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Pulling punches: The North Woolwich boxing club steering kids away from violence

PUBLISHED: 11:53 13 December 2017 | UPDATED: 07:51 15 December 2017

Sparring in the gym. Picture: Steve Poston

Sparring in the gym. Picture: Steve Poston

Archant

On a Monday evening in North Woolwich, a party was buzzing.

Case study: Ronaldo Rose

When life at home became stressful, Ronaldo Rose, 15, found himself looking “for something to do”. Boxing was the answer.

Since following his brother into the academy a year and a half ago, he’s been elected to their youth council and volunteered at training sessions.

“How I’ve grown up and things that have happened in my life have kind of pushed me to the edge a bit,” he said.

“But when I come to Fight for Peace that’s changed me.

“I know how to react in certain situations, how to respond to certain people.”

Now studying for his GCSEs at New Directions pupil referral unit in Woodman Street, North Woolwich, Ronaldo hopes to study sport science at college and become a boxing coach.
Or a film star.

What attracts him to coaching?

“Just the fact that people give you respect for listening to you.”

And can he act like Jason Statham?

He pauses. “Maybe better.”

Blue and white balloons filled the gym, the boxing ring a stage where awards changed hands and groups posed for photos.

Fight for Peace was celebrating 10 years of teaching young east Londoners to pull their punches.

The academy began life in the slums in Rio de Janeiro to keep youngsters away from the high levels of drug-related crime.

A London branch followed, along with visits from Anthony Joshua and two-time Olympic gold medallist Nicola Adams.

From left: Ronaldo Rose, Aziza Bashar, Jacob Whittingham, Shamsul Islam and Athena Bashar in the ring. Picture: Steve Poston From left: Ronaldo Rose, Aziza Bashar, Jacob Whittingham, Shamsul Islam and Athena Bashar in the ring. Picture: Steve Poston

It now works with 1,300 young people each year to better themselves in education and employment.

The good fight, however, hadn’t come easy.

Dr Jacob Whittingham, 38, the club’s director of programmes, said: “Even the young people in Rio in the favelas are shocked at the way violence is conducted in the UK.

“It’s an indication that there is a really severe problem and it tends to emanate for similar reasons.”

Karim Samms was shot dead in North Woolwich. Picture credit: Met Police. Karim Samms was shot dead in North Woolwich. Picture credit: Met Police.

Past members, said Dr Whittingham, have gone on to become engineers, accountants and, yes, boxing coaches.

“Young people should not only have a voice, which sometimes can be tokenistic. They actually have a stake in the way in which our charity is lead.”

Young people aged between seven and 25 years old help run events, training sessions and interview staff, nearly half of whom are former members.

But there are daunting odds against them.

From left: Athena Bashar, 15, and her 10-year-old sister Aziza. Picture: Steve Poston From left: Athena Bashar, 15, and her 10-year-old sister Aziza. Picture: Steve Poston

Gun and knife attacks continue to blight the borough, with figures from the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime listing 331 victims of “serious youth violence” in 2015/16. There were 6,290 victims across the capital, up 20 per cent from 2012/13.

Last year Mayor of London Sadiq Khan pledged £400,000 to tackle the “growing problems” of “knife crime and youth violence”.

In April, Fight for Peace member Karim Samms was killed in a drive-by shooting in nearby Roebourne Way. The 16-year-old had spent the last six months of his life working in a Putney restaurant, hoping to become a chef.

“Right after Karim died, earlier in the year, we had a number of meetings with some of the youth workers and young people,” said Dr Whittingham.

“There was a lot of anger but they were very vocal about what they wanted to change.”

The talks produced a new youth outreach project, to be piloted in January.

The programme will work with at risk youngsters in a borough where almost 400 acid attacks were committed in the last five years – three times more than the next local authority in London.

Brazil or Beckton, you saw the same problem: young people felt apart from a society that offered neither a home nor a meaningful life.

“In the UK, and particularly in Newham, what we found is the problem tends to revolve around random criminal acts.”

Here, a wrong look could spark a fight. Gunshots. Acid thrown in your face.

The right one, however, could introduce you to new friends and opportunities.

“I wanted to lose weight, to be honest, when I first started,” said 16-year-old Shamsul Islam, a member of the academy’s youth council.

“But when I came in here, I just loved it... the people, the staff. There’s like a family feeling.”

Fellow councillors Athena Bashar, 15, and her ten-year-old sister Aziza felt the same.

“Everyone was so happy, they had bubbly personalities,” said Athena, adding: “They made me feel special.”

For Aziza, a pint-sized boxer with scabs on her knuckles, the training sessions help her take out her frustration in a safe place.

“It feels nice when you can do that,” she said.

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