Study of youth gangs from street to village

A new study of Sāmoan youth gangs in South Auckland has found that sending troubled youth back to their homeland can be detrimental to their wellbeing, and that of the village they are sent to.

Gisa Dr Moses Faleolo spent more than a year listening to the life stories of young men who had been sent back to live with extended family in Sāmoa in a bid to separate them from gang life in New Zealand. Gisa Dr Faleolo discovered that what seemed to be a good idea in fact, sometimes, had a negative impact on the young men and the Sāmoan villagers.

His study, From the Street to the Village: The Transfer of NZ Youth Gang Culture to Sāmoa reveals insights into the lives of five members of Sāmoan youth gangs living in South Auckland, aged between 16 and 24. Over time he won their trust and they opened up to him about their lives and the paths that had led them to violence and crime.

Gisa Dr Faleolo says despite the best intentions, moving out of the community and back to Sāmoa often fell short of expectations. "Rather than depend on extended families in Sāmoa to carry out the 'transformation', a more formal multi-faceted policy approach is needed," he says.

"While the parents hope their extended families back home can persuade their child to relinquish gang values, culture and activities, and re-connect with more traditional Sāmoan values, culture and language, it often doesn't happen. Instead, they use what they learned in their gang to adapt and adjust to authoritarian Sāmoan village life," Gisa Dr Faleolo says.

"For some, the experience was significant on an emotional level. One of the boys felt separated, isolated and distanced from his mum, to whom he was very close. His life in New Zealand was all he knew. The experience of being sent to Samoa made him feel 'abandoned' and 'disowned'. Others had to re-adapt to Sāmoan life after more than a decade of living in New Zealand.

"They also created gangs that replicated New Zealand ethnic minority gangs to build reputation for themselves for protection, and to allow them to continue the activities they were involved in here," Gisa Dr Faleolo says.

The five life stories used in this research formed part of Dr Faleolo's doctoral study Hard-Hard. Solid! Life Histories of Sāmoans in Bloods Youth Gangs in New Zealand, where 25 young gang members were interviewed. Involuntary return migration to Sāmoa was one of the key themes identified in that study, and forms the basis of Gisa Dr Faleolo's latest research.

"I was like getting a hiding a lot so my mum stopped giving me a hiding and just sent me to Sāmoa for six months …" - WF

Gisa Dr Faleolo says all of the boys sent back to Sāmoa were bullied when they first arrived at school, and the relationship they had with teachers and fellow students was often hostile.

"In the end, the boys' strategies for coping with bullying in Sāmoan schools was led by the adage 'If you can't beat them, join them'."

"…I never went to school, I used to like change my uniform to plain clothes and then bus back to town and just look for them [the bullies - now associates] and then start drinking" – BPF

Gisa Dr Faleolo says in addition to the "join them" strategy, the boys replicated aspects of their lifestyle in South Auckland, only instead of fights with other gangs it was against other schools or stall owners in the Apia markets. "One of them transferred his knowledge of slanging, or selling marijuana, from South Auckland to Sāmoa, and recruited boys from his village to form a gang," he says.

"Eventually the parents' confidence that sending them back to Sāmoa would keep them out of trouble and help them, turned to concern and anxiety after family members reported their behavior hadn't changed," Gisa Dr Faleolo says.

" … they ring and my grandparents go, 'It's better for you to bring him back, he's getting worse over here and we don't want him to get fa'asala [punished or fined] from the nu'u [ village leadership]. They were worried how I was getting drunk most times, shouting choo-hoo, making noises and swearing …" - MS

"Despite being enrolled in school, they didn't embrace or complete their education. They rebuilt their lives, but these new lives were copied from their lives in South Auckland. They took what got them into trouble here back to Sāmoa, from the street to the village, and in the process transferred youth gang culture from New Zealand to Sāmoa," Gisa Dr Faleolo says.

" … I had fights with stall owners at the market, I was too drunk, but she was not like an old lady, she was a tom-boy, cut hair, all tatts, then she said 'sau sau' [come-come] and I just went boom, she was 'niniva' [dizzy] and fell back, and I just laughed. But then I got locked up for two months …" - LOP

In the end, the boys felt that being sent to Sāmoa only made them worse and added further problems to their lives, he says.

"It doesn't work. Perhaps for some people aye, but not me. Somehow I still came back the same, no changes (laughs). I was sent there because I was getting into trouble a lot over here, but somehow being sent to Sāmoa got me into more trouble; just different country, different bloody idiots" - WF

Gisa Dr Faleolo says sadly, once they were returned to New Zealand, it was not long before they drifted back into gang life and crime. "Most of them remain unemployed. Their police records and lack of school qualifications remain obstacles to entering the workforce. A few of them also ended up on home detention, and before the courts for violent crimes. Three of these men became young fathers not long after returning to Auckland."

He says it is time to consider a strategy to prevent the transfer of youth gang culture from New Zealand to Sāmoa. "Failure to act could be detrimental to Sāmoa's villages, community development and sectors such as health, education, law and order, social development, religion, economy and cultural identity.

"If the growth of gang culture isn't addressed, the erosion of Sāmoan society could be at stake, as a new generation of Sāmoan youth find the attractions of gang membership greater than those of being a proud Sāmoan," Gisa Dr Faleolo says.

He is calling for a strategy to be implemented to ensure that extended family members, villages and social services are equipped with the means to manage wayward behavior. "It works by placing the onus of responsibility on key village institutions to help rehabilitate Sāmoan youth sent back from New Zealand.

"It might work this way, for example. As soon as the young man arrives, he is assigned a taule'ale'a [responsible for many tasks and duties to contribute to the wellbeing of the village] as a buddy. The youth will not stay with his extended family, but may visit or spend a night with them. The taule'ale'a passes on what he has been taught, and activates the process of correcting and reforming," Gisa Dr Faleolo says.

"They would learn things like the aganu'u [customs and beliefs], who he is, who his are, his ancestral lineage, the importance of respect, obedience, humility and love," he says.

Gisa Dr Faleolo says the model offers many advantages on an individual level, but also on a village level. "It can build strong character, improve relationships and enhance attitudinal traits like patience, forgiveness and resilience. It also minimises the strain on families, because they have the support of the village."

He says there is a need for the Sāmoan government to review and re-think existing policies, and consider this new strategy as a starting point for new policy development.

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