How two racists faced each other in court, then shunned prejudice to become friends

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The Independent Online

As teenage gang leaders Shaahid Latif and Ricki Elliot spent years fighting each other. The only thing they had in common was mutual hatred and the two young men, who hail from opposite sides of Peterborough's ethnic divide, eventually ended up in court.

Today, however, the once-sworn enemies are firm friends. Rather than scuffling in the city's shopping centre, or trading insults at nightclubs, they are more likely to be found chatting together about R 'n' B or helping other young people turn their back on the prejudice which blighted their early lives.

"I was racist and so were they," says Ricki, 18, who hails from the white working class area of Raventhorpe. "I would say things like 'Paki, curry-muncher', he would say things like 'White bastard', it just went on. We were racist to each other. It started off with fighting about certain causes and then ended up with gangs and then a big court case."

Shaahid, from Gladstone, the predominately Asian neighbourhood on the other side of the dual carriageway that divides the communities, remembers how the two youngsters would regularly clash. "Sometimes you would look at a person and know you don't like them. It was like there was any excuse to start up," he recalls. "I would look at him, there would be a few words exchanged like 'Who are you looking at?' or 'What's it got to do with you?' We were both really childish I think."

The tension eventually came to a head when Ricki was injured in a hammer attack. He accused Shaahid of taking part in the attack, although the young Asian was later acquitted.

At this point salvation was at hand in the guise of Peterborough City Council's pioneering Unity scheme. The two were sent away together to train as youth workers and discovered - much to their initial horror and surprise - that they actually liked each other.

"We were told we had to get along and we had to set an example," says Ricki. "We ended up sharing a hotel room, listening to music and talking all night. I learnt how to dance like him and, because I'm such a fussy eater, I found I preferred halal meat.

"You don't feel comfortable with someone because you don't know them," agrees Shaahid. "We found we had much more in common than we had differences

The Unity scheme was established in Peterborough in the wake of the high-profile murder of Ross Parker, 17, who was stabbed to death with a foot-long hunting knife by three Asian men in what the trial judge at Cambridge Crown Court described as a "racist killing". Anxiety had been mounting in the area following the outbreak of racial tension in Bradford and Oldham in 2001, and some feared that Peterborough could be next.

The events of 11 September 2001 exacerbated the situation. While there had been an average of 190 complaints of racial harassment each year before the attacks, this soared to 340 in the 12 months afterwards.

Youth workers observed the conflict between the white youths of Westwood and Raventhorpe and the third-generation Pakistani youngsters of Gladstone, was getting worse. "These were working-class lads facing the same problems but living in parallel worlds," explains Javed Ahmed, manager at Peterborough Youth service.

"They have the same problems with friendships and family dynamics, issues of unemployment and training. They support the same football teams and listen to the same music."

The programme recruited young people to take part in the scheme, leaders with "street cred" among their peers, who had been involved in racially aggravated incidents. The idea was to get them to celebrate not their diversity, but their unity.

Mr Ahmed said what they discovered were young people desperately looking for a way out of the spiral of violence. "I have learned that racism isn't needed," says Ricki. "Hate is baggage and you shouldn't carry it around. If it hadn't been for this scheme I probably would have been in hospital or worse prison."

Shaahid believes he has turned a corner too. Having been excluded from school for fighting, and spending some time in prison, he believes his problem was violence rather than racism. He has now returned to college and is studying for a diploma that will give him access to a business degree.

"Two years ago I wasn't in school and I was on the wrong path to life," he says. "I would only use racism under certain circumstances, when I was pushed to the limits. Now I am educated, I know about different cultures and different religions. I feel comfortable with everyone. We have Portuguese, Polish, Pakistani, Indian and Italian in this city now. I believe that is a good thing. My job now is to tell the kids who are younger than me that violence is a dead end."