7.7 Billion

A former robber restores dialogue in marginalised French neighbourhoods

Former robber Yazid Kherfi travels in a camper van across France, hoping to spread the concept of non-violence among youth in disadvantaged suburbs

As a repentant former robber, Yazid Kherfi inspires respect in the communities he visits. PHOTO: FRANÇOIS BOUCHON/LE FIGARO
At the Médiation Nomade events, during which animators, educators and even local association leaders get involved, Yazid Kherfi encourages young people to make plans for the future. PHOTO: FRANÇOIS BOUCHON/LE FIGARO

TARTERÊTS, France (LE FIGARO) - It was a day of celebration in the market square of Tarterêts, a city classified as a high security zone located in the Corbeil-Essonnes district, in the southern suburbs of Paris.

Built in haste in the 1960s, the district used to be home to as many as 30 15-story towers, some now demolished.

Today, it is one of many French suburbs that suffer from high unemployment rates, daily insecurity and criminal acts, creating a great deal of tension between residents and the police.

Yazid Kherfi, head shaved, arrived at his motor home in the square at around 7 pm and quietly starting setting up folding tables and chairs, board games and mint tea - enough for a friendly gathering with young people at an hour when they are usually roaming the streets.

The previous week, the motor home had made its way through Carcassonne, in the south of France, and three days before that through Lucé, in the Chartres suburbs (Eure-et-Loir), home to one of the radical Islamists behind the Charlie Hebdo terror attack in 2015.

Cautious but curious, young people gradually started approaching the site - led by the youngest and most easily influenced.

A group of teenagers sat down with Kherfi and started asking questions: "How much did you make in your biggest heist?" "Have you ever killed anyone?"

Calmly, Kherfi replied, "Violence always ends in prison. I didn't earn anything from it. I spent five years in prison and five more on the run. I lost my best friend [killed during his last robbery], and made my mother cry for 20 years."

Yet it is precisely his life as a former thief which fascinates these young people, eager for thrills, who dream of becoming billionaires.

Some proudly boast about their first misdemeanors. "But since I fascinate them and have the same background, I have real legitimacy in their eyes, and they respect me,"Kherfi said.

Kherfi regrets his criminal past, but the experience allows him to relate to youth in troubled suburbs, and give them hope for the future.

"As a teenager, I was constantly called a useless loser and scum - which I ended up becoming," he recalled.

Now he defines himself as "a non-violent warrior" and believes that anyone, even those who hit rock bottom, can change. His own life is an example of that.

Born in the underprivileged Val Fourré district of Mantes-la-Jolie, in the western suburbs of Paris, the Franco-Algerian started stealing cars and committing burglaries and armed robberies at age 15.

In all, he spent four years in prison, and five years on the run. Finally free at age 31, he turned his life around.

"I had always been told that I was hopeless," he recalled, "Then, for the first time, someone told me that I was smart. That was the trigger."

He started working at a youth centre in the Yvelines region, west of Paris, which he later directed; he graduated with honours in educational science, and specialised in security.

Aside from his work with Médiation Nomade (organising 300 events since 2012), Kherfi now works as an urban prevention consultant and trains educators and police officers in conflict management. He has published two books on the subject.

His actions are bearing fruit. Recently, the city of Avignon, in the south of France, has pushed its closing hours for youth centres back to 11 p.m.

In Saint-Fons (near Lyon) and Clichy-sous- Bois (near Paris), the tension has fallen between young people and police.

Kherfi's experience has attracted the attention of authorities in Mayotte and the U.S. Eight French cities have adopted his model, including Corbeil-Essonnes, Valence and Saint-Denis.

At the request of France's prison administration, he has also organised conference-debates in 48 prisons, for 650 prisoners in all.

The 61-year-old former robber hopes to devote more time to reintegrating former prisoners into society, but first he's looking for a suitable successor to carry out Médiation Nomade's work. It is not easy to find.

This article is being published as part of 7.7 Billion, an international and collaborative initiative gathering 15 news media outlets from around the world to focus on solutions for social, economic and civic inclusion.

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