Anushka Asthana and Mark Townsend, Guardian (London), June 4, 2006
Fridays were the most scary. ‘Twenty kids would wait for me at the school gates and beat me up. Once they put me on the floor and stamped on my head. It started when I was 12.’
A group of Somali boys were sitting outside a cafe on Stratford Road in Birmingham talking about their experience of school. Modqtar, now 17, was beaten up twice a day and picked on for having poor English. The perpetrators were often Asian gangs.
Five years after his family fled Somalia, the teenager was petrified about travelling around his adopted homeland. ‘I have to get two buses here, and two buses back. That is four chances of getting beaten up every day. They shout at us to go back to where we came from. But they are not from here either.’
His friend Mustafa nodded sagely, adding: ‘We get attacked by everyone in school — Asian gangs, white gangs, black Jamaicans. Everyone wants to fight us.’
Their group began laughing, yanking up hooded tops as they adopted the posture of a streetwise gang. ‘This is our ghetto,’ said one, lifting his hand and sticking out his index and little finger before collapsing in giggles. They were joking but there was some truth in it: ‘If you get beaten up twice a day for years,’ added Modqtar, ‘you grow up to be aggressive.’
Across town, in Washwood Heath, three Asian boys whose families are from Pakistan were having a similar conversation. ‘A small incident can set off a riot in school,’ said the 16-year-old, who asked not to be named. ‘There are fights every other day. If there is an Asian gang and one Somali boy, he is in trouble, but if there is a Somali gang and one Asian boy it is vice versa. Even the girls are at war. Parents are afraid to let their children out.’
It is not just fists. They talk about a Somali pupil who was a victim of a stabbing. Then, just over a week ago, 14-year-old Mohammed Ahmed Hussain was knifed in the stomach as he played football opposite his school gates around the corner. The teenager, known as Romeo because of his good looks, had arrived in Britain from Pakistan last year.
Open a newspaper, turn on the television or switch on the radio, and it is impossible to miss the spate of knife crime spreading across the country: Rudy Neofytou, 19, knifed trying to stop shoplifters; Tom Grant, 19, stabbed to death on a train from Glasgow to Paignton, Devon; Nisha Patel-Nasri, 29, a Special Constable killed on duty.
Worse are the daily reminders of violence and death among young people. Mohammed Ahmed Hussain survived the attack in Birmingham but others were not so lucky. Last month 15-year-old Kiyan Prince, a promising footballer, collapsed, dying 50 yards from his school gates in north London after he was stabbed.
This week a 14-year-old girl will appear in court charged with knifing Natashia Jackman, a fellow pupil at Collingwood College in Camberley, Surrey. Jackman had a pair of scissors repeatedly punched into her face, head, chest and back.
In the last month alone there has been a plethora of violent or threatening clashes between school pupils across the country. Just an hour after Kiyan Prince fell to the ground, another boy was seriously wounded in a knife attack in Hendon, also in north London. Nine boys were excluded from Downend school in Bristol after two fights during which one of the teenagers was found to be carrying a knife. In Cornwall an investigation was launched in a primary school after allegations that a 10-year-old was threatened with a knife by a classmate.
Back in Birmingham, stories about violence in school come as no surprise to Modqtar and Mustafa, nor to their Asian counterparts. Their school lives have been punctuated with fights and aggression, some involving knives, many more without. Often gang clashes are sparked by unfounded rumours. One ‘riot’ began because of a whisper that a Somali boy had beaten up an Asian girl.
This is not just indiscriminate violence between frustrated youth. It is a new form of vicious racism that breaks down the traditional notion of white on black violence. Now there is hate and distrust between ethnic groups: white, Asian, Afro-Caribbean, African and those from the Middle East.
Comments once associated with far-right white groups can now be heard among the long-established immigrant communities. They fear the new arrivals in the same way they were once feared. Those feelings permeate down to their children.
A hard-hitting documentary made for teachers will be broadcast tomorrow, revealing the true level of inter-racial tension inside the school gates. Dealing with Race — on Teachers’ TV — will show how small altercations can spark mass fights.
In one scene an assistant headteacher from John Kelly Boys’ Technology College in London talks about a battle where up to 100 pupils ganged up on a few Afghan boys. ‘A group of people were fighting each other almost indiscriminately,’ says Richard Ockan.
To help newer groups of immigrants to integrate, John Kelly Boys’ has started running Saturday sessions for local families. It has already been successful in helping Somali youth integrate, and now the school is hoping it will do the same for the new Afghan population.
