Britain’s Somalis have talks with David Cameron about problems of jobs, poverty, stress and image
They like to talk in the dimmed light of the Food Palace, a Somali cafe in west London. As daylight recedes, men of a certain age sip coffee, nibble on finger dishes or grapple with big round plates of rice and lamb, all the while bouncing opinions back and forth. Much to talk about this week, as William Hague and the government embark on their grand diplomatic scheme to save Somalia, with an international conference involving heads of state from 55 countries.
All very good, says the cafe talk. About time for the seemingly endless war and the issue of Somalia to be discussed at the highest level. But at the same time, there is another question; what about the fate of Somalis here? A question David Cameron explored with leading figures in the UK Somali communities at No 10 on Monday.
The strands are interwoven, for sure. No one questions the contention that if things were stable in Somalia, there would not be so many Somalis in the UK. But the domestic issue is also distinct, and many would argue it requires domestic solutions. Somalis have lived here for hundreds of years, a consequence of a shared tradition of seafaring. They adopted port cities. Somali seamen are said to have fought in the battle of Trafalgar. But as a group, they still struggle to find their way. “We get attacked because we are Muslim, and attacked because we are black, but black people won’t support us,” says Sabra Mohamed, the 21-year-old manager of Nomad, the “UK’s No 1” Somali station. “We always have that debate; are Somalians black?” The young live and go to school in mixed communities, but find there is no immediate affiliation, she says. “The indigenous population says we’re black. And then the black kids will say ‘you’re not black – you’re Mali’.”
Thus isolated, they seek to progress.
Three groups populate Britain’s Somali communities. One group, mostly from the-then British colony of Somaliland, put down roots here long ago, in places such as Liverpool, Cardiff, and London’s Docklands. Somalis were targeted in race riots in Cardiff in 1919.
Others arrived during the second world war and stayed. A second group fled directly to Britain to escape the civil war, mainly between 1991 and 2001. A third group has arrived via other European countries such as the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden. Newer communities have settled in towns and cities such as Milton Keynes, Slough, Northampton, Southampton, and in London, notably Ealing, Tower Hamlets and Newham.
Different paths result in different perspectives. Much, not least clanship, sets the different groups apart. What is their number? No one really knows. The census in 1991 counted 43,515 Somalis in the UK, but no one thought that an accurate figure even then. The rise since has been exponential, but there are worries that even the most recent census won’t provide an accurate snapshot. Many unsure of their status were reluctant to get involved, and some, traumatised by officialdom back home, fear engagement with government.
The Office for National Statistics employed a Somali in the hope of overcoming these obstacles, but no one expects anything but partial success.
“We have a best guess but there are no facts here,” says Omer Ahmed, director of the Council of Somali Organisations, sipping cappuccino at the Food Palace. "The best estimate I have seen was the figure recently mentioned in parliament; 350,000. Many say 1 million. We don't really know about the flow from Sweden, Denmark and Holland in the last five to seven years. And the area that is never really understood is the growth in the Somali population internally. The average family size is quite large. If you go back to 2001 and look at the nationality of people looking to become British citizens, 21% were Somali."
Ahmed, a lawyer, says numbers matter. Communities inadequately assessed miss out on social provision, and struggle in terms of education, jobs and housing. A 2009 report by the Department of Communities and Local Government found that “Somali-born migrants have the lowest employment rate of all immigrants in the UK. Levels of education within the community are also low, with 50% having no qualifications and only 3% having higher education qualifications.”
In their isolation, Somali communities strive to tackle these issues. They need a voice. They are only just beginning to find it. “People are getting politically active,” says Ahmed. “Ahmed Omer was the first Somali mayor, in Tower Hamlets. We have four councillors in London. We are very proud of them. But that number is still shockingly low.” It doesn’t help, he says, that culturally, many Somalis have a suspicion of hierarchy. “The equality culture says every man is his own president.” The CSO, which speaks on behalf of 30 organisations, took four years to establish. And under-represented communities face real problems. The DCLG research spoke of “Somalis becoming caught in a cycle of depression, isolation and poverty”. Too many, it said, turn to qat, a natural, plant-based stimulant. "Many Somalis are also affected by stress, anxiety and loss of self-esteem due to being relegated from a position before the civil war where many had properties, jobs and were financially well-off, to the lowest strata of society in the UK."
Focus groups voiced worries about young and old. Demotivated elders; young people drawn to antisocial behaviour and crime. Ministers worry that the vulnerable are ripe for religious radicalisation and worse.
But that’s far from the whole story, says Sabra Mohamed, supervising her radio station’s output of news and sport and music and debates, a mix leavened with regular shows on culture and fashion. Anything but politics – too contentious. Young Somalis present most of the programmes and comprise most of the 75,000 listeners. Progress is slow, she says. But it is progress.
“Most Somalis I know are going to university, getting their masters, becoming successful business people. Our parents have pushed us. It has given us a certain drive,” she says. They could do even better, she adds, but all the while they are fighting negative perceptions – the Somali as benefit claimant, gang member, terrorist, piracy supporter, low achiever. That problem is exacerbated by events here and abroad. Stories about piracy and the activities of the militant group al-Shabaab, which has twinned with al-Qaida, take their toll.
The London bombings of 2005 didn’t help. Two weeks after the murderous attack on the tube, a second atrocity was averted when devices failed to detonate. The botched attack involved two Somalis. “The bombings caused real panic,” said Omer Ahmed. “There was a massive focus on us and people didn’t know what to do. What came out was the realisation that we couldn’t keep responding to crisis without having the capacity to do so.”
A negative perception, he says, begins to fuel a negative self-perception. “There is an urban legend that 40% of the young men at Feltham young offenders institute are Somali. The way people think drives their behaviour.” For all that, the fate of young Somalis in the criminal justice system should be a priority for government, he says. “Twenty years ago, the problem was perceived as Jamaican yardies. Now it is those out of control Somalian gangster kids. Over the years, one black monster is replaced by another.”
The media plays a part, according to Sabra Mohammed. “One person does something wrong and that becomes our image. I have never seen an article about us that was positive. Our listeners hate the Daily Mail.
“It is so one-sided. You feel that all the while you are having to provide extra proof that you are here and educated and don’t milk the system. You hear all about the ones who go to prison; nothing about those who open businesses and all the internet cafes. It is so frustrating.”
If there is external pressure, there is also internal discussion about the way young Somalis mould their identities in modern Britain. “The older generation worry that the culture is being diluted. But just because someone is successful and the director of a company doesn’t mean they are not cultural.”
Tradition endures, to good and bad effect – witness the debate about qat, which some want banned. Witness discussions about female genital mutilation, which is illegal here. Figures here say it is largely shunned outside Somalia itself. The tradition is largely conservative. Parents whose sons go to prison often disown them. Reputation and pride matters. Recently three Somali girls in Leicester escaped jail after attacking a white English girl in the city. They told the court they were drunk, and that as Somalis unaccustomed to drinking, they deserved leniency.
The court was sympathetic. The community, says Sabra, anything but. “Not only did they embarrass us, they were drinking. They are pariahs more or less. I don’t know how they are going to redeem themselves. Many listeners said they should have gone to prison. We are our harshest critics.”
from Hugh Muir