Describing himself as a reformed Muslim, 22-year old Nottingham Trent University Student Taquir Sharif says the only reason he is still alive today is due to the will of God. Previously, both a victim and culprit of gang crime in his hometown of Walthamstow, East London, Sharif admitted he had been involved in several street robberies, survived two serious stab wounds to the chest and witnessed the murder of two close friends. Today, however, he works as a dedicated philanthropist. A journey to Gaza earlier this year opened his eyes to the extent of global inequality. Making a stand against such horrific bloodshed now takes precedence over any other lifestyle Sharif once deemed important.
“I was confused, helpless and trapped in a world of street politics,” says Sharif. “I was suddenly feeling the pressure of a world-wide political attack on Muslims; what with this new obsession with us all being terrorists. After the fate of my two friends, I knew I didn’t want to end up as a troublesome nobody and reinforce the negative stereotypes already embedded in society.”
Deciding to step back into education, Sharif gained a place at Nottingham Trent, and is currently studying for an undergraduate degree in Quantity Surveying; he wanted the student life to take him away from his old habits and provide him with a new direction in life. “I had all the girls I could have wanted, I knew all the promoters to the student night clubs, I had free entry every night, in essence I was living the highlife – but there was still something missing.”
In January 2010, Sharif was urged to take part in a humanitarian aid convoy to Gaza organised by Viva Palestina, a registered charity established in January 2009 by Respect Party Leader, George Galloway. The convoy was lead by 500 hopefuls and 200 vehicles where people were split into small groups for better management. Sharif, in his group of three, managed to raise a total of £27,000 through various fundraising schemes, three weeks prior to setting off and also obtained an ambulance fully loaded with medication. According to the BBC, Galloway said it would be the largest convoy of British vehicles to North Africa since the days of Field Marshal Montgomery. “There is an intifada sweeping Britain,” he added. “It is a massive and peaceful movement in support of the beleaguered population of Gaza and Palestine.”
Leaving from London, the convoy passed through 10 different countries including, France, Belgium, Germany, Luxemburg, Austria, Italy, Greece, Egypt before eventually reaching Gaza. The entry did not come as easily. Described by Sharif as “unbelievable,” the first acts of human kindness were made evident in Greece “as local citizens welcomed us with open arms.” This continued throughout the journey “as people who had nothing were willing to give up yet more to help us; we were served food, welcomed into family houses, allowed to bathe and sleep until it was time to move forward.”
40 days later, the extent of poverty and destruction became clear. Gaza, Sharif said “was a large open air prison, with refugees trapped with no escape.” Sharif described his despair at having lived a ‘highlife’ whilst others have no access to food or medicine without being put in danger. “I suddenly realised what was important. The point of this convoy was not only to take aid, but was also to obtain as much media attention as possible and break the siege in Gaza and put an end to this inhumane present day concentration camp.”
After witnessing what Sharif called an “ongoing massacre” he realised one convoy is not enough. Although he agrees it is the right step towards helping Palestine he has decided to continue to fight for the cause. “For the first time in my life I had a purpose, and that was to work and help others.” He says he has indeed made a personal transformation, feels grounded for the first time in his life and is determined to prove that he will not waste his second chance. He wishes to continue studying at Nottingham Trent University, whilst voluntarily organising events to educate and encourage others to support the appeal for Gaza. Upon completing his degree, he aims to begin undertaking a paramedic’s course to fulfil a newfound dream of giving.
By Iena Dua