Father of London knife crime victim demands ‘drastic action’ and says ‘don’t ask me about bringing back the death penalty’ as he reveals his son had won a place at a top university to study law and was a poster boy for aspiration
- Sami Sidhom in posters for campaign to get parents to register kids for school
- Picked because he was top of his class and also because he had good manners
- Thugs pounced on him yards from his home and repeatedly stabbed him in back
- Grieving father has called for tougher sentences for those carrying knives
The poster shows two boys gazing raptly at an educational textbook, their fresh young faces filled with the joys of learning.
Displayed on billboards in Newham, East London, six years ago, it was the centrepiece of a council campaign to encourage parents in one of the capital’s most deprived boroughs to register their children for school.
‘Whenever I drove past, my chest would swell with pride,’ recalls Sam Sidhom, whose son Sami, then aged 12, was one of the pupils in the inspirational photograph.
Sami Sidhom won a place in the prestigious law course at Queen Mary University of London
‘If someone was in the car with me, I’d tell them, ‘That’s my boy!’ I even sent the picture to family in the United States, Canada and Australia. I can’t remember the exact message I wrote but it was something like, ‘Look, our Sami is famous in London.’ He was such a modest boy, he didn’t even tell his grandmother he had been chosen by his school to appear in the poster. She only found out when a friend saw it.
‘But he was picked because he was top of his class and also because he had good manners and was so well-behaved.’
Pausing to compose himself and wipe away a tear, he adds: ‘So you see, Sami really was a poster boy for his generation.’
Indeed he was. And given his academic progress — top-graded GCSEs and A-levels, and an undergraduate place on the prestigious law course at Queen Mary University of London — there can be little doubt a glittering legal career awaited him.
Perhaps, in future years, this brilliant young man might even have appeared, wigged and gowned, at the Old Bailey, to prosecute the type of brutal thugs who pounced on him, yards from his home, a few nights ago and, for no apparent reason, repeatedly stabbed him in the back.
His father, who had been awaiting his safe return from a football match, was drawn into the street by the blue lights flickering through the net curtains.
He emerged to a scene that continually replays in his mind: Sami, his only child, lying beneath a hornbeam tree as neighbours fetched towels and paramedics pressed them to his wounds in a desperate effort to prevent his life ebbing away.
Their gallant efforts to save him, which lasted fully half an hour, proved futile.
Sami was picked to appear in the poster ‘because he was top of his class and also because he had good manners and was so well-behaved’
So, Sami, 18, who was so sweet-natured that he’d never had so much as a playground scrap, let alone been involved with violent gangs, and spent much of his time caring for his elderly grandmother, has become a tragically different kind of poster boy.
As the 60th person to have been murdered in London this year (already more than half the number recorded for all of 2017), he will be remembered as the brilliant, blameless young face of the capital’s seemingly unstoppable knife-crime crisis.
The problem is so serious that Neville Lawrence, whose son Stephen was murdered in a similarly cowardly attack by racist thugs 25 years ago this month, and who will chair a new knife-crime review group set up by the Metropolitan Police, described it to me as a full-blown ‘epidemic’.
‘This is an altogether different kind of situation to when Stephen was murdered because we don’t even understand yet why it is happening,’ said Mr Lawrence, 76, who has expressed his willingness to meet Sami’s father to try to assuage his grief.
UK crime went up 13% in 2017 with sex offences, knife and gun crime among the biggest risers
‘When you talk to these young people and ask them why they carry knives, they all tell you something different. Until we identify the root causes we can’t even begin to tackle this. But something has to be done urgently, because what is happening is just madness.’
Mr Sidhom, 52, who runs a successful computer technology company, agrees.
‘Don’t ask me about bringing back the death penalty right now, because the answer I’d give would be biased,’ said this gentle, thoughtful man. ‘But something drastic has to be done.
‘Perhaps there should be a first-strike rule, with jail sentences for anyone found with a knife, even for the first time. Maybe the police should search groups of more than two or three people loitering on the streets. But no family should have to suffer as we are.’
If anything good can be said to have come of Sami’s death, one of his uncles told me, it is the way their neighbours in Chestnut Avenue, Forest Gate, rallied round, first when they heard his cries and, a few days later, when they organised a gathering in his memory on the nearby heathland of Wanstead Flats.
A police officer walks past floral tributes left on Chestnut Avenue in Forest Gate, east London, where Sami Sidhom lived
The Sidhom family are Coptic Christians of North African origin, but the willingness of a multiracial amalgam of local residents — about a dozen of whom dashed to Sami’s aid on that Monday night, regardless of any possible danger — was testimony to the harmony in one of the capital’s most diverse areas, he told me.
