Lost and Found: The True Story of a Muslim Youth Gang MemberWritten by Chelby Daigle
Recently, concerns have been raised within Ottawa's Muslim communities about how many of youth that seemed to be involved in gang-related violence, both as victims and as perpetrators, are from Muslim families.
Last year at the ILEAD Conference, a young man approached Muslim Link's table asking to share his story as a warning for other Muslim youth. He had been involved in a gang and had gotten out. He too was concerned at seeing a significant number of young Muslims from a variety of ethno-cultural backgrounds getting involved in gang life.
Out of concern for his family, this young man has chosen to be anonymous.
Why do you think Muslim Link should write about Muslim youth and gangs?
So basically I think you guys should do a segment on drugs in the Muslim Community because from the stats, the areas with the highest drug related crimes in Ottawa are the areas with the most Muslims. I used to be into that kind of stuff. I used to use drugs. On a daily basis. And I've sold drugs. I'm ready to help break down how it works. And how kids get introduced. And how it escalates.
What affect do you feel your family, neighbourhood, friends, school had on you getting into the drug trade?
I had a single mom. She did her best to pay the rent and put food on the table. We would often be living borrowing money from people, just to get by. So it wasn't easy for her to be a mom and a dad at the same time. The neighborhood usually dictates who your friends will be. Because you play basketball with and go to school with these people, so you are bound to hang out a few times as well. The neighborhood wasn't the most innocent place either. Most of my friends' older brothers were into crime and in the neighborhood having an older brother meant you have back up when it comes to beef (disputes) and you already had a name just off of your older brother's rep. We also looked up to these older guys who were nothing more than low life criminals. Friends.. now that's the part where it goes hand in hand with neighborhood. Because as the Prophet s.a.w (peace be upon him) said a person is upon the religion of their companions. Since everyone I knew was getting a slice of the cake, I thought to myself why not have a bite? And after having a bite, and seeing how easy the money was to get, you end up wanting the whole cake.
Were you drawn to joining a gang because you were looking for a sense of belonging?
To be honest, the only reason one would choose to gang is to get something in return, not everyone is looking for that sense of belonging. There are other things which attract people, for example, money, protection, rep, more girls, and access to territory.
Tell me your story about how and why you got into the game.
Well basically, I was on my last year in high school and I was hanging with guys that sell, and things weren't going too well for me. I wasn't going to graduate, I only had 15 credits. I was staying at my aunt's house, didn't have my own place. Me and my mom wanted to go to the shelter just so we could get a cheaper crib since [the apartments] were 1000 a month and she only made 1300 a month, which left us with 300 for food and bills. I lost my job and I was having some relationship issues with a girl so all of that stress made me turn to weed (cannabis).
I started becoming a heavy smoker. I'd started off buying 5 dollars a day (about 0.5 grams), then I went to buying 10 dollars. So as time went by and my need for it increased, I started buying 35 dollars worth of it for 30 dollars, selling some of it, and making 50 bucks out of it and pocketing 20 dollars each day just to support my habit. And eventually I wanted to get real money, enough to buy clothes, buy food, party and basically live a fun life, so I got into it. After that I had a very fast come up. I was making about 300 dollars a day and living and doing anything I pleased.
Did you see people making real money dealing drugs? Is it a viable career option or does it just seem lucrative if you are coming from a poor background?
The people I saw making a living were probably 1 out of every 50 and the rest just made minimum wage. It seems lucrative because everyone wants to be the success story. And there are your typical neighborhood legends: who got sentenced for life or died, who used to have it all-cars, women, cash. So every young kid wants that.
Were you aware of how people could actually make real money? Did you understand that you were really at the bottom of the food chain when it came to drug dealing in Ottawa?
I didn't realize it because I knew so little.
Did you learn from someone how to deal, avoid arrest, etc? How does a young person figure out how to navigate this world?
That stuff was taught to us at an early age, as young as grade 9. We were street smart. I knew all the rules from a young age, just by being around friends. Their older brothers taught them. Just like putting crack in your butt crack, excuse my language, not talking to cops, not being bait, your homies (close male friends) over women. There are thing which are like the GCode (Gang Code) that you follow.
How much of the 'gansta life" also connected with the idea of being a man?
As a kid I was the opposite. A lot of these gangsters started off in the Qur'an class. They used to be good little kids. I was completely against that way (gang life) up until [I was] 16 years old. I felt like if I was able to say I sold crack. I'd be considered more of a real nigga.
Can you unpack the term "real nigga"?
A Real nigga is someone who gets respect in the hood (neighbourhood); it's the highest level for one to be considered by peers. It means you are not a snitch, you handle beef, you make sure your homies eat, you have the girls on lock (under control), you show them no sweet side, you got money on lock. That's what a real nigga is. Of course, I didn't want to be seen as any less than a real nigga, but the term 'real man' was rarely used. We never worried about becoming a man or what a real man even was, the main focus was on being a real nigga.
Do Muslims form gangs together or are the gangs more based on race?
It's very segregated. Arabs with Arabs. Somalis with Somalis. Each race does their own thing. Asians are higher up so you won't see them on the street level.
But if Arabs and Somalis are from the same 'hood, how does that work out?
