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British Somali’s: It’s not all Doom and Gloom

By Samira Sawlani
Monday, August 19, 2013

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This month The Economist published an article titled: ‘Britain’s Somalis-The Road is long: Somalis fare much worse than other immigrants; what holds them back?’
The piece described in detail the realities which much of the Somali community in the UK live on a day to day basis. Just some of the disconcerting statistics mentioned were ‘Over 80% of Somali-speaking pupils qualify for free school meals. In Waltham Forest, a borough in east London, home to nearly 4,000 Somalis, 73% live in households on benefits. More than 50% of British Somalis rent from local councils, the highest proportion of any foreign-born population.’

The statistics in reference to education and employment were no better with the article stating that figures from 2010-2011 found that only 33% of Somali youngsters obtained five good GCSE’s compared to 78% of those from a Nigerian background.  This level of underachievement correlates with the unemployment levels of the community, the article refers to figures released by the Office of National Statistics which found that just one in ten Somali is in full time work. 

Though this trend among the community has been seen in other European countries, there are many success stories among the British Somali community which must also be acknowledged.

Mohamed Cantoobo, Director of UK based Non- Profit organisation Act for Somalia talks about the large Somali community based in Bristol. “The Somali community in Bristol is becoming increasingly visible as an informed voting block, evidence of this comes from the fact that we have the first elected Somali Councillor Hibaq Jama.” Councillor Jama is also someone who can be held up as an example of a young, hardworking and accomplished woman from the Somali Diaspora who describes herself as ‘passionate about social justice, equality and human rights’ and she continues to serve the constituents of Lawrence Hill with much commitment.

In fact Mohammed Cantoobo is himself an example of a British Somali that through Co-founding Act For Somalia continues to positively contribute to both Somali and British society. As an organisation, he and his colleagues continue to encourage the UK based Somali community to be both politically informed, active and integrate into British society.

During our discussion Mr Cantoobo emphasises upon the hundreds of Somali youth who are currently studying for their degrees at the University of Bristol and the University of the West of England, indicating that the younger generation of British Somali’s are focused upon investing in further education.

The entrepreneurial skills and vigour of young Somali’s in the UK can perhaps best be experienced through listening to the first Somali radio Station in the UK, Nomad Radio. Aimed mainly at youth, the station offers an eclectic selection of fun and informative programmes including health matters, fashion and discussion shows with a splash of multi-lingual music thrown in.

Further examples include organisations like The London Somali Youth Forum and the Somali Youth Development Resource Centre formed of people investing in their community, shining like a beacon of inspiration not only to their fellow Somali’s but their counterparts across British society.

Then there are those British Somali’s who through dedication, diligence and talent have gone on to gain recognition, achievement and become household names, proving to be role models to both the Somali and Non- Somali communities.

One example is renowned journalist and writer Rageh Omaar was born to a wealthy businessman in Mogadishu and moved to the UK at the age of two. Mr Omaar attended the prestigious New College at Oxford University and went on to develop a career as a TV journalist with the BBC, Al-Jazeera and ITV news. Not only did he report live from conflict zones in Somalia and Iraq, but Omaar’s honesty and talent particularly in terms of investigative journalism has led to him being one of the most respected practitioners in his field.

Journalist and filmmaker Jamal Osman

Another inspiring individual from the Somali community is journalist, filmmaker and winner of the 2012 One World Media Award Jamal Osman. Writing in the Financial Times Mr Osman described how growing up his family often had ‘No food at all.’ For the eight years following the breakout of the 1991 civil war, he and his family moved from one place to the other, until finally in 1999 his family managed to pay people to smuggle him to Kenya, after which he was put on a place to London.  Armed with less than Basic English skills he applied for asylum, put in housing and after surviving on a £35 food voucher per week he obtained refugee status. For a number of years he was employed as a van driver, forklift driver and laundry assistant. During this time he managed to begin studying again, obtaining a place on the Journalism course at Kingston University, where he would attend lectures on weekdays and work as a minicab driver on weekends. With a lot of determination, perseverance and hard work, Jamal Osman obtained a contract with Channel 4 and is now a well-known docu-film maker telling inspiring stories such as those of the Somali runners that were training for the 2012 Olympics.

Perhaps the most talked about British Somali these days is currently the world’s greatest distance runner who has just won two gold medals at the World Athletics Championship in Moscow, Mo Farah. Born in Somalia and then moving to Djibouti, Farah arrived in the UK aged 8. He struggled academically particularly due to his initial limited grasp of English, however with encouragement from his Physical Education teacher he began to gain success as a junior athlete. He arrived on the Global Stage in 2006 when he won a silver medal in the 5000m at the European Track and Field Championship. Since then Mo Farah has gone on to add to his accolades and medal collection, with perhaps the most memorable moment being his two Gold medals at the London 2012 Olympics.

Language barriers, stereotypes, racