From gunslinger to motivational speaker, a deportee's journey through crime, drugs, and deathMonday, July 27, 2020
By Alicia Dunkley-Willis
His only crime at the age of 15 when he migrated to Canada to live with his mother was that he looked too much like his dead father, a former Jamaican don, and that got him kicked out on to unforgiving streets after just six months.
Fast-forward 10 years and the former preparatory and high school student, Jermaine Austin was a hardened, cash-rich gangster, dealing in hard drugs and arms, a contract killer, a supplier of illegal documents, and a pain in the neck of the Canadian authorities.
“Talk about broken family, my dad had more than one babymother; my mother was the wifey and him break her heart. He was in the life of crime, he was a don, so with all a dat mi drop in. So tru me look like him she just end up take out everything on me. She kick mi out, me buck up fi him fren dem pon di street plus my friend dem [from school]. A schoolmate put me up for a year,” Austin told the Jamaica Observer.
It is from that angry, wasteful life that Austin would turn to become today a proud employee of The University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, a certified social worker by that same institution, a trained welder, a mentor for youth, and a motivational speaker.
In this interview with the Observer, what he recounts is an inspiring and riveting tale of life as a high roller with a twist.
The fact that it was his birthday when he was thrown to the streets, and the fact that he had done no wrong as far as he knew left him with a bitterness that took years to heal.
“That's why I never celebrate birthdays from that. I never back talk, never give trouble from school to home. Mi have two likkle fren, a Spanish youth and a black guy from Africa,” he reminisced.
The 'tour' his mother gave him when he first arrived in Canada, and the warning she issued ironically became the soundtrack to his troubled script.
“All through preparatory school, high school she was looking after mi, but when mi go up there, instead of getting that bond to get to know me and me get to know her, the first thing my mom do was show me the three prison dem inna Toronto. When wi leave di airport she show mi West Detention, she showed me Don Jail [downtown Toronto], she showed me East Detention, and tell mi anytime mi mess up a deh so mi ago end up, and mi end up go through the three a dem before mi get deported, plus the penitentiary,” he recalled candidly.
By now he had a gun in his possession which he says was given to him for protection by his father's brother who was also dealing drugs on the Canadian streets, and was his link for accessing marijuana.
“So now I out there on the road, I support myself through the weed selling til mi finish school. Where mi go wrong is after mi book misself into college. The first two weeks mi buck up wrong friends, and a guy was gonna get shot and I first shot at the person. I didn't shoot to kill, he ran off.
“So this guy said you have a heart fi di streets. I didn't know he was in a gang, so he showed me the streets and how the streets run; him say di weed ting naw guh meck it.”
That was his introduction to dealing in cocaine and crack cocaine. He had money beyond his wildest dreams but first he had to go to school, on the streets. College was now an afterthought as he was now having to hide from the individual he had tried to shoot who was a gang member and rival to his friend.
“I spent about three months on the road nickle and diming that means just [CA]$20 and [CA]$100 piece I sell. On the streets I learnt nuff, like yuh can't let nobody owe yuh an yuh can't trust nobody cause because mi have a product weh betta dan di [other dealer's] clients walk past them to come to you, so that carry envy,” he explained.
As for his clientele: “I went for the workers them, I go in the bars and sit and when work over and they come for a drink, when they ask for it first, I don't give it to them, I have somebody who work for me and that person deal with it. I end up having around 53 clients, male and females,” he continued.
At the age of 20, Austin had a million Canadian dollars stashed...in his closet.
But he also had big worries from the friends of the rival gang member he had attacked, who made a failed attempt to kill him while he was at a party one weekend.
“Dat did lead to a big war inna Toronto. In the papers they called it “ The Bloody Sunday”. “Two persons died,” he recalled.
He took refuge on Canada's west end on the run from the east end where he met another “set of thugs”.
“These guys were more rough...if them call yuh for a kilo of coke and yuh short dem a shoot yuh, an dem naw shoot yuh fi yuh go hospital. Mi an dem become such good friends,” he told the Observer.
To join that gang he had to “draw blood”, Austin admitted.
“Dem have a ting called blood in, blood out...drawing the blood meaning dem haffi end up a hospital or the morgue cause yuh haffi know seh mi do something and mi haffi know seh you do something, so a dat wi have as our tie, so yuh naw go talk pon mi an mi naw go talk pon yuh, everybody haffi get dirty, nuh gang memba nuh clean.
“Canada police tired a wi, pure shooting, one time a barrage a gun drop an a man juss call and seh 'blacks weh u deh, come meet mi pan di highway,' di man throw two hockey bag inna mi car back, when mi reach home, one have pure rifle, one have handguns. A deh so mi start sell guns and bullets,” he recalled.
He has a strange admiration for the police on that side and their tactics.
“Toronto come in like this desk here,” he said, gesticulating to the office desk he was seated behind. “Jamaica come in like dis phone and mi see dem use one night and curfew Toronto and them do it so sweet and clean not a spent shell drop, no shooting, and dem capture every criminal. How wi fi fight back pon suprise? Not like our Government weh advertise,” he pointed out.