Visiting the murder scene this week, I gained a similar impression. A street of terrace houses, originally built for the clerical classes during the late Victorian era, is now occupied by people of every hue and creed, yet there is a definite sense of community.
Among the first to assist Sami was a young Muslim, training to become a doctor at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, who cradled his head as he tried to staunch the flow of blood. He was soon joined by another young man, whose parents arrived in Britain from Mauritius.
2,000 offenders a year are dodging jail despite a ‘two strikes’ rule
Thousands of repeat knife offenders were spared prison last year despite the Tory ‘two strikes and you’re out’ pledge.
Adults caught with a blade for the second time are supposed to be jailed for at least six months under new laws.
But latest figures show that one in 10 people with a previous conviction for knife possession received a sentence other than immediate custody.
In 2017, a total of 2,106 repeat offenders did not go to jail.
‘The way they reacted was simply wonderful,’ the uncle told me. ‘There was not a single person on that street who thought, this man is different from me. Everybody came together.’
Surely no one — and certainly not Sami’s family — would wish to make political capital out of this appalling incident. Yet, at a time when the Windrush saga is dominating the news agenda, we might think this a timely message.
It is a reminder that, despite shrill cries that Britain has treated its immigrants shoddily down the years, they have been, for the most part, welcomed here; and in many neighbourhoods have integrated and fared well.
The Sidhom family’s story — which was, until last week, enormously uplifting — is further proof of Britain’s generosity of spirit towards incomers and the opportunities that await those prepared to strive for success.
Sami was born in Newham on July 22, 1999 (‘A very joyful day I will never forget’, says his father) but his grandparents and other relatives fled to this country from Sudan almost 30 years ago.
At that time their homeland was in the grip of civil war and they came here seeking a safer, more prosperous way of life.
They certainly attained it. Having been educated to a high standard at Khartoum University, Sami’s father, an electrical engineer, and his two brothers have done well in the IT field.
His cousins have also flourished here, as I saw from photos on the mantelpiece at his uncle’s house, where his father is now staying, which showed them in mortar-boards and gowns. One has become a law teacher, another works at a leading City bank.
Sami’s intelligence shone through from an early age. When he was five, his parents divorced and he was raised by his father, his late grandfather and his grandmother, whom he called ‘Mama’ and came to regard as his mother.
They shared a substantial house, outside which there is now a shrine of flowers and candles.
Weeping intermittently, his elder brother’s arm around his shoulder, Mr Sidhom recalls how Sami’s grandmother taught him the alphabet and how to count before he started infants’ school. They would buy him informative books and read to him a great deal.
A tale of two violent cities
London and New York both have a population of about 8 million and an annual police budget of around £3 billion.
New York – which has 40,000 police officers to London’s 32,000 – was renowned for violence with more than 2,000 killings a year in the early 1990s, but the NYPD introduced a zero tolerance approach to low-level crime and flooded problem areas with patrols.
The force also put a huge amount of emphasis on community policing.
The murder rate plummeted from 2,245 in 1990 to a record low last year of 286.
Mr Sidhom is a keen photographer and one of his most treasured pictures was taken recently. It shows Sami matured into a slightly built, good-looking young man with soft brown eyes, an engaging smile and a noble brow. ‘I kept telling him he should be a model,’ says his father. ‘But that wasn’t his style at all.’
As Sami grew older, he spent so much time studying that his nickname was ‘Mr Swotty’. His academic potential became evident at Forest Gate Community School, which has been transformed in recent years into a top-performing state school.
He then gained admission to Newham Collegiate, the selective sixth-form college set up by former City lawyer Mouhssin Ismail to provide the area with a centre of educational excellence.
There, Sami blossomed further, receiving four unconditional offers of places at leading universities. He chose Queen Mary because it was close to home and he wanted to be there to care for his ailing, octogenarian grandmother.
His adored ‘Mama’, who was also waiting up for him on that fateful night, is now broken with grief.
Why did he want to be a lawyer? ‘He always used to help his friends and I guess he wanted to help people in need,’ says Mr Sidhom. ‘He also had a sense of fair play.’
The night he died — Monday, April 16 — was ‘just an ordinary day’, his father says. Having received top marks for his first-year coursework, Sami was revising for end-of-year exams. But as West Ham FC had a home game, against Stoke City, he decided to take a break and go to the match.
