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Keeping young people off the streets in Lakemba

A partnership between a number of organisations is providing activities and mentoring for Lakemba's youth and keeping them off the streets.

The Lakemba Youth Project, at the local library just off Haldon Street, is a collaboration between organisations including Mission Australia, the Lebanese Muslim Association, Marrickville Legal Centre, Breakthrough, Metro Assist, Youth Block, Canterbury Council and Canterbury Bankstown Youth Service.

“You don’t think in an extreme way when you’re engaging with other young people.”

– ‘Nooks’, a youth mentor at the Lakemba Youth Project

Phoebe Ferguson, program coordinator at Mission Australia, said the program was convened after social workers noticed “lots of kids lingering outside the library, smoking cigarettes, with nothing to do.”

The centre, which now typically has 50 to 60 kids attending after school, work and study, was the result of the youth club in Belmore being transferred to Lakemba Library. “Parents are more willing to let their children go to a library rather than a youth centre, which carries a stigma of working with troubled kids,” Ferguson said.

The library also had evenings where it has invited young men to discuss radicalisation, which have “worked well,” she said.

Ambition off the streets

Mark Kamara, 17, “but 18 next month,” is a Australian Sierra Leone Muslim who goes to Ashfield Boys High School. He said the centre has “given me a place to go and meet new people. Every time I come here it’s pretty fun and I improve my ping-pong – I’m like the champion here.”

He said some other kids he knows “can’t cope and wanna give up in life, and drop out of school,” but he wants to be a banker.

The space is full of kids wanting to achieve, such as Emanuel Ajang, an 18-year-old Australian Sudanese who is studying to be an electrician at TAFE. “It’s better than hanging out on the street – and there's free food.”

He was at the centre with his friends, Amir Belfadel, 20, an Australian Algerian who works as a plumber, and Gom Akol, 19, an Australian Sudanese who wants to travel to America to play basketball. They all believe the centre helps them stay focused and stop picking fights.

Paris Kastanias, 13, who goes to the centre after school, said, “The older guys (at the centre) are friendly and kind of mentors – they help you do the right things.”

Mentoring over free food 

Paniora, 20, is a mentor who goes by the name of ‘Nooks’, and walks around aided by a wooden leg that he’s had since a childhood accident. “It’s a great ice-breaker and I use it as a tool to inspire – I can still rock climb,” he said.

A Cook Islander who migrated to Australia with his parents from New Zealand, after his mother became worried about the influence crime gangs were having on her sons, ‘Nooks’ became involved with youth clubs from a young age. He was won over by free camps, baseball caps, and help with books and uniforms - before getting involved with youth conferences. “I was able to have a voice. I didn’t know I had one.”

“You don’t think in an extreme way when you’re engaging with other young people,” he said.

He mentors young people at the centre, hearing stories of alienation and social isolation, and brings them back into the fold. “I always ask them first if they’ve had something to eat – food breaks down barriers and we talk about stuff over food. And I ask them where they’d like to talk. Sometimes it’s best just to listen to them.”

“All I can say is that I don’t hate you and young people don’t hate you,” he said.

“Early intervention is the key – it works. Packing the streets with police officers is not the solution... Police have a bad image with young people and the tension with authority is very high. (They) claim they're discriminated against by police.”

But for 'Nooks', an easy conversation goes a long way in facilitating peaceful outcomes.

Bridging the gap with young people 

Young people involved the project are full of hope for the future. Sia-Mani Aruna, 16, , who attends Beverley Hills Girls High School and works part-time at KFC, is the oldest of five kids in her family and comes to the centre every day. “It’s helping me prepare for the future and teaches me my responsibilities,” she said.

The Point

The Lakemba Youth Project, a partnership between many organisations, is keeping young people off the streets and facilitating their ambitions

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