At age 13 he was just starting to find his footing in high school when he was threatened by a gunman in the tough inner-city community where he grew up.
Reflecting on what he said was righteous defiance by him and his friends, the now 25-year-old, who the Jamaica Observer will not name, remembers the thug clearly telling him that he would kill him before he turned 18, simply because he refused to take orders.
Last year, he immigrated to the United States before completing his degree — a much-needed escape as he put it, from years of numbing fear, nightly shootings, the murder of childhood friends, watching out for gunmen, and temporary relocation to another parish for safety.
"Me and my friends never too tek talk from the badman dem. We always try fi upset them and thing, and mek them know seh dem cyaan tell we what to do. Dem nuh like that. Eventually, one of them come to me and said, 'Unnu nah live fi pass 18. One a wi a go kill unnu 'cause unnu nuh listen.' I never really had any reaction. I just heard it and moved on," he told the Sunday Observer last Tuesday, noting that he didn't tell his family about the death threat.
The man, who underscored that even at that young age he understood that it was morally incorrect to join a gang, said it wasn't as easy as just being indifferent. He said many youngsters, like himself, were inadvertently involved in internal gang conflicts because of their association with other people in their community.
"If a man do a next man something, or diss a man and him nuh like that, if that man can't catch the person who diss him, him a go catch somebody weh him know and do him something. So, all if you try keep yourself out of it and dem thing deh, you are still involved. A just so it go," he told the Sunday Observer.
The man said he decided to share his experience after reading about 25-year-old Shammar Fletcher in last week's Sunday Observer.
He said Fletcher's brother's recount about him "being forced to pick sides" and being "pressured by the ghetto" is very similar to what he experienced, as they both struggled in an inner-city community and attained Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC) success.
Fletcher, who had 16 passes from CXC, subjects, is reported to have been involved in a shoot-out with police on Third Street in Trench Town, which resulted in his death and that of Corporal Oliver Mullings, who was a part of a team from the Kingston Western Police Division.
The cops were reportedly responding to a call in the area due to gang feuds when they were attacked by gunmen believed to be members of Federal Gang in Rema.
The man told the Sunday Observer that he identifies with Fletcher and explained that it was the same reason he decided to leave everything behind and migrate after many failed attempts.
"Some of the challenges that I faced in my community as it relates to crime and violence include guys getting shot at and killed just a mere step from where I am. There was a drive-by once, and I was standing on one side of the sidewalk, and directly in front of me men killed someone," he recalled.
"You're there and people just a get shot and people a dead. Most of the man dem that we grew up playing football with, dem dead. The man dem weh dead, we can build a starting 11 and a bench with dem. It is like you can feel death a come your direction. You just know seh death deh close like a soon your time," he said.
He related one terrifying experience.
"Me, my cousin and friends were chased by a group of guys, armed with cutlasses, from another area of the community because some guy from where we're from boxed one of them. So they saw us as an opportunity, because they couldn't get to him. The fact that we are from the same area was good enough of a reason to try to hurt us."
He told the Sunday Observer that two years before he emigrated, there was a big fight between his section of the community and another that affected how people travelled and socialised in the community.
"For about two and a half years I didn't live comfortably. Mi cyaan sleep at night. Mi just a haffi always stay outside and look just in case man a come. If you see a man a come, yuh just try move off fast. You have to memorise cars, because if one pass more that one time, you know it will be a drive-by. That was it until it got to a time when things got a certain way; man just see yuh and fire shot afta yuh," he said.
That, he said, pushed him to relocate, temporarily, to another parish.
"One day mi just couldn't tek it any more. I went to stay for a couple months, and end up come back like six months after. But some of my friends never have the luxury to move. They have family outside the community, but in other garrisons; so it made no sense you move," he lamented.
When he returned home the gang war was "still hot".
"Mi did kinda depressed. At the time, I was going to university and sometimes I couldn't go to class because man a lay-wait man at bus stop and dem thing deh. Some man had to stop go to work. Wi did just deh-deh," he said.
And because of that, he said, he had to develop habits that were far from ideal. But in his eyes, those habits helped him to stay alive. One was showering outside every day.
"I have water in my bathroom, but I bathe outside by design because I can see what is in front of me. I can see if a man a come; if a man a come, mi can run off and go hide or something. But if I bathe in my bathroom in my house and the man dem come in and see mi, dem a go kill mi. So, I always try stay outside and stay awake, especially at night," he told the Sunday Observer.
But that presented a challenge with law enforcement.
"It backfire pon yuh, because if you stay outside too late and police and soldier see yuh, dem a go assume seh you are a gunman. Because why are you out so late? Why yuh stand up in the dark and a look out fi other people? The thing set a way," he said.
He added that, while he battled those outside forces, he also had to contend with himself mentally, as he felt stuck and non-progressive.
"Yuh done know seh when yuh born and grow a ghetto, opportunity kinda limited. Couple of us — friends and family — got couple subjects. But it hard. You don't just get subjects and magically come out of the ghetto. It nuh black and white.
"I left school 2014 and didn't get to go to sixth form because of situations. I sat down at home for like two years because I didn't know what was the next step. Not many people where I come from pass grade eight or nine, so they don't know what to do either. I didn't have the funds to go to university and I wasn't working. I tried to get a guarantor, but, man, in our situation, nobody nuh really want to be our guarantor, or we don't really have access to people who can be guarantors. So, it kinda hard," he told the Sunday Observer.
He said he applied for various jobs and didn't get a callback. He was then advised that his address may have been blocking his chances. He then decided to utilise the address of a relative who was outside Kingston.
"Eventually, I got a call to work at a company outside Kingston. After a while, I ended up being transferred downtown, so I had to go back to the ghetto again. When I was on night shift and the company dropped me home, they never really wanted to go in the community itself. They dropped me off on [the main road] and I had to walk go in," he recalled.
Throughout all of this, he was actively trying to leave Jamaica through an exchange programme offered in college. In 2019, it almost materialised but eventually fell through the cracks because he wasn't able to source the required funds.
"I used the job to try and accumulate enough funds. That still didn't do. I had to get a lot of help from people overseas. I begged them money and told them I would pay them back. Nuff man nuh have dem avenue deh. A just lucky mi lucky seh mi have couple people a foreign weh mi can call on and beg them some money, even though some of them were reluctant."
He continued to push to go to the US "because even though the US is not a bed of roses, nowhere could possibly be worse than where I lived. I was thinking that it must be better than hearing shots everyday or a hear seh somebody dead. Also, police take set on yuh… dem see yuh and just start tell yuh fi spell words or start tell yuh fi do push-ups, like dem bored. All type of things. So, I wanted to leave."
The following year he was able to get a US visa through the same programme, but plans were again disrupted because of COVID-19.
The opportunity came again last year, and he grabbed it.
"I already had it in my mind that I wasn't coming back. If mi come back, mi most likely a go dead," he said.
"Everything was sorted out like on a Monday, and I was supposed to leave the Saturday. From the Monday to the Saturday, I couldn't tell anybody anything. The place was so hot, and it was like you don't want to tell a friend, out of good intention, and they are probably happy for you and go tell somebody. A just so the thing set. Me a seh mi nuh waan dead when a just the final day fi mi leave the island. So, I just left and nobody knew until like a week after," he said.