Jack Ramadan might be a fighting-fit England boxing coach, but it takes a very long time for him to get down the high street. It’s 3.30pm on a school day, and kids stop to chat to him, shop owners hold him up, market stall sellers wave, and young professionals want a catch up. Everyone on Roman Road knows Jack.
Factory East, the boxing club and community centre that he founded, doesn’t currently have a home but it’s still very much alive. Ramadan is constantly looking out for kids that might need his help: He gives them career advice, signposts them to other gyms, takes them paint-balling or invites them to his pop-up boxing club.
‘I’m always looking for troubled youth and for ways to help them,’ Ramadan says when we meet for a cup of tea (peppermint, on the house) at Muxima. ‘My remit would be kids that are at risk of going into gangs, basically who haven’t got a father or mother figure. That’s who I go after to try and change their lives.’
Despite working with the community for ten years, raising over £360,000 and helping more than 15,000 people, Factory East doesn’t have a permanent base. And as rents in the area rise, it’s becoming harder to find a property local to Bow. So what’s next for the community’s local boxing club?
Factory East was started by Ramadan in 2008 while he was still working as a builder. ‘At the time there were thousands of youth hanging around on corners not doing anything,’ he says. ‘I went out and did some research and realised there wasn’t being much offered to them in terms of youth clubs.’
Naturally, Ramadan decided to take on a 6,000sqft warehouse on Fairfield Road, raise £105,000, build state-of-the-art recording and film studios, and set up a boxing club six days-a-week. Ramadan explains: ‘It wasn’t a charity or nothing, it was just an initiative, a voluntary organisation. I told everyone I knew – school teachers, businessmen, locals – that I was starting it up and lots of people wanted to help.’
After being on Fairfield Road for three years, Factory East was removed by property developers who wanted to turn the space into flats and increase the rent. As a result, the project moved to Towcester House. But they didn’t have room for studios for kids to make music videos, and had to focus solely on boxing.
‘I went and raised all the funds to do that space up,’ Ramadan says. ‘It was about nine local companies that helped me finance it, buying around £60,000 worth of gym equipment. That’s all in storage now. Waiting for when I get another place.’ Due to demand from property developers, the space was sold last year and made into (more) flats.
Ramadan, who grew up in Tower Hamlets, started boxing at eight years old. But it is the years he spent in prison in his teens and early twenties that, he says, helps the most with his work with children. It means they can relate. ‘I was the worst kid,’ Ramadan remembers. ‘I was kicked out of school, but I opened my eyes to that. I realised that my challenge in life was to help youth that aren’t educated, who are clueless to other stuff. To tell them that crime is always going to be there for you, but change isn’t always going to be.’
The kids who came to Ramadan’s boxing gym would often hear about it by word of mouth, through a friend or family member who would tell them to ‘go down to Jack’s gym’ – words that seem to have become a saying in themselves.
And so Ramadan prides himself on not forcing anyone through the doors: ‘It’s never us dragging them in, we don’t chase the numbers, we never use leaflets.’ Perhaps it is this freedom, this choice to turn up to classes, that is part of Factory East’s magic. ‘The kids that I target are really hard to reach,’ Ramadan continues. ‘But I’d never pressure anyone into coming in or making a change. I let them do what makes them happy.’
With thousands of young people having come through his boxing ring, Ramadan doesn’t have to think hard to remember a success story. Ryan was 15 years old when he first came into the Towcester House club, Ramadan tells me. He had just been kicked out of his pupils referral unit (PRU), a school for excluded kids. ‘He was very shy and bad tempered when he first came,’ he says. ‘We told him to buck up his ideas at school and not to treat his teachers like shit.’
After coming along to Ramadan’s classes, the boxing gym changed him. Ryan got back into his PRU, left school with all his GCSEs, went to college and became a plumber. This is not an unusual story. Many of the kids visited Ramadan were unable to trust adults, avoided eye contact and acted up. But they would leave as model students. Ramadan even tells me about school teachers who would drop past the Factory, desperate to see the place that turned their most troublesome students in A* pupils.
Ramadan puts much of Factory East’s success down to the local volunteers. ‘All the people who helped in the Factory – the young people look up to them as mother and father figures,’ he says. ‘The volunteers don’t care about money, they’re there because they really care. I’ll say to the kids, “All of this is being run off my back because I care about your life, and the reason I care about your life is because I was one of you”.’
Despite starting off with the aim to target just troubled kids, the whole of Bow soon caught Factory-fever. Ramadan explains that the gym became a place where the community came together. ‘We were introducing kids to bankers, insurance brokers, people they wouldn’t have the chance to meet otherwise,’ he says.
‘In the gym at one time, there could be young professionals, ex-members of gangs, boys kicked out of school, people in university, adults who want to get fitter, bankers who want to let off a bit of steam.’
What brought them together, according to Ramadan, was the therapy of the punchbag. Boxing gave people something positive to focus on, instilled discipline and got them fit. ‘The community needed it. It brought collusion’ he says. ‘It also helped a lot of people who finished work and would drink wine or beer to pass their life. But then they realised boxing gave them a focus. It gave them something else to live for. Or it could be someone that’s well educated, has a good job, but doesn’t have much of a community life other than going down the pub.’
Ramadan has always felt strongly about bringing the community together – about encouraging communication between generations, postcodes and religions. ‘Recently I noticed that when all the youths were on the street corners, a lot of people would cross the road. They didn’t have a connection. They were frightened of them.’
So he gave the kids video cameras and dictaphones, and sent them down to the market, the Idea Store and the Geezer’s Club to interview people about what the area used to be like, their childhoods and their careers. People stopped crossing the road to get away from kids, and started talking to them.
Despite Canary Wharf bankers and City accountants investing in Ramadan, Factory East still doesn’t have a home. ‘I’ve been looking at all the units in the area but the prices have skyrocketed through the roof. The other option we’re facing is relocating to another area.’
But it feels like Jack Ramadan belongs on Roman Road: drinking peppermint tea in Muxima or Fosters in the pub or chatting with mums in the shoe shop. For Ramadan, it’s not really about the high street, but about the people on it.
‘The reason that I’m here is because I love the work that I do. There’s no purpose for me here unless I’m doing this,’ he says. ‘My commitment to helping the young people, the vulnerable, the socially excluded – that’s why I’m here.’
All photos credit to Dawud Marsh. Marsh is a Bow-based photographer who photographs flowers, architecture, streets, people and sports.
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