A poet and a gentleman: Lambeth Life meets National Diversity Award winner and Young Lambeth Co-operative youth worker Abdul-Karim Abdullah
by Fleur Macdonald
To be told you are going to fail your exams is a hammer blow for any child. For Abdul-Karim, however, the harsh words of one teacher went even further.
“’You are going to fail in life’, he told me”.
At the same school, however, one teacher inspired him, putting him on the path to becoming a spoken word artist, respected Brixton youth worker and as of last month, a National Diversity Award winner. His media teacher was the first black male teacher he had ever seen. Abdul-Karim went on to study the subject at college. “Representation matters,” he says.
We meet in a cafe behind Brixton Library, which is also the HQ of Young Lambeth Co-operative (YLC), where Abdul-Karim is a Pathway Coordinator. Abdoul, 20, joins us. Earlier this year he was voted onto the YLC steering board after his mentor Abdul-Karim put him forward. As part of his responsibilities, Abdoul refers youth in need to YLC’s social workers. “He’s one of the highest referrers,” says Abdul-Karim.
Young people need mentors, says Abdoul. “A teacher can teach you about a subject but a mentor teaches you about life.”
He hasn’t always been so responsible. The third of six children, he was kicked out of home last year. He was hanging “with bad crowds and doing silly things”, he admits.
When Abdoul was arrested a few years ago, he realised how much the police had on him. “I swear this city has a camera for every two people,” he says. Now, as most local police know him, he’s no longer stopped and searched.
Abdoul has since found accommodation with charity Centrepoint. Under Abdul-Karim’s guidance, he’s successfully completed a SIA security guard training course. He’s in the YouTube reality show Real Life Brixton, under his artist name ‘Traumz’ and is writing his own film script.
Other young people look up to Abdoul. “Before I’d just give them advice,” he says. As part of YLC, he feels he can talk to them in a different way. Engaging community leadership is crucial for tackling youth violence, says Abdul-Karim. He quotes an African proverb: “It takes a village to raise a child.”
Years of austerity have taken their toll on Brixton, which “used to be very close-knit,” he says. Gentrification, institutional racism and an abdication of responsibility have also taken their toll.
Abdoul agrees: “Right now, there’s no love in the community. Why would you look at another brother, and want to kill him?”
Both men resist blaming youth violence on social media and drill music, a kind of rap. Abdul-Karim sees drill’s glorification of violence as a symptom rather than a cause. “It can sink into your heart,” says Abdoul, then adds, “but it depends on how weak your mind is.”
Last year, Abdul-Karim made a documentary about youth crime called Road 2 Recovery to raise awareness among the Muslim community. Faith leaders need to be accountable for their young congregation’s behaviour, he says. “Often they only care about what’s happening in these four walls.”
The film’s debut brought together 300 people from mosques and prisons, as well as activists and concerned families. Abdul-Karim wants Muslim leaders to install a youth worker at every major mosque. He thinks the Mayor should focus more on the grass-roots: Khan “inherited a difficult job,” but “he’s not doing enough to engage.”
Then on the Friday following this interview, Abdul-Karim was recognised with a National Diversity Award in the ‘Positive Role Model for Age’ category. He had been overwhelmed, after his nomination, by everyone else’s self-written bios, much longer than his own. Nevertheless, he was shortlisted. His mum and aunt were over the moon at his victory – all the more so because he, and they, didn’t attend his graduation ceremony from Goldsmith’s. This prize represented a kind of atonement.
“The most amazing thing about receiving the award is that the community voted, and I’m bringing back to a community that needs hope, ” Abdul-Karim says.
If his stellar work continues, perhaps years from now, we’ll see Abdoul on stage collecting that very same award.