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Last Updated: Tuesday, 30 May 2006, 10:54 GMT 11:54 UK
Somalis' struggle in the UK
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News community affairs

Adam Dirir: "We need one voice"
Uncomfortable questions are being asked about Britain's Somali immigrants - and the answers are by no means easy to find.

When Adam Dirir and his colleagues at Somali Voice take to the airwaves on Friday evenings, they face an image crisis.

Headline after headline has talked about Somali crime gangs terrifying communities.

And yet, in reality and after more than a century of Somali presence in the UK, little is known about who they are.

There's a similar dearth of knowledge about the apparently very serious problems they face in adjusting to life here.

And so Adam, who also produces Somali Eye magazine, goes on the airwaves on London's Sound Radio to tell it like it is - a mixture of harsh reality and encouraging words to a community he says can make it.

"There is a lot of anger out there," says Adam, referring to the unrest among fellow Somalis. "We need to show the role models and we need to show other communities that we have been here for decades - and will be here for decades."

AT-A-GLANCE
Mogadishu street
Lawlessness rife since collapse of military government in 1991
Capital is in ruins and under factional control
Self-proclaimed state of Somaliland and region of Puntland run their own affairs
Political rivals are split over where a transitional government, set up in 2004, should be based

Somalis have long formed close-knit communities in Britain. For more than a century, their faces have been familiar in London, Cardiff and Liverpool after the arrival of seamen and traders.

But the situation changed dramatically with the arrival of asylum seekers and refugees fleeing civil war in the 1990s. Since the ousting of Somalia's government in 1991, much of the country, situated on the eastern "Horn of Africa", has been in a state of violent anarchy, perpetuated by warlords heading rag-tag armies of young men.

Countries don't get more chaotic than Somalia, and many who fled are now living in Britain, having originally gained refuge in other European states.

In Britain, anecdotes have percolated into wider society that suggest many of the internal disputes that have bedevilled Somali society have travelled with the diaspora.

Unclear picture

Telling the story of Somalis in Britain is hard because there is a chronic lack of nationwide research. The 2001 census suggested there were 43,000 Somalis in the UK. But other experts suggest at least 95,000 and as many as 250,000.

While they represent one of the largest ethnicities, the only significant research has been localised case studies. These tend to show that Somalis children are widely regarded to be underperforming at school.

Although there are naturally many stories of individual success, the limited statistics that are available from some boroughs are mixed, showing below average exam grades, but improvements, particularly among girls.

The community is also extremely mixed, coming from different clans and different social backgrounds, including a high proportion of skilled professionals who have not been able to find work in their field in the UK.

Nobody knows how many of the young Somalis in Britain have brought with them traumatic experiences of war.

Until society understands the needs of those communities, they will always have problems
Mohamed Ali, former Somali councillor, Liverpool
The Information Centre about Asylum and Refugees (Icar), a body of experts at London's City University, recently pulled together all it could find on Somalis in Britain.

Dr Chris McDowell, head of Icar, says that the experience of Somalis in the UK is extremely complex and differs greatly to comparable communities that have fled war zones.

He says a key factor is the Somali tradition of nomadic and collective identity - what you are part of informs who you are.

"The politics and power struggles in Somalia has had an impact on the coherence of the communities within the diaspora," says Dr McDowell.

Map of Somalia
"The same thing cannot be said for groups such as the Sri Lankans because they are overwhelmingly Tamil and have a coherence and unity within themselves which keeps them together in a new place.

"In Somalia, you are part of something, part of a clan along with your family, your co-religionists. If you remove that anchor, because these groups are not recreated, then people feel adrift."

Crime

The contrast with the Tamil communities is important because, in general terms, large and unified groups get cash for projects, such as language integration schemes, advice bureaus and so on. London has a plethora of small Somali groups, many of whom are essentially directly competing with each other for the same state or charitable funding. Other ethnic minorities in the UK have avoided this pitfall because they don't suffer from inter-communal differences.

And it's in this potential vacuum of missing social networks that some alienated young Somali men have forged a defensive gang identity, say experts.

Unclear of where they stand between the traditionalist clan viewpoint of their elders and the individualist creed of Western societies, between protection through community and standing alone within society, the easy answer for some is to adopt a readily available, aggressive street persona, largely based on "gangsta rap" culture.

"I think many of these young people try to find a group they can ally with," says Dr McDowell. "Gangsta culture provides that identity because it's about male power, is about making people scared and it seems that some Somali boys gravitate towards it because it allows them to be in control."

School girls
Somali refugees are spread far and wide - these girls are in Yemen
Mr Dirir says that this defensiveness is not helped by the under-reporting in the media of incidents where Somalis are victims, and the over-reporting of incidents where Somalis are the alleged perpetrators.

