From gangster to nation builder

Budding teacher Surinae Brown tells how he shook off the dangers of life

BY JEDIAEL CARTER Sunday Observer staff reporter carterj@jamaicaobserver.com

Saturday, November 14, 2015

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IN retrospect, Surinae Brown's life was tumultuous. The now 27-year-old admitted that before the intervention of the Citizens Security and Justice Programme (CSJP) he led a life that was heading for destruction.

"I was a very bad teenager, very, very bad. To the point where I was about to get kicked (expelled) from Papine High because I was doing so many bad things," Brown said.

"I wanted answers. There were a lot of questions that I had in my mind but I couldn't really ask anyone. I didn't want to open up to anybody because I didn't want them to know that I was feeling this pain," he said as he sought to explain his actions.

At age four, Brown said that he encountered a life-changing experience as his main caregiver -- his mother -- died.

"That kind of bring my life in a different way because my primary caregivers weren't there, so I had to be cared for by my grandparents. You know they tried to do the best they could with me but of course as a young man you would normally give over into bad influences," he said.

Falling to negative influences, Brown became notorious in high school and was labelled as the disruptive student from August Town. His search for attention caused him to skip classes, get low grades, pick fights and even become the leader and creator of a gang, among a myriad of other deviant behaviours.

"I would be the type of student who just walk in a class and start to sing a song and everybody just start to sing it, and that would just tear down the whole class," Brown told the Jamaica Observer in an interview.

Life became even more difficult for Brown soon after his grandparents emigrated. Though living with his aunts and uncles at the time, Brown was forced to sell peanuts and other goods in the Papine, August Town and Tavern communities, as a means of helping to support himself through school.

During this time, one of Brown's uncles was murdered -- another encouragement for wrongdoing.

He said that one evening after he replenished his stock of peanuts in downtown Kingston, he and members of his gang went to Cockburn Pen to get some guns to avenge his uncle's murder.

"While down there we saw some gentlemen on the road selling marijuana. I didn't have any money to buy any but my friends had, so of course they bought marijuana and, of course, I beg a spliff from the guys that were on the road... [and] we began smoking," he said.

"I was the first person who finished my spliff and I found myself running around bawling out seh 'police a come'. I pretty much got high," he stated.

All my friends were like 'calm down, man it soon wear off, this is what frass is, you ago feel high'," he continued.

He said he started hearing bells ringing at one point, as well as people making noise. Thinking that something was extremely wrong with him, Brown decided to go
home, contemplating his disobedience to his grandmother's warning to not follow 'bad company'.

"It was a traumatic experience," he exclaimed.

Hoping to keep it a secret from his guardians, Brown said that he went home and headed straight to bed to sleep off the reaction -- but this was futile.

"When I went in the bed, the bed began spinning. I heard people calling my name and I was like 'no man something seriously wrong', he noted.

Weeks after the incident, Brown was still experiencing side effects and was worried he was ill. Still afraid to tell his guardians, he sought counselling from community members, who told him 'dat a di first sign of madness'.

Rejecting that claim, Brown eventually told his school's guidance counsellor who took him to the hospital to be examined.

"Seeing the psychiatrist, he said 'you're perfectly fine, you just need to stop worrying yourself; there is nothing wrong with you', Brown recalled.

But that was not enough, he still thought something was wrong with him.

"I began thinking that me have AIDS; I wasn't doing anything to get AIDS but I thought it was AIDS. Then I thought it was cancer. There were so many other different things that I thought I had but of course it was mind plaguing on the mind," he told the Observer.

Still troubled, Brown said he remembered his grandmother's teaching that if something was wrong he should call on God for help; so he began praying, beseeching God's help.

He later got baptised, and said his life was changed thereafter.

"I was the biggest of trouble maker, time waster in high school, was getting zero on my test papers but it so happened that when I was baptised, the real change started to come," Brown boasted. "I began to get very high grades, I used to come second to last or last and I started to come third and everybody was impressed. So the principal of the school decided to make me a prefect and when everybody saw me in the white shirt they said, 'you a prefect, no man sumn wrong' so from there on change began to come gradually," he continued.

Since then, Brown was determined to "become something in life" and left the Papine High School with five CXC subjects -- receiving the highest grade in the school for Human and Social Biology -- a subject his teacher doubted he could manage.

After high school, Brown enrolled in the National Tools and Engineering Institute (NTEI) and completed a Level Two and three diploma in electrical maintenance and industrial maintenance.

He then began a course at the Vocational Training Development Institute (VTDI) part-time as he desired "to go to university to do something greater". Brown soon lost his job and was uncertain of how he would be able to continue to pay for his schooling.

"I needed some help, so I was looking for scholarships and was seeking persons who could assist me. I heard from the school and somebody told me about CSJP, so I went to the office and when I went there one of the representatives said to me that scholarships are closed but you can leave your résumé here and if something turns up we will let you know," he told the Sunday Observer.

Residing in August Town -- which is often described as a volatile, inner-city community -- Brown qualified for the CSJP initiative.

The representative told Brown of an employment programme which would afford him the opportunity to work at the Jamaica Defence Force (JDF).

"I took the opportunity, went to the Jamaica Defence Force where we were exposed to carpentry, masonry, pretty much anything and that's where I learned about CSJP and from then on the change begun," he said.

"The soldiers would have life skill workshops where they talk about every aspect that pertains to our life as youngsters. They will tell us like you have to be careful of the partners you choose, you have to be careful of how many children you have, you have to balance your finances, so they pretty much do everything, they touch every area of the JDF," he said, highlighting that he enjoyed the time he spent there.

Being at the JDF for approximately eight months, Brown was then offered another opportunity through the programme to intern at the British High Commission -- one he welcomed with open arms.

Brown was then offered a permanent position at the High Commission and has been extremely thankful to the CSJP for the transformation in his life.

"Hadn't CSJP intervene in my life I wouldn't have been employed at the British High Commission where I could be working so I could become married, because a lot of persons want to get married but they don't have the money so I'm really grateful for what CSJP is doing in the life of individuals. They have shaped my life and they have shaped me to shape others and I'm so very grateful. I'm just overwhelmed with joy and happiness for what CSJP has done for me and I know if I can change, anybody can change once you have a made-up mind," he told the Sunday Observer.

Brown is now pursuing his teaching degree in electrical training and hopes to pursue a career in psychology and counselling as he believes that this is his purpose.

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