Aged 16, Damoie Byfield is recalling the day he had to run for his life, jumping into a gully just as a gunman’s bullet grazed his chest. He’s telling it so vividly, and with such a knowing smile that his mother Shian Leslie is finding it hard to hold back not tears, but actually laughter – relief that her son survived.
If that expression of emotion seems strange, then you’d have to meet Damoie, who is, a character. He’s likely retold these events from two years ago many times. It started from a misunderstanding, but he tells it with world-weariness, as if his life were a film script and his part cast for a man much older.
However, his story is real and despite this experience that would traumatise an adult, Damoie remains a boy with dreams of playing for Barcelona FC, joining the Jamaica Defence Force (JDF) or running his own business (in that order). He is a boy trying to survive his childhood in an inner-city Kingston where gun violence already stole the life of his close friend. This murder in the middle of a school year, unsettled him further, and brought expulsion closer after being suspended three times already for conflicts with teachers, fighting in school and poor school attendance.
Helping to keep children in school
“My head was there sometimes, and sometimes my head wasn’t there,” he shrugs, referring to himself as a ‘troublemaker’.
That was until his school’s guidance counsellor contacted the UNICEF-supported Peace Management Initiative (PMI). Formed as an independent body to intervene between gangs, the PMI uses a public health approach to empower residents through the use of dialogue to treat with community-based conflicts. A part of their work involves change work with young men normally involved in gang activity who now work to prevent violent conflict in their own communities.
Damoie is part of the UNICEF/PMI Behavioural Mentorship Programme, known on the ground as ‘Save a Youth Life’, designed to help children who have been caught up in gun violence and are close to expulsion. The school took his situation seriously, with the principal, vice-principal, the dean of discipline and guidance counsellor all sitting down to meet the PMI team. Together with other youths on the programme they were sent on a residential workshop held at Eltham Training Centre in St Ann.
How Damoie, 16, escaped violence and the threat of school expulsion.
— UNICEF Jamaica (@UNICEFJamaica) December 22, 2020
Opportunity outside his community
“I bawled and said I never wanted to on the camp (residential workshop), because I was saying they’re gonna lock me up way down in country. I thought it was a boot camp where they would make you do push ups, but it was nice – the best trip I ever took in my life. I got to meet Kerry-Ann from PMI and then Mr Booth.”
Sitting beside him today is his PMI case officer Kerry-Ann Henriques, who having interviewed Damoie, carefully matched him by personality with mentor Donat Booth. Donat then began creating the necessary structure, meeting first with his mentee, then his mother, his teachers and residents in their community of South Side.
“Fortunately, from my experiences I have connections in the community, so what he didn’t know was that I was able to have conversations with those persons he has friendships with on the corners, tough men. So, when they gave me their feedback, he couldn’t tell me anything just like that!”
Intervening in community dispute
But just as this relationship was being built, Donat received a phone call from Damoie’s mother who was in tears. Suddenly there was a new threat against him, and she was considering moving the family away. As in other communities in similar situations, PMI’s Executive Director Damian Hutchinson organised an intervention with persons of influence and went to the family home.
“People swore they wouldn’t do anything to them. Immediately it defused the situation, but he will still have to be careful and watch his behaviour,” says Donat.
The PMI also had to intervene at school and with the police, to make all those who interacted with Damoie understand the challenges he was facing.
Boys and girls impacted by violence
“Based on where he is coming from it can be difficult, but he is intelligent. All the teachers and all the guidance counsellors will tell you that he can do his work well, but that the only things that are hindering him are the nature of his involvement with the community around him and the things that traumatised him,” says Donat.
Close to 80 per cent of Jamaican children experience violence in their communities and for Damoie what he needed was guidance and an opportunity to see a different perspective. He has since grown from being a boy who couldn’t stay in school, to one who maintains focus on his online classes.
Positive example for his peers
“I wanted an extra day down there (at the residential workshop),” says Damoie. “I felt release, to get to make new friends, and I didn’t feel like in the community where you feel like someone is behind you and you don’t have to look left, right.”
“I found some people that changed me and sometimes now I’m in Mr Booth’s position because things come up where I have to talk to my friends.”
The cycle of violence for Damoie has been interrupted, and we hope a new one of peace has begun turning.
UNICEF highly values our partnership with the Peace Management Initiative (PMI) which has done much to change the quality of life for many children and young persons who were gang members or at risk of becoming gang members; and also children who have been traumatised, sometimes repeatedly, by community violence. PMI’s interventions have sought to interrupt violence, provide educational rehabilitation, vocational training, life-skills training, psychosocial and therapeutic interventions and other opportunities for children and their parents in highly volatile urban and rural communities of Jamaica.