Nevertheless, he says the priority has to be support for youths who have fallen out of education and have drifted apart from their community.

"We need the Somali youth workers who can communicate with these kids. If you don't have the youth workers, how can you hope to understand their problems?

"We need one voice, one fusion and to be more open about the problems and issues. We need to accept that we are here, not with one leg in this country and another in Somalia.

"There are a lot of angry kids and we just don't know what to do. There's a lot of pain in the community."

Outsiders

Mohamed "Jimmy" Ali says he has witnessed that soreness - and says we need to ask questions for how Britain integrates troubled minorities.

Two years ago the Liverpool social worker became Britain's first Somali councillor, although he has since lost his seat.

"Somali kids just don't get any help," he says. "They come from a war zone and they have no idea about [Britain] in terms of its culture, religion or even how education works. And that is why they need support."

In Liverpool, Mr Ali has found Somali children unofficially excluded from lessons, sitting alone in the corridor, because teachers had effectively given up trying to communicate.

This compounds the feelings of alienation, frustration and increases the likelihood of racist bullying. In turn, young Somali men on the receiving end are all the more likely to become defensive and see society in terms of "us and them".

"Until society understands the needs of these communities, it will always have problems. Some asylum seekers are simply released into society without any funding or support, and one wonders how on earth they manage to exist."


The BBC News website will be featuring more stories about Somalis in the UK later in the summer.

As a community development worker in central London I do not agree with many of the comments made on this page.
Alan, London

Although there is the element of government not paying attention to the Somali community, I honestly blame the Somali community itself. There is a Somali oganistion in every borough, town and county - what do they do to help the same community in need? Nothing. When will we change?
Khalid, Hounslow, London

I'm a Somali-Brit and I came here to the UK ten years ago. My father and my grandfather both lived and worked London and Liverpool. I, however, when I read your above article had tears on my eyes, the reason being that we the Somalian community does not have that unity or one vision comparing to other communities
Mohamed Donyaliqe, England

Bristol has a large Somali community in Lawrence hill, an area among the most deprived in the UK. Rumours are rife of huge state handouts, queue jumping on housing lists and even cash benefits for car purchases and resentment is building among other black and white communities. It's time for Somalis and the local government to speed up integration and dispel these dangerous rumours before community relations reach crisis point.
Simon Bartlett, Bristol

Why is the answer always to spend more money on touchy feely 'support programmes and youth workers'? If a pupil is disruptive in class the teacher has at least 30 other children to consider and shouldn't waste time on the trouble makers. If you are given a free education and don't appreciate it you should be permanently excluded whoever you are.
Mike Tyrrell, Reading

Belonging to a minority group is no excuse for adopting an "aggressive street persona, largely based on gangsta rap culture". When is this culture of excuses going to stop? If you don't like it here and don't feel part of the country and culture then leave.
Eric Blair, London

Parental control would be one way of dealing with the rude, aggressive and antisocial Somali kids that roam the streets where I live in West London. It's all well and good saying that the taxpayer needs to hand over yet more cash for another troubled minority. Is it not good enough that they live in a safe country away from the hardships they faced in Somalia?
Phill, London

We're demonising Somali immigrants, they have no more or less problems than other immigrant group, although like many in [my] the Afro-Caribbean community the boys and young men in particular are heading down a questionable socio-economic route.
Andy, London, England

This article is quite interesting as it shows people how to live life and what is happening around the world.
Zahid, huddersfield

The Somali communities are facing problems that are of any diaspora community - that of disposession, alienation and marginalisation. However, this problem is further compounded by the failures in planning and settlement of immigrants in British society. Immigrants are segregated and holed up in sink estates and deprived area with existing problems of crime, poor educational attainment and high rates of unemployment. Aren't these communities simply adapting to the new environment that they have because they don't know any better?
Layli, East Ham, London

The asylum system is a joke - it does no one any favours. It is absurd that someone can come all the way from a remote region such as Somalia to claim asylum in the UK. The Geneva Convention was written in the entirely different circumstances following WWII. At some point we will have a Government which will have the guts to withdraw from the Geneva Convention so the process can begin of negotiating a refugee system appropriate to the circumstances prevailing in the 21st Century. Until that time comes, the present chaos will continue with predictable results.
Richard Marriott, Kidderminster, England

The report talks about Somali, but there is NO mention about Somaliland?? Does this report include the Somalilanders struggle in the UK. I have visited Somaliland once in 1999 and more recently in Jan 2006. I feel the country is improving without major funding from the EU and the USA. But feel more could be done for a country that is stable and is NOT run by so called WAR LORDS!!!!
Mr Carl Clarke, Crewe England

