Aik Saath - the community group in Slough that challenges prejudice
PUBLISHED: 00:00 16 July 2020
Aik Saath began in response to gang violence between young people from Asian backgrounds in Slough. The charity has been educating young people to challenge prejudice and has recently won an award for their contribution to the community. We spoke to Leader Rob Deeks...
“How does it feel to have been recognised for making an outstanding contribution to your community?” I ask.
Rob Deeks of Aik Saath has recently been given a Highly Commended National Crimebeat Award by Lucy Zeal, the High Sheriff of the Royal County of Berkshire at the time. This award recognises the most innovative and successful crime prevention projects carried out by young people who are creating safer communities. It is given for exceptional and inspirational work and for those who have made a positive impact on the lives of other people.
“Slough can sometimes feel like a forgotten corner of Berkshire so Mrs Zeal’s interest in our area and the issues impacting on everyday people’s lives was wonderful,” says Rob, who lives in the Britwell area with his wife, Tejinder, and two children, Talvin, six, and Daiyah, three.
Aik Saath means Together As One in Hindi, Punjabi and Udru. “We have this unusual name due to the origins of the charity – we began in response to gang violence between young people from Asian backgrounds in Slough during the late 1990s,” says Rob. “Efforts to quell the violence back then had some success, but to make a lasting peace, it was argued that young people needed to be given the skills to prevent violence and challenge prejudice themselves.
“Since then the project has evolved in so many ways but our ethos of listening to young people and supporting them to ‘be the change’ in our communities continues to this day.”
In addition to the training programmes they delivered, Aik Saath now run youth activities as part of a wider consortium of voluntary groups in Slough called Youth Engagement Slough (YES).
“Other important parts of our work involve oral history – bringing together young people and older people to share their memories on various subjects,” he continues. “An example of this involved young people interviewing a Polish aircrew from the Battle of Britain – we subsequently created an exhibition called 17,000 Reasons to Remember (reasonstoremember.com).
“We have also developed a service supporting young people helping to look after relatives with illnesses, disabilities and addictions, called Slough Young Carers (sloughyoungcarers.org) and a project that gives young people the opportunity to express themselves through poetry and spoken word, called Empoword (empoword.org).
“Our work is wonderfully varied but I like to think a set of values runs through what we do like the words in a stick of rock – a belief that young people need to be at the heart of solutions
to the problems impacting on their lives and that through working ‘together as one’ all things are achievable.”
Rob says they thoroughly enjoyed getting to know Mrs Zeal, the High Sheriff of Berkshire at the time: “She was really invested in understanding the drivers of crime and tensions in our community and took the time to see our work close-up. Thankfully, she has a great sense of humour too. Some of our clientele can be a ‘handful’ but they warmed to the High Sheriff really quickly and she had a fantastic rapport with them.”
So how are they coping with lockdown? “Very quickly we moved most of our provisions online,” says Rob. “We have been providing material support to some of our most vulnerable families and young carers. This has been a particularly challenging time for young carers because often school provides young people with respite from caring. With schools shut, they have not had the breaks they would usually rely on. We have been providing positive activities via Zoom and the American Women of Berkshire and Surrey have been generous and sent us gift bags to share with the young carers. We are currently supporting over 50 young people that are helping to care for a relative.”
Aik Saath are also supporting the NHS to develop a campaign encouraging people to look after their mental health during the lockdown. “Research suggests there are five things everyone can do to support their mental wellbeing,” says Rob. “If your readers have a look at this hashtag on twitter they can see what they are and take part in the challenge! #5ways5daysNHS.
“Lockdown has involved challenges but I’m proud of the way colleagues have responded. Working while trying to educate your children at the same time isn’t always easy, but any difficulties we face are insignificant when I think about what people in care homes and ICUs must be facing.
“We recently started baking for NHS staff, instructing young people how to make cookies via Zoom and then dropping them off at Wexham Park Hospital.
“Often we get asked if we would like to expand to other areas but we’re passionate about the corner of Berkshire we serve. Working with the most diverse community in the UK outside of London, I think we have a lot to offer in terms of sharing the expertise we’ve developed for the benefit of other groups and young people in other communities. Slough might be much-maligned nationally, but there’s a lot our community should be proud of. The way our voluntary sector and the local authority have come together to support our town’s most vulnerable in response to the pandemic is a brilliant example.”
“One of the benefits of staying in the same place for a few years is being able to track the development of different individuals. For example, there is a young man called Shahavez I started working with when he was in Year 8 at Beechwood School – he would have been around 12 at the time. He was quite nervous and had a severe speech impediment. He began volunteering for us, which was courageous in itself, given how much of our work involves public speaking and presenting. Shahavez overcame his stammer to become one of our most committed and influential volunteers. We went to youth centres together, intimidating environments, and he would present so effectively. Young people, often much older than him, would give him their full attention. Shahavez is now a doctor, working on the front lines to combat the effects of coronavirus.
It’s been a privilege seeing him grow from a nervous young man to someone saving people’s lives. Young people like Shahavez inspire me and keep me in this line of work. They keep going, bettering themselves and our community, regardless of their starting point.
“I’m also fortunate to have some incredibly inspiring colleagues. For example, Henna is a young woman from a Pakistani Muslim background. She leads our boys’ football session. For a young woman to lead a football session for boys and command their respect is impressive. But she loves the game and manages to involve some of the young people that are most vulnerable to involvement in crime and gangs in our community.
“My colleague, Abdi, is also really inspiring. His brother, Wa-ays, was stabbed to death in Slough in 2015.
“We deliver talks and assemblies to young people about the impact of knives on people’s lives. Abdi shares his experiences so vividly, from the moment the doctors told him and his sister that their brother had lost his life, to how harrowing it is for their mother to pass the spot where he was killed around the corner from their family home. It takes enormous courage for Abdi to share his family’s experience but he does so, time after time.
“I’m inspired by my colleagues and the young people we serve.”
Why I love Berkshire
“Tej and I married in 2012 at Windsor Guildhall and our reception was at Monkey Island. Two years later, we managed to move into our family home, just in time for the birth of our first child. We love where we live. There is a fantastic sense of community. For example, we have Ghanaian neighbours who drop off amazing Jollof rice for us. We keep chickens in our back garden, so we deliver eggs to our neighbours. They send treats for our children. I’ve never lived anywhere this friendly!
“Berkshire has so many fascinating places. We live on the edge of Cocksherd Woods, also known as Bluebell Woods. Burnham Beeches is also a short walk away. When people think of Slough, nature probably isn’t the first thing that springs to mind but it has some amazing green spaces both within the town and on its doorstep. We love where we live.”