They co-exist, could have beef at times, but each race sticks to their own There could be problems. I've seen guys get jumped, really bad, numerous times. It's giving me a bad feeling in my gut, just remembering guys faces after they got beat up. I never joined in though. I just never had the heart to do that. I just didn't want it to happen to me so I kept very discrete.
If people are violent are they seen as being more "real niggas"?
Depends on what type of violence it is. If it's done to kids or people jumping those alone then your credit goes down. But if it's one on one, or fighting powerful people or those on your level, then you get credit.
How do you find a market for what you are selling? How do people actually make money?
Anyone and everyone. I can spot a crack head. And a simple glimpse. I can smell it off people. And I can see their eyes when they are high get glassy. Basically you can tell how a crack looks. So when you see one, you walk up to them, ask them if they smoke and if they do, you give them your number and ask them to try a sample. So it all works through your phone. You get a call and you go see them. The more customers, the more money. Of course certain areas are known for crack, Vanier being one of them.
Was it understood that certain places were a rival group's territory?
Not really groups but individuals. Like that neighborhood belongs to so and so.
So you would know not to go there?
Depends on who the guy was and if you are scared of him or not.
Is drug-dealing hard work?
Well, it's not glamorous. But the money makes up for it. But it is a lot of work. Fear. Worry. Because sometime when you front (give drugs without getting payment) a crack head and he owes you $1,000 you have to hunt him down. Sometimes they owe you more, 20 grand plus interest.
Did you realize it would be this much work when you got into the game?
Not at all.
Do you feel that your early Islamic education helped to build your character enough so that you could resist the temptation of the game? If not, what type of Islamic education do you think would have helped?
My mom taught me deen (religion) from an early age, Qur'an memorization at the age of 3. And she enrolled me into an Islamic school in Grade 1. I learned the 5 pillars, stories of the Prophets. I had morals so when I entered into public school for high school, I was always God-Conscious.
I remember telling myself I had limits, to never do things I couldn't retract, such as getting tattoos. So sure, the early Islamic upbringing made a big difference. And the guys who had that were different than those who weren't brought up with that because they moved different. They didn't hesitate to sin. I was always hesitant as well as other guys in the streets who I knew had Islamic upbringings.
But sins were still committed? I am writing the article for parents, young people, and those working to prevent young Muslims from getting involved in this scene. But clearly, the central issue is character, having a character strong enough to resist temptations at the worst of times. Do you feel that the Islamic skills necessary to cope in times of hardship need to be more emphasized in order to help prevent young Muslims from being tempted to harm themselves and others by selling drugs?
Yes, character plays a major role as well as identity. A lot of Muslim kids are ashamed to claim their Muslim identity. A lot has to do with bad representations of what Islam is and bad impressions. They see the deen as strict and difficult. If I carried the view I have of Islam now before I would have started seriously practicing a long time ago.
Explain the view of Islam you have now?
I see the religion now as a way of life and I found my place in it as a caller to Islam and as a role model for young boys. I find seeking knowledge of the religion fun.
But before you didn't see Islam that way, why?
Because I didn't yet meet people who went far in terms of daw'ah (sharing the message of Islam) and knowledge.
When I met [Name Omitted] I really seen him as a cool guy and I want to be like him, talk like him, walk like him, do lectures like him. And he's from the hood so I felt a connection with him. And meeting Sheikh [Name Omitted], seeing how strong his daw'ah is and how big of a figure he is, makes me want to be like him. Meeting the muhadith [Name Omitted] who memorized over 10000 hadiths.
My old role models were rappers, like Max B. He's in jail now for 75 years. I wanted to be just like him Or a drug dealer from the neighborhood who is also in jail now. But then I saw the deen in actually cool people who I want to be like.
So positive male role models might be more of a deciding factor than Islamic education in these cases?
Well, I think it goes back to the neighborhoods we live in. The low income areas in Ottawa are predominantly Muslim. A lot of these immoralities are associated with the environments we grow up in, drugs, guns are low income housing remedies.
So, how did you get out of the game and why? What triggered you changing your mind?
When I went to Makkah, I made a promise to Allah at the kaba'a (House of Allah in Makkah, Saudi Arabia) that I would never sell crack again.
When did you go to Makkah?
Four years ago, when I was 19, I was still dealing and my mom said "We're going to Makkah to do Umrah. At first I was like "Naa, I don't wanna do that. Let's use the money to buy a new car or something."
The few days before I went were my worst days. I was indulging in many major sins. I still remember something my old friends told me that I will never forget. I was in a crack house and I was having a cigarette and I said to them the only thing that matters to me at the end of the day is the deen. I remember them saying "You're in a crack house, you're high, you're smoking and you're talking about the only thing that matters to you is the deen? Get outta here with that nonsense!" I will never forget that line.
Were these other boys from Muslim backgrounds?
Yeah, all of them.
So you went to Makkah. What significance did that journey have for you? Do you feel your mother intended to use this trip to help you get out of the game?
Yeah, that was the whole purpose of the trip and it helped me. Even though I had ups and downs after, I ended up seeing what truly matters in my life-Islam. And practicing my religion brings me the only true happiness.
Muslim Link is grateful to this young man for sharing his story and Insh'Allah (God willing) he will stay on the straight path.
For more information about Muslim Youth and Gangs check our our blog post Information Session on Muslim Youth and Gangs.
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