To a higher degree, the articles holds some truth. Particularly when it mentions the sub-communities. Whether it's a disadvantage or not, the minority Bravanese community has maintained the relatively close and tight links with each other over the years we have been in the UK. But on the wider view, true to the report there is a serious problem of identity and 'fitting' in. Whether this will infiltrate even the tightly knit communities like the bravanese communities remains to be seen.
Omar Ahmed, Ilford

I was friendly with a Somalian who came to the UK to train for a couple of months in 1979. I remember about the class differences because he was extremely proud of the fact that he came from what had been British Somaliland rather than the Italian part. He was well educated and had a sister who was married to a British seaman and lived in Cardiff. He worked for the State Insurance Company and in those days there was virtually no crime in the country, even in Mogadishu. Having lived in Africa for many years I realise what teerible problems have been caused by tribal and religious differences, but this seems to be one of the worst cases in Africa. Organisations in Britain need to understand these problems and help all Somalis living here.
Lyn Cooper, London, UK

The situation is not all doom and gloom as they are now second and third generation Somali kids who have integrated into society very well. If anything is a problem with the Somali community it is that of clan rivalry. We must forget our differences and become united.
Mohamed Ibrahim, North West London

I am sick and tired about our own community blaming other forces in "society" for not helping us or understand our culture. I just came back from Mogadishu after fleeing my birth city 23 years ago. What I witnessed is appaling. I had always blamed outside interference being responsible for most of our problems. NO NO NO. I have concluded that we have to shed off all our backward cultural/societal practices and only retain our positive attributes and move forward. I am infinitely grateful for the golden opportunity that I got from the UK. For the rest of you out there who prefer to whine and protect your lazy khat chewing lifestyle my only message is don't bring Somalia to the UK, bring out the old and true Somali decency.
Kassim Jibril, Toronto

I think the problems and challenges of this group adjusting to British Society is really no different to that of any other immigrant community and in the long run like the Asians before them they will show themselves to be hard working and productive members of society, immigrants in general being more hard working and inventive than the native community.
Trevor Huckstep, Tunbridge Wells, UK

My city has a fairly substantial number of Somalis, the majority of which are loathed by the other ethnic communities - Asians and Afro-Caribbeans. The general feeling is that they "big trouble". This is probably based mainly on their appearance and not on what they actually do.
Norman Day, Birmingham

We should try to remember when we are criticising the behaviour of African immigrants in Britain that many of the problems in Africa itself were a direct result of British colonialism and carving up of the continent without consideration of tribal borders. Although I hate gang violence, we always forget the brutal legacy of our colonial past, on which our wealth is built. Maybe we are paying our dues.
Simon Rowe, Norwich, England

Richard calls the present asylum system absurd. He may be surprised to learn that the countries with most asylum seekers are those that directly border conflict zones. The UK has a tiny, tiny proportion of refugees when compared to places like Guinea. We should be proud of the 1951 convention. The gutsy decision is not to pull out, but to stick with it.
Mark Pallis, London

Fifty Years on and the British authorities have not learnt from previous experience. Being of Caribbean descent and born in England, I wonder why the British government continues their policy of multiculturalism when the results seem to destroy both the lives of immigrants as well as the indigenous population. You just don't have the will, or apply the means to make it work right.
Mervelous, Norcross USA

I was amazed, even disgusted, when I saw graffiti in North London from rival gangs openly threatening one another and those from other ethnic backgrounds, white, Asian etc. They were basically dividing the local area up into their own territories.
Richard, London

I find this quite odd. I am an 18-year-old Somali male "Born" in London. Growing up here the issue is much larger than the Somali community. I have witnessed first hand from all areas of the community drug dealing crime and unemployment. Though it's a sign of weakness on our part most of these young men have tried to get legit means of making an income only to have the door slammed on there face. Luckily for me I was able to get my self to uni but considering out of about 50 people I grew up with only two have reached this stage and the rest just "chill" on street corners. Something needs to be done but where do we start?
Abdul Egeh, Islington, London

Having worked for extensive periods in both Southern Somalia and the autonomous region of Somaliland it comes as no surprise to hear that Somali's struggle to integrate into British society. What does surprise me is the willingness for so many in the UK to go for the soundbite and put this down to a combination of 'post traumatic stress and gangter rap'. Britain has had gangs and crime since Boudicea was in pigtails, these problems didn't arrive with nor are they exclusive to Somali's.! Some of the Somali community are clearly trying to work towards a solution and it is these people who need recognition and assistance.
Southern Craib, Hargeisa, Somaliland

I worked in a GP surgery for a year, where about 10% of the population of the surgery is Somailian. In those 10% I saw wildly contrasting people, I saw the young teenage boy who spoke clear English and read the Guardian newspaper. I also saw other teenage boys riled by violence, unable to fit in and tormented by the horrors of their homeland.
Mo Salam, Manchester, UK




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