Nooralhaq Nasimi, spokesman for the Afghan Community Organisation of London, said youngsters needed to be given more protection by the police and the Home Office, adding that they were constantly being singled out for attack by more established ethnic minority groups. He said that schools had become increasingly dangerous.
‘We need a safe environment in our schools in order to tackle bullying and conflict among ethnic minorities,’ he said, adding that the knife culture was terrifying parents.
Senior police officers who are monitoring inter-community tensions are increasingly aware of an evolving hierarchy of violence between ethnic groups. Rob Beckley, the spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers on police and faith community issues, said that a form of inter-ethnic violence had developed, with newly arrived immigrants the most targeted and most vulnerable.
‘There is at least one incident a week of serious disturbances based around schools among groups, sometimes inter-ethnic, sometimes gangs. It is an issue significant enough to merit substantial police intervention on occasion.’
Beckley, also assistant chief constable of Hertfordshire, said that some school-based gangs were adopting an aggressive stance based on religious and cultural identities.
In the past month police have responded to four major outbreaks of violence in Britain’s inner cities involving young people from differing backgrounds. ‘These are significant incidents that might set a trend in the surrounding community,’ said Beckley. ‘The carrying of knives is causing problems and carries big consequences.’
The most senior police officers monitoring Britain’s complex and constantly shifting race relations say that the Somali community, in particular, has been subject to violent attack by other ethnic groups.
‘Disturbances affecting the Somali community have been recorded from Plymouth right up to Glasgow,’ said Beckley. ‘A lot of the Somali families came over in the early Nineties, compared to some of the Asian and black communities who are now third generation and well established. There is a real vulnerability about the most newly arrived.’
The myths about the new communities are perpetuated across the country. In Washwood Heath, young Asian people talk about perceptions of the newcomers that were once used to alienate them.
‘They are taking all our housing,’ said one boy. ‘They fill them with kids,’ added another. ‘They smell.’ A nearby park has been labelled ‘Somalia village’ and is avoided by youths of other ethnic minority backgrounds.
But they too are victims of crime. ‘It is complicated — there is not one pattern, not one trend and not one answer,’ said Simon Blake from the National Children’s Bureau. ‘But we have to bust these myths about who gets the best housing and how resources are allocated.’
He said he had been in a school recently where African-Caribbean boys were picking on African boys. The first group, he argued, had ‘currency’ because of the credibility around their clothing and music. However, Blake praised pro-active action across the country.
The Washwood Heath Youth Inclusion Programme (YIP) is running a conference to tackle the problem at the request of three schools. ‘Hear my Voice’ aims to promote inter-ethnic dialogue.
‘This issue arises because it is a high density area,’ said Farrukh Haroon, a project worker at the YIP. ‘Communities are scrapping for scarce resources and due to an irresponsible media misperceptions are bred.’
Three teenagers, Usman, Yasser and Iksar, all 16, are helping to organise the conference. All three see fights daily in and out of school but want to help the two communities to get on. ‘The religion may help as we are all Muslim,’ said Yasser. ‘I hope that things change in the future.’
Other parts of the country already have well-established projects in place. In the aftermath of clashes between Muslims and Sikhs in Slough, Berkshire, in the Nineties, a group emerged called Aik Saath (Together). It sends young people into schools to give workshops on conflict resolution. Here too Somali, Afghan and Polish children are the new targets.
Some schools are facing up to the problem head-on. Sir Robert Dowling, headteacher at George Dixon School in another part of Birmingham, keeps the tensions outside the school gates by talking about it openly inside. In the opening scene of the Teachers’ TV documentary, his voice booms as he takes a microphone and talks to the whole school about a recent incident in which Somali students were attacked by African-Caribbeans.
‘This school will be safe. And anybody who gets involved in the thuggery that happened on Friday — you have no place in our family and we will root you out.
‘There is a tiny group throwing their weight around and they want you to admire them — don’t.’
It is not only those throwing punches who are responsible for the fight, he adds. ‘You must take your share of the guilt too. Those of you who hang about, those of you who watch, those of you who don’t interfere, that say it was nothing to do with me, I was just there.’
But while Dowling admitted he could not eradicate the problem, he insisted he was ‘winning’ inside the school. He operates a buddy system that pairs students with older pupils of different cultures and he ensures that there are mixed classes to help integration.
‘In this school we’ve got youngsters who will have been through enormous suffering, enormous hurt, and yet we come together here and we hope,’ Dowling says in the programme. ‘The answer is tolerating each other a bit more every day.’
Back in Washwood Heath, there is a little picture of hope. In a playground three children, all around 10, play and laugh together as their mothers watch. One is Asian, one is Afghan and one Somali. With the support and backing of teachers and community leaders, the three might just grow up to be friends.