You can understand why a dog walker alerted the police, in the nervy atmosphere after the London bombings of two years ago. She had come across a group of young Asian men in a homemade hut not far from Leeds-Bradford airport, one of them scanning the bracken of Otley Chevin country park with binoculars.
“I think he had a pretty impressive beard too, and another of them was wearing one of those camouflage jackets lads go for,” says Mohammed Kamran, a colleague of the young men. “But actually, as the police discovered, they could hardly have been up to anything more civic minded.”
The young men, some of them from near the Beeston area that housed three of the London bombers, had given up their Saturday to help supervise a Duke of Edinburgh Awards scheme orienteering exercise. And the brief misunderstanding was one of a steady drip-drip of episodes that lie behind a Beeston-based project aiming to recruit young people for Britain’s first officially accredited “community ambassadors” course.
The idea is simple and not particularly new; indeed, politicians talk frequently about engaging young people in civic life and breaking down barriers between communities. But Kamran and his colleagues have turned talk into practice.
Their work crystallised from the launch in spring of Leeds Muslim Youth Forum, a grassroots organisation that took a lot of its energy from frustration about stereotyping of the long-established Muslim community in Beeston and Leeds.
More than 150 young Muslims – from teenagers up to people in their late 20s – were canvassed about this and other issues, and the idea of community ambassadors came into focus as a result. Open College Network (OCN) agreed to accredit a course if Kamran and the forum could build a convincing curriculum. With the help of OCN staff, the wishlist was turned this summer into modules, targets and a recognised “community ambassador” qualification.
“For young Muslims, it’s partly been a matter of feeling that the community was being targeted,” says 19-year-old Hakim Hussein, a Leeds University law student, who will be one of the first to get the new qualification. “Feelings have run high, understandably, and we have had this sense that our voice wasn’t being heard.”
Like the students, Kamran is keen that the ambassadors shouldn’t have to deal with the fallout from 7/7 or controversy over British policy in Iraq and Afghanistan. He says: “Community ambassadors should come from all faiths. We want the course to be outward looking, engaging with Muslims and non-Muslims alike.”