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How can Erasmus+ youth projects empower young people at risk of exclusion from society? Find out through the story of Junior and Damian, two young ex-offenders who have turned their lives around and are now helping others to do the same.

One major issue facing young people with a criminal record is reintegrating into society. With limited opportunities, there is often little help for them when they leave prison, leading to a lack of motivation and an increased risk of reoffending.

This can trap them in a vicious cycle; a potential scenario that faced Damian Gordon and Junior McFarlene, both from Birmingham.

Instead, they received the opportunity to mentor others in the same situation through Human Rights Focus (HRF) and their Erasmus+ funded project. Working with Black, Asian and minority ethic (BAME) young ex-offenders aged 18-25, they focused on developing them to integrate back into society.

Junior and Damian’s story

Damian was the first to hear about Human Rights Focus, soon after leaving prison. Later, Junior was also inspired to join the project, saying:

“Before I became involved, I was out of prison and saw Damian doing positive work in the community with the organisation. We then discussed what I wanted to do and ended up linking up.”
 
As part of the project, the pair led pre-seminar activities - many of which took place in prisons. HRF had identified that the best people to lead these activities were those who had faced similar experiences. Damian and Junior had the opportunity to talk with prisoners and share their stories.

Group of young people in a room

“Through doing that, we opened up dialogue,” explains Junior. ”We were actually speaking and interacting with those inmates; some of the things that they wouldn’t usually have done, like asking personal questions.

“For me, it was a chance to speak to these inmates on a one-to-one level; asking personal questions of their experiences, what they’re going through and also, their opinions about the system and officers.”

Junior continues: “By speaking to the inmates and sharing our own experiences, we opened up dialogue. We interacted with them in a way no-one had done before in prison.

“We’re trying to open that dialogue and help them understand that there is support available, but you have to want it.”

While they helped to build HRF’s engagement with young ex-offenders, Junior and Damian also shared knowledge about the underlying issues. Junior says: “It starts from inside the prisons, with the breakdown between officers and inmates. Whilst in the community – it’s an ongoing thing that they need people who can support them.”

From participants to mentors

Being an ex-offender may be one of many obstacles for BAME young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, explained Khatuna Tsintsadze, HRF’s Chair of Trustees.

“If we take into account all the barriers they face, you essentially double up everything," she said. "Their confidence and self-esteem is below any acceptable level a young person should have.”

Group of young people in a room

But thanks to HRF’s project, many mentors and participants have flourished.

Damian says: “I’ve been able to build up my network, with people from the community and the different communities for myself. It helped me to build up my confidence as well.”

Junior adds: 

“It gave me the confidence to look at what’s going on in the communities where I’m from, as well as other communities and see how we can find a solution to try and support people who feel isolated, facing these problems.”

The project’s activities also enabled them the opportunity to visit events, with researchers and MPs in attendance. At one event, Khatuna recalls: 

“To my surprise, Junior felt very confident to speak up and people were listening. I usually think they would just go and listen for themselves to grow their confidence. But after a few events, they made a huge contribution and people loved it.”

Empowering others

Inspired by the HRF project, Junior and Damian have now set up a community interest company called “Can you relate?”.

“I never looked at myself as a role model before. Somebody that others would look up to,” said Junior. “But because of our experiences, we’re able to relate to people and have mutual understanding and respect for each other.”
 
Damian adds: “It probably would have taken us longer for people to have heard us and for that, I commend them. I’m grateful for their support and having the trust and belief in us to do what we’ve set out to do.”

Their final advice for others, who may be thinking of participating in an Erasmus+ placement, is:

“Believe in yourself and have trust. The people around you see your potential and they can help you unearth it.”

 

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