW) did.

The scene changes to a playground. Winston, a black boy is being abused. “Hey, you’re so black, when you cross the zebra crossing, you say know you see me now you don’t”. He explodes into a fit, while others explode into fits of laughter. “Wha you say boy, me nah appreciate this ya’, if you aint got nuttin good to say shut ya trap u’kna.” The abuser responds, “what, who are you to tell me what to do?” Winston replies, “Me na say dis, your Prophet (SAW) said”.

We have just witnessed what can only be referred to as Islamic drama. The young men were presented with various ahadith were directed to act out scenarios incorporating the teachings contained with the ahadith. In their customary manner, they launched into lively dialogues that had them acting out the roles of drug-dealers, stick-wielding elders from the mosque and “freshies” from back home. It’s a novel approach to Islamic studies but one that has appealed them – in contrast to the conventional method of lecturing.

It’s Saturday morning and the young men find themselves standing before the entrance to a cave. Their guide is Jeff, who has just maniacally driven them there. “Right lads, we are going to be going about 50 feet underground. Be careful – if you get lost in there, you won’t be able to find your way out.”

They enter into the cave, slowly and surely. As they move along, the day light slowly dissipates until the only light left is that from their torch light. They stop to rest in a narrow chamber and to experience “pitch black”. Under direction from Jeff, the young men switch off their lights, one by one, until they are completely enveloped in darkness. According to Quranic lore, its not the first time that a group of young men have retreated into a cave.

One of the key aims of NYL is to take young people out of their environment and expose them to new experiences. NYL staff argue that this is the one of the most effective ways to help young people to develop their self belief. It holds some truth with this particular group of young people.

In the cave, one of the young men grew in confidence with each passing moment – at first he didn’t want to go into the cave but then he pushed himself into trying. Afterwards he came out saying, “I can do anything now, I’ve got bear amounts of confidence”. Others overcame some aspects of their fears in the last jump of the gorge walk. For them, that involved jumping from 15 feet into a deep pool of water.

Its Sunday morning, a tired Tahajjud and Kamal are discussing the effectiveness of the work that they do. “Is it worth it? Are we making a difference?” they discuss introspectively. They’ve had their fair share of ups and downs with this group of youngsters.

They recall the crowning moment when their multi-national team won The Charity Cup. Their celebrations left a particularly poignant memory as the youngsters carried their Nigerian Christian goal keeper on their shoulders to recognise the big part that he had played in their success. Or the time when one of the mothers phoned to commend Kamal on the positive impact he had made on her son.

They also recall unsavoury incidents of fighting at football games, outbursts of disrespect from the young people and at times, a lack of appreciation for their efforts. In spite of this, both of them remain committed to working with them. They have witnessed changes in some of them and this, in addition to accepting that internal changes will not be immediately apparent, provides them with enough motivation to continue their work.

It’s the closing session of a draining weekend. The boys, knackered through lack of sleep, have gathered for what, for some, might be the last NYL event that they take part in. “Its important that we clear our accounts with each other” they are told. Starting with the team lead, each of them asks all of the people present to forgive individual mistakes and shortcomings in the time that they have spent together. Jeff had commented on the respect that they had for each other and had sensed a strong bond of brotherhood between them; it appears as though the residential had helped to strengthen that.

In the concluding supplications, they are reminded that the angels have recorded their experiences together, that their histories are forever linked. NYL’s simple motto is “Linking the youth, shaping the future”, their aim, as is apparent, is to help each individual connect to their pools of natural talent and use them to build a better future for themselves and their communities. If they succeed in doing that, then perhaps it could be said, and Allah knows best, that they are helping to shape the future.