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Illustration by Edward Kinsella  

The worst incident occurred this past February, when a group of students ran into the school seeking refuge from a brawl outside, only to be followed by six young men. The intruders sprinted past the security desk, caught a teen from Togo in the lobby, and smashed him in the head with a hammer.

Compared with his classmates, Mohamed often wore more expensive clothes, which at times made him a target, too. Neighborhood kids coveted his pea-green Marmot parka, which everyone referred to as his “Big Boy.” For an African boy, the parka was a way to survive the New York winter, but it was also a status symbol.

One day, as Mohamed walked from school, a group of young men tried to strip him of it, slamming him on the head with a walking stick. Another time, a would-be thief slid his hand inside his own coat to reveal what looked like a gun, but Mohamed got away.

All of Mohamed’s friends knew what sort of mother he had. If you called looking for him and she didn’t already know you, she would pepper you with questions: What’s your name? Who are your parents? How do you know my son? If she thought you were a positive influence, she’d invite you over all the time. She’d ask about your family, your after-school job. And, of course, she’d always feed you. Sometimes there would be so many boys over she’d hand them each a bowl of food, then send them into the hall to eat since there were too many to squeeze into the living room.

Her welcoming ways were part of a calculated strategy: Better her son and his friends were indoors where she could watch them than outside. She put the numbers of Mohamed’s friends into her phone, and if she didn’t know where her son was at any given moment, she’d start dialing. “Is Mohamed with you?” she’d ask one boy after another, until she got an answer. And she tried to enlist his friends in her campaign, telling them, “Please, if you see Mohamed doing something wrong, let me know.”

“He never started a fight. But whenever a fight started, he’d never run.”

Friday nights often found Mohamed on Tinton Avenue, hanging out in front of an African grocery store with 20 or 30 teenage boys, everybody speaking Fulani. To anyone walking by, it would look like nothing serious was going on—just a bunch of kids joking around, slap-boxing, knocking each other’s baseball hats off. But, in fact, these gatherings were meetings of an organization called “African Family United.”

A group of Fulani teens had started AFU in 2006, and the idea behind it is a sort of reverse peer pressure: If you spend your Friday nights with other Fulani kids—and you encourage one another not to give up on school—you’ll be better off. The strategy seems to be working: Today AFU members are enrolled in SUNY-Albany, John Jay, Brooklyn College, and elsewhere.

When Mohamed discovered that his classmate Mamadou Diallo was hanging out with a group of American kids who often got into fights and at one point asked him to carry a gun, Mohamed intervened. “These kids are not your friends,” he said. To steer Mamadou in the right direction, he brought him to an AFU meeting. Mamadou became the captain of AFU’s soccer team, and he now plays soccer for Suffolk County Community College.

Despite Mohamed’s best efforts, there was one person he could not keep out of trouble: his cousin Amadou. He’d become the sort of teenager other African parents talked about, a cautionary tale. One night in the spring of 2009, the police stopped him and found a .25-caliber pistol in his book bag. He spent almost the entire 2009–10 school year on Rikers Island.

Mohamed visited him, put money in his commissary account, and brought him clothes. “Mohamed was not feeling good about all of this,” says his classmate Mamadou, who made four trips to Rikers with him. “All the time he’d say, ‘I hope Amadou comes home. It’s not life in there. I hope he changes.’ ”

While Mohamed would often complain about his own mother’s constant surveillance, one friend thought he knew the root of her fear: “She was scared Mohamed would be like his cousin.”

On Saturday, June 19, 2010, Mohamed woke around 1 p.m. It had been a grueling week—four days of Regents tests, tough for any student, but extra tough when English is not your first language—and now, finally, the school year was over. Most of his classmates were at Six Flags for their senior-class trip, but he’d decided not to go. Right now he was much more focused on his own upcoming trip: In seventeen days, he would be leaving for Africa. Already his father had gone over to find a place for them to stay.


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