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“I wandered around parks looking for gangs. I wanted to change them”

By Katy Regan
Mohammed Zafran and All 4 Youths posing in a goal mouth

A family tragedy inspired TSB Pride of Birmingham Award winner Mohammed Zafran to set up All 4 Youth and Community, an organisation dedicated to helping young people get their lives back on track

To say that Mohammed Zafran, known as ‘Zaf’, is a legend in his community would not be an overstatement. His organisation, All 4 Youth and Community, has helped hundreds of young people in Birmingham find a way out of gang culture, crime and drugs and into education or employment through sports and community programmes.

Zaf’s work is transforming the lives of those around him. He believes, as we do, that when you invest time and energy to help people around you, it can have a powerful ripple effect, inspiring others to make a positive contribution to the community for the good of everyone. Zaf thoroughly deserves the many accolades he’s received, including a Pride of Birmingham Award and a British Empire Medal, which have helped to raise awareness of his incredible work. We hope to do the same by sharing his story here.

Yet it was personal tragedy which led Zaf, whose day job is Community Liaison Officer at South and City College in Bordesley Green in Birmingham, to set up All 4 Youth and Community. In March 2010, his 24-year-old brother-in-law, Sarfraz Khan, was stabbed to death in a park. “To this day we don’t know who did it, which made it hurt even more. So it was either a case of do nothing and watch my family suffer, or try to change things. So one early morning, I just wandered around the parks looking for gangs. I wanted to change them. I wanted to help them. If I could help one person then it would have been worth it.”

Zaf’s grass-roots approach was dangerous to say the least. Many people he approached were high on drugs, carrying knives. “At first I was getting hassled every day,” he says. “But I was driven. I was passionate. They would be sitting around surrounded by needles, and I would say, ‘I’m going to do something to help you.’”

Zaf soon realised that by getting the gang leaders and key members on side and then making them the role models, he could make a huge difference. Some have even become leaders of Zaf’s programmes themselves.

Thajah Richards is one such person. He used to captain a Jamaican football group called the Reggae Boys: “There were a lot of problems with knife crime and drugs, especially within the Jamaican community. I felt like a lot of my team, including myself, were going down that route and that if we didn’t have football, that’s the way it was going to go.” The problem was, they didn’t have anywhere to play. Then a friend introduced Thaj to Zaf. “He welcomed us with open arms and gave us a place to play. He was a massive inspiration. With the issues we had, the Reggae Boys team was set to fail, but under Zaf’s guidance, the Reggae Boys became a multicultural team and in that way, we can all learn from each other and our differences. Because of All 4 Youth I got really into my football and even got my coaching qualification. So now I coach, helping out on Zaf’s programmes.”

An All 4 Youth doing keepie uppie with a football

Having access to the right facilities was key to Zaf making his idea a reality. He was working as a security guard at South and City College at the time, and when he told the principal, Mike Hopkins, about his idea, Mike allowed Zaf use of the college facilities for free.

Zaf then began bringing local youths to the college gyms to play basketball, cricket and football at weekends. “It just grew until there were queues outside,” he says. He now has about 13,500 people on the organisation’s books and has helped 1,500 get back into education (often signing on to courses at South and City College) and 1,200 into employment with the many businesses he has partnerships with, such as local restaurants and fast-food chains, and Aston Villa football club, where many of his proteges work as stewards.

All 4 Youth and Community has come a long way but Zaf still visits local parks (he has programmes in 15 parks around the city) encouraging young people to use their time more positively. “I’ll say, ‘If you let me, I’ll help you get into education or employment.’ I’ll then check up on them a year after they get their placement, to see how they’re doing. Then I encourage them to volunteer for my programmes. So they become a role model, and the chain goes on.”

Tayyib Quershi says that his life has been turned around by the organisation. “When I met Zaf, I had been badly bullied at school and I was very uncomfortable engaging with other people. But he got me involved in his projects – going out doing clean-ups in the community, or helping out with his projects. With Zaf’s guidance, I got a university law degree, something I never imagined I could do.”

Asked why he thinks he is so successful at engaging with young people, Zaf says, simply: “I don’t shout, I don’t criticise and I don’t give up on people. Everyone deserves a second chance.”

All 4 Youth and Community now runs more than a hundred programmes, such as the ‘walk and talk’ sessions, aimed at bringing the elderly and the young Muslim community together.

Mohammed Zafran holding a football looking to camera
Mohammed Zafran resting his foot on a football
Mohammed Zafran with All 4 Youths kicking a football
Mohammed Zafran on the football pitch
Mohammed Zafran and boys from All 4 Youth standing in a goal mouth
Mohammed Zafran resting on railings while looking to the camera

 

One of his more recent projects, the Asian Women’s Empowerment Group, offers Muslim girls the chance to play football, socialise, learn new skills and get qualifications. 

Challenging radical views is also an important part of Zaf’s work. “I work with people involved in the anti-terrorism act. I spread the message that this idea that it’s OK to kill someone in the name of Islam is utter rubbish. I am a Muslim but if you do that, you are not in my religion.”

The local area is very diverse, and the organisation encourages tolerance and integration. Zaf works with the police to run multi-faith groups in local churches, synagogues and mosques. “One of the best ways to build trust and cohesion in a community is to bring together people of different cultures and races, and Zaf has done this,” says Sergeant Hanif Ullah, one of the many officers working closely with him. “He then involves the police, inviting us to come along to the forums and share dialogue. Zaf has helped build confidence in the police.” And is Zaf’s work reducing crime? “The most important thing is to ask the youths themselves and I think they would say that working with Zaf has changed the way they think about crime, their lives and the police. Sport is an interventional prevention of crime.”

Zaf’s position of trust within the community means that people will now share crime intelligence and information with him, as Hanif Ullah explains: “This is a great neighbourhood to be in because everyone is doing their bit to solve crime, and Zaf is at the centre of that. He’s our role model. If we had only one Zaf in every community, think how much better the UK would be.”