Two communities from either side of the equator have come together to learn from one another how to fight the impact of gang culture on the youth.
Fifteen youths and 10 leaders from Belfast in Northern Ireland undertook a 10-day exchange programme with 15 youths from Bonteheuwel, where they took part in various activities in an effort to quell the rising anti-social behaviour in their neighbourhood.
The group left Belfast on Sunday April 9 and will return today, Wednesday April 19.
The partnership came about after Judith Kennedy, the Bonteheuwel Joint Peace Forum (JPF) chairwoman, did a one-year internship at a youth centre in Belfast back in 2003.
Since then, Ms Kennedy kept in touch, and with the establishment of the JPF and its Official Bonteheuwel group on Facebook, the centre’s co-ordinator has been following developments in Bonteheuwel and the work of the JPF to create alternatives to gangsterism.
Said Ms Kennedy: “The JPF was invited to speak at an event in Belfast last year around gang culture.
“When the Belfast Youth Centre received funding to do an exchange programme, they could choose bet-ween going to Los Angeles in America, or come to us. They chose to come here because of the relationship and the work done by the JPF. They wanted to explore the kind of things we put in place for alternatives. The level of anti-social behaviour is on the rise there, and they view this as the beginning of gang culture.”
Stephen Konrad, the youth leader at Ardoyne Youth Club, said they had noticed the rise in anti-social behaviour two years ago and had started the group to help deal with that behaviour.
“We realised that because of this behaviour, somebody could have been seriously injured, and we took a decision to work with youths from 15 to 18 years of age. We meet once a week to explore gang culture and the consequences that come with it and how one can get out of it. One of the major things that lead to this behaviour is drugs. More and more young people are using drugs, and many are easily influenced by their peers. The reason we came to Bonteheuwel is that we are dealing with similar challenges, such as gangs, drugs and alcohol abuse. Our experience has been top class and every day just got better. I know our youths were inspired and touched by what they have experienced here,” Mr Konrad said.
Rory McFadden said suicide, depression and gangs were some of the major things they had to deal with in Belfast.
Speaking about what he had learnt from Bonteheuwel youths, he said: “People here want to have a better life. Back home, people take things for granted. Here, people don’t have much of a choice, and back home, people are spoiled for choice. I really enjoyed being here. Before we arrived, I thought the people would be so different from back home, but I can tell that people really want to make a change, especially Judith – we share a passion for football. What I’ll take back with me is that when you do something, give it your all. Some people take the privileges we have for granted, and yet, some of the boys from here that went to eat out with us have never been to a restaurant before.”
Chad Jones, from Bonteheuwel, said he had enjoyed the teamwork and fun activities. “We have so many different gangs operating here, and we learnt that in Belfast, they only have one gang. What also struck me was that they take their education for granted, while many of us here want to learn, but we are challenged by the expenses involved. Education is more affordable on that side. And although we have many challenges, people here are happy, whereas people there are depressed, even though they have much more than we do and enjoy many more privileges.”