He had just passed his driving test and bought a new car — an Audi A4 — with his savings and money given to him by his father and grandmother, but went to and from the match by bus, with friends.
The reason — if any — for his murder remains a mystery. What is known is that he was set upon about 100 yards from his house, then staggered towards home, pleading for help, before collapsing beneath the tree.
Primary school pupil, eight, is arrested for threatening a child with a knife
A schoolboy of eight held a Swiss Army knife against another pupil’s throat and threatened to ‘cut him’, it has been revealed.
The boy made the threat in a corridor at St Paul’s Primary School in Primrose Hill, north London.
It is believed the boy had the knife confiscated by a teacher at the start of the school day, but took it out of the teacher’s desk at going-home time.
The incident in January was revealed in a Camden Borough Council meeting to discuss knife crime.
The school said: ‘We took all the appropriate action for dealing with the incident.’
One resident reportedly said he saw Sami being knifed in the back by someone. Other accounts say there was a group of assailants. His father says Sami was not wearing his West Ham football scarf or shirt and was miles from the ground, so he doesn’t think the attack was football-related.
One rumour is that the killers were young gang members, either jealous of Sami’s car or intending to steal it. His father is also dubious about this because he, not Sami, had been driving it that day, and his son did not have the keys with him.
However, Mr Sidhom had not parked the Audi in the residents’ parking bay outside the house that evening, as usual.
He had been obliged to leave it down a side street because the council wanted the street cleared of cars, as it would be pruning trees there the next morning. Perhaps, instead of returning directly home after getting off the bus, Sami — who planned to drive the car the next day — had gone to check on its whereabouts.
That might explain why he appears to have walked past his house that night.
There are, of course, other possible scenarios. One is that he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time and fell victim to some sort of gang initiation or show of strength. Another is that, in the darkness, he may have been mistaken for a hunted gang member.
For although Sami lived on an apparently safe street, nowhere in London is immune from the epidemic. As one baseball-hatted youth swaggering past his shrine told me: ‘It might look quiet here but you don’t know what’s going on behind closed doors, do you?’
East London is plagued by rival gangs who boast of their casual use of knives in inflammatory ‘rap videos’ posted on the internet.
Police officers search on Chestnut Avenue, Forest Gate, an area plagued by rival gangs who boast about their casual use of knives
One, filmed on the streets of Forest Gate and viewed more than a million times, shows balaclava-clad youths apparently glorifying knife and gun crime. In another, masked goons calling themselves WoodGrange E7 rap about ‘shooting to kill’ in front of a car with a bullet-hole in the windscreen.
A spokesman for YouTube has excused its failure to remove these provocative videos by saying such language can be used as ‘artistic expression’, adding that it works closely with the police to stop them provoking violence.
Make of that what you will. But surely allowing these films to be seen by impressionable, nihilistic youths is like hosing a forest fire with petrol.
Among the steadily rising toll of victims, Sami Sidhom is by no means the only innocent.
I might equally be writing about Steve Narvaez-Arias, 20, an aspiring pilot who moved here from Ecuador to study for a degree in aerospace and physics at Hertfordshire University. He was stabbed to death at a party in North London on New Year’s Day — the first of this year’s 60 victims.
Or victim No 11, Harry Uzoka, a 25-year-old model for Mercedes and the fashion chain Zara, who was stabbed — apparently by would-be muggers — in Shepherd’s Bush, West London.
The mindless and terrifying death toll from the surge in violence in London continues to rise
Or No 20, Sadiq Mohamed, an aspiring accountant knifed in affluent Belsize Park . . . and so the grim roll-call goes on.
As the police are still investigating Sami’s murder (a 22-year-old man arrested as a suspect a few days ago has now been bailed), his family have been unable to arrange his funeral at their Coptic Orthodox church. Tomorrow, however, he will be remembered in a ‘peace march’ through Forest Gate and with a round of applause at West Ham’s home game against Manchester City.
These are touching gestures. But Sami Sidhom, the poster boy for a generation of gifted, hardworking, ambitious young people whose families were welcomed into Britain and became a boon to society, deserved so much more.
Meanwhile, his father says he has spoken out because he wants to honour Sami’s memory. In doing so, he hopes he may help to bring the epidemic of ‘madness’, as Stephen Lawrence’s father so aptly describes it, to an end.
‘Such a waste,’ Mr Sidhom repeats, shaking his head wretchedly, as our grim conversation draws to a close. ‘Such a terrible, terrible waste.’
- Sami’s family urge anyone who has information about his murder to contact Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.
Additional reporting: Rebecca Camber
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