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Youth need to be engaged to turn away from violence

Engage: Khalid Wasi

During the latter part of 2008, when there was already a disturbing picture of gang violence, the weapon of choice was a long blade or knife but that got worse when there was a sudden turn to the use of guns. Sadly, I remember cars ominously pulling up in neighbourhoods and selling guns out of the back of their vehicles.

I don't know who were driving these cars. They did not look Bermudian and the guns were selling cheap at about $400. There was a rash of killings and shooting incidents and parents became nervous. Some including myself, frantically took their children overseas to shelter them from potential victimisation and harm.

I recall at the time hearing what I deemed a plea coming from some of the young men, many of whom had estranged relationships with their fathers. After talking with them, my attitude shifted. Rather than seeing them as strangers or hoodlums, I looked at them as if they were my own sons - with the question of what would I do with them if indeed they were?

These young men had missed being educated, were nearly illiterate and had no employable skill sets. Yet they all wanted to earn money. They spent their time hustling with the only earning prospect they understood, which was stealing and selling drugs.

I confronted them with logic. I showed them how they were the lowest paid workers in Bermuda. They spent more time on the streets at work; suffered the risk of being shot and killed or beat-up or incarcerated; worked rain and windstorm; and, at the end of the day, had to take all their money back to their boss to repeat the cycle all over again.

I took them on a trip to Senegal to look for real opportunity by uncovering genuine business that were needed in that country. The idea was to take mentors and separate them from the turf war immediately and, in the meantime, hopefully inspire them to do something different.

Naturally, it was not expected that they would recognise the opportunities unless shown. It was also logical even if they recognised opportunity, they would not have the skill sets to capture them.

Fast forward, Senegal needed to deurbanise its population. They needed to create suburban housing. That aside it needed electricity and clean water. The streets then were filled with litter. Poor waste management meant they used the dessert to spread and dump their trash.

Ah-ha! A mass-burn incinerator was the ideal solution. It produces electricity, water and cinder for block.

The Government of Senegal heard of the idea and bought in to it. They loved it so much, they wanted to have a motorcade announcing the effort.

I called the project Operation Green Light - the process would have been creating infrastructure-type projects and while those at risk could not manage these types of operations, they could drive a truck, be involved in waste management pick-ups, or deliver block, or have a block business. The idea was to set up a programme as a charity to encourage young men to seek entrepreneurship under a mentorship by joining and travelling overseas to assist with infrastructural projects.

The idea was to take those who missed an opportunity in education and provide a second chance through entrepreneurship. These guys did not have to change their lives to get into the programme, just take a trip and the mentors would help them understand the basic disciplines to become their own little bosses.

What happened? We came back to Bermuda. Ewart Brown was the premier and wanted to hear about it. Dale Butler came to me asking about the idea and also "what's the success, show me where it works". Folks, this was a brand new idea, it had no track record. We would have been the founders of a new system to address youth at risk.

Where did it end? They brought in the "Mirrors programme". Problem solved right? The Mirrors programme requires that a person hits crisis and decides to seek help, more like church for those seeking salvation. The problem is after the programme, one is back on the street where they came from. We had tremendous support from IB in particular RenaissanceRe and ACE. However, the charities took the position they needed to support "one" programme rather than have a scattered approach to youth at risk. All the attention went to Mirrors.

The Operation Green Light would have also been good for the economy by extending our role into emerging economies. I began to put it to a forum at City Hall, hosted by Sir John and Larry Burchall, but it was rejected.

Subsequently, the issue of violence never went away with government leaders seemingly satisfied with lip service and presenting the public with "problem solved we fixed it" propaganda. Mirrors in 2009; a serious crime commission in 2011; then a crime tsar. Yet the problem has grown.

One of my greatest impulses for doing a major project is to create the economic and training environment to offer the mentorship to at-risk youth that they need. However, the gang warfare of the adults, prevents anything meaningful occurring because the adults are too busy trying to get bigger toys. Stay tuned and listen to the platitudes that will emerge, but then look closely to see what is actually done.

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Published April 25, 2022 at 8:10 am (Updated April 25, 2022 at 8:10 am)

Youth need to be engaged to turn away from violence

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