Former London Gang Member Helps Vulnerable Children
Updated: Mar 2, 2021
Raheel Butt, 35, quickly rose through the ranks of London gangs. He loved guns and fast cars. He knew how to hit and fearlessly went into street fights until the day when a punch shattered his old life. Now he runs The Compound - Newham street gym and protects vulnerable children from being recruited by gangs.
An Unwanted Boy
Raheel liked climbing London roofs. Down below there was too much violence: unfriendly neighbourhood children throwing stones or Madrasa teachers quick to raise their voice or slap an energetic kid. The worst was at home, where his father freely used his fists. Early on, Raheel knew he had to defend himself and those who were dear to him.
Raheel grew up in a family of Malawi and Pakistani immigrants in Newham, a borough of London, notorious for poverty and crime. Raheel's mother financially supported the family by working at two low paying jobs. The father never worked and ruled the house with violence and fear.
"My father attempted to kill me while I was in my mother's womb. He stabbed her when she was still pregnant, and I was delivered by Caesarian on March 10 in 1985. I was born on the same day as Osama bin Laden," Raheel said.
His father’s explosive outbursts of anger were a daily occurrence: anyone was a potential target for his fists. "My mum was not allowed to report abuse. In Muslim communities, a woman complaining about her husband is disrespectful and brings shame to the family. Their communities ostracise disobedient wives, and my father used this threat to keep my mother silent," Raheel said.
His father sent Raheel to a Madrasa, a local Muslim school, to learn Arabic and get introduced to Islamic traditions. In London, some of the Madrasas are not registered with the authorities, and teachers are undocumented immigrants. "They were invisible to the system. I was exposed to Islamic extremism at an unauthorised Madrasa," Raheel said.
Lessons did not go well for Raheel: he had difficulties learning reading and writing. Instead of support or encouragement, he received punishment or even slaps to his face.
"They viewed me as a stubborn child. My father would tell teachers: 'beat him,' if he does not want to learn.' And they did it. It was my new norm," Raheel said.
Early on, Raheel decided to learn fighting skills. "I started practising beating up other kids at school and I gained a name as a troubled kid," he recalled.
World Wrestling competitions and action films were his training materials. "I watch a lot of Rembo III, and I liked mujahideen. They were my inspirations," he said.
I Became a Dangerous Weapon Myself
Since age 5 he was spending long hours in the streets. In the sixth grade, he had already mastered wrestling, martial art skills and fearlessly brawled in street fights. He became friends with older kids who were "names" among street groups. Together they would explore different city areas, get involved in nefarious activities or level disputes. "I was very naive and gullible. I would adopt other people's fights as if they were mine," he said.
The adrenaline rush, peer respect, and street rank ignited Raheels ambitions. There were no signs of him slowing down. He got interested in knives and guns. At some point in his "street career,' he had a collection of 198 swords and samurai swords.
His interests connected him with different street gangs: his love for cars led him to dealings with a car theft gang, his interest in guns led him to a gang dealing with firearms. His need to defend himself made him a gifted street warrior used by criminals to sort out disputes.
He was ambitious. Raheel wanted to make his name by challenging other gang members. "When you cross a path with a criminal, you either avoid him, do business with him, or fight him. I wanted to fight others to make a name for myself," he said.
He quickly picked up street warfare principles and strategies. Soon he earned his street name: Big Raheel. He was not afraid to wait for his "target-victims" outside their homes and attack.
"I had an excellent understanding of human anatomy, and I knew where to hit people to hurt them. I learned it through wrestling. I became a dangerous weapon myself," he said.
I was not Playing Cricket, I was Shooting in Pakistan
In his early teen years, Raheel twice traveled to visit his step-father's family in Pakistan. These were not ordinary summer vacations for him. There was a small store displaying a variety of fireworks in the window. Raheel could not resist stepping in and getting a few boxes of fireworks. Making a few blasts outside the village seemed like an exciting idea.
When he stepped into the store, he noticed knives and guns on display on the shelf. "During these two weeks, I was not playing cricket; I was shooting," Raheel said.
He would join a group of local men for shooting trips in the mountains. "Guns are normalised there. Everyone’s just got a gun," he said. Raheel knew that some of the men had connections to Mujahideen and Taliban, his childhood heroes.
The summer vacation trips advanced Raheel's knowledge of guns.
A Punch that Changed Life
The major turn in his life started when he got involved in a revenge fight. Raheel was asked to "get the truth out" of two estate agents by a notorious London gang member. He suspected the agents to be "having parties, fornicating and drinking at the [his] flat.”
When confronting one of the estate agents, Raheel hit the man so hard that "his face broke." In 2012 Raheel was sent to prison for grievous bodily harm for 28 months.
In prison, Raheel learned that loyalties can shift very quickly. A fellow inmate later told Raheel that he had almost killed an innocent man with that punch. It turned out that the gang leader’s untrustworthy wife had weaved an incriminating story about the estate agents.
"I ended up in prison for no reason. It was the worst decision in my life. I lost my freedom and my good life. They did not visit me in prison, and they did not send me money. I was furious. I was fuming," he said.
In Prison he Learnt to Read and Write Properly
During the time in prison, he learned how to read and write properly. He spent a lot of time reading Malcolm X's books. He also designed a racing car on a napkin.
For his technical skills, he got electrical jobs at the prison. Here he also used his ingenuity and helped other inmates to wire and charge phones. "I was staying for a short time, and I wanted to help others," he said.
After he left prison, he got involved in building drones; he built his sports car, and decided to help vulnerable children to stay away from street life.
"The final result of the street mechanism is either a prison or a grave," he said.
His words are not an exaggeration of a convert: he had friends who were murdered or imprisoned.
Helping Children not to Fall Prey to Criminals
Now Raheel regularly consults and provides insight on crime to government and law enforcement officers. "I understand multiple aspects of crime. I found my place in the world, and I am using my skills to help other people to live better lives," Raheel said.
In March of 2020, he opened a gym, The Compound in Newham, in the same area where he got sucked into street life over a decade ago. The Compound is a place for people to spend time after school. "The gym is the place where you can show love and get a hug," said Raheel.
On weekdays, around 3:00 pm, when the local schools finish classes, Raheel goes on "patrol." He stays near the school and helps prevent children from being recruited by gangs. According to data, most youths are being recruited by criminals after school when children have nowhere to spent time, and their parents are still at work.
As a result of Raheel's most recent contributions, the Official Offensive Weapons Legislation on Knife Crime and Corrosive Substances was significantly amended.
He is enrolled in trans-disciplinary Master's studies at Middlesex University and hopes to acquire a Ph.D. in criminology and criminal justice. "I am practical academic. I lack academic knowledge, but I have enough experience about crime to save people's lives," he said.
However, the most precious time he spends is with his three year old son. "We named him Isa as Jesus. He is my best friend," Raheel said.
Whatever free time he gets, he spends writing his book.
P.S. Raheel numerous times helped me with my projects while I was studying at the City University. His openness and honest look at his past always inspired me. With blunt honesty he talks about his life choices and does not leave any space for illusions or romanticised gang life images. The most inspiring is his determination to change: break free from the old lifestyle, thinking patterns, and dedicate his life to save children from street brutality and misery.
Images from Raheel Butt's personal archives.