He got caught in the dragnet and managed to beat the rap at that time, but his luck was waning.
Austin who said he was by now tiring of the life, allowed himself to be collared by the police after over a year on the run, following a shooting incident in which he shot and crippled a crony. In that year, he said, “Instead a do better mi do worse, anybody want anything done a Blacks dem call,” he said.
“One day mi juss get up an seh mi tired a running, mi ago do mi time and go home; mi juss line up everything wid mi babymother dem, who fi get which money and everything...I never know you could deport yourself so quick,” the now 43-year-old chuckled. He served seven of the ten-year sentence.
After landing in Jamaica and the virtual battlefield of a tough inner-city community in Kingston in 2007, Austin, rather than returning to the life of crime he had been schooled in, decided to flip the script and after a dizzying series of twists and turns is now working at The University of the West Indies, Mona as a certified social worker. He is a trained welder, a mentor for youth, and a motivational speaker.
His first entrance into the world of work was a short stint at the Urban Development Corporation. His decision, however, to follow a cousin to a Ministry of National Security Citizens Security-organised educational training programme where he enrolled himself, despite the fact that he was not even listed, was the path to his present life.
In the first few days there, despite his uninvited status, he single-handedly brought order to the chaos caused by his unruly classmates. Unbeknownst to him he was being watched by the organisers who noted his potential and leadership skills. His attempt at the level one course in English, maths and welding saw him going straight to the final level.
Unwilling to sever ties with Austin, programme officials selected him to hone his skills as a motivational speaker for troubled youth. He balked at the idea at first but when told he would receive training, no, became yes.
After one of the first sessions at the Bahia Principe Hotel, Austin was sitting in a lobby chair when the reality of his newfound freedom hit him and the tears suddenly gushed from his eyes.
“It feel strange, mi nuh have gunman a look fi mi, no police [like in Canada when his hotel stays were tense]. Mi go downstairs and siddung inna one a di big seat and mi a look round an nobody naw come say nutten to mi, an mi jus feel eyewater a run, an a man seh weh u a cry fah, an mi seh, 'Bredda, a dis name freedom,' ” he reflected.
His 'U-turn' was complete when trainer Kevin Wallace from Citizen Security and Justice Programme (CSJP) walked into his life. The then 33-year-old for the first time had to confront the question of how he started a life of crime because of a question he was asked.
“Yuh see all the time mi ago through HEART [Human Employment and Resource Training] and a try do good? No good nevah inna mi dem time deh. A when mi buck Kevin mi change,” he shared. It was during another out-of-town session, this time in the Blue Mountains, that he unburdened the pain left from his mother's rejection.
“Mi tell Kevin, mi have a gun and if mi modda come a Jamaica mi a go shot her,” Austin confided. An entire night of soul-searching and pouring out his heart to Wallace and more tears, started him on the path to that well-needed healing.
Today that relationship, he said, has been rebuilt from the ground up; that gun was wrapped into fabric and discarded into a flooded gully never to be seen by Austin again.
“Mi like people now, one time mi wouldn't say mi like people. Police a hug mi up now, dem naw handcuff mi,” said Austin who is still mentoring the youth and helping them with school projects using skills learnt from filling empty hours in prison for seven years.
A far cry from the gunslinging gang banger, he is 'sir' now and a force for good.
“Mi naw meck di six 0'clock news again, mi a meck bigger headlines, positive headlines. I give God thanks for UWI and CSJP,” he told the Observer.
His fractured relationship with his children is now also on the mend.
He had a word of advice to youth who are searching for a path to life: “Stop watch cable, because they watch it and they start acting like what they watch. Set your life first, fashion is not life. Girls hold up your head. Education is key, learn fi read and write, wi have too much dunce out deh. Parents if you can't handle your kids, the State is there [to help]. Single fathers continue do what you normally do,” he encouraged.
As for employers who might be timid to offer people like him a second chance, he had this to say: “Know people for yourself.”
Austin's story is one the Ministry of National Security is seeking to reflect more of in its push to develop a policy to guide the Rehabilitation and Reintegration of involuntary Returned Migrants (deportees). In a 2019 study of the condition of deportees in the island, the overwhelming majority have given the State a thumbs down for the role played in helping them readjust.
The study which involved 400 Jamaicans, the majority of which were deported from the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada among several other territories said family members were largely the support base for the returnees.
According to the study which was conducted by the researchers from the Department of Government at The University of the West Indies, Mona, 63 per cent of those surveyed said the Government did not follow up on their integration, 62 per cent said the Government was not responsive, 62 per cent strongly disagreed that the assistance given was effective, while 60 per cent said the State was not quick to provide support. Fifty-eight per cent of the respondents said they were met at the airport by family members, while 17 per cent were met by no one. Another 16 per cent said they were met by friends, eight per cent by a Government representative, and one per cent by a private organisation.
It was also found that deportees felt they were overlooked by recruiters because of their spotty past and also faced difficulties with accessing documents, such as their birth certificates and passports, which can take years.
According to the study, the majority of these individuals were employed in the informal sector in low-income jobs or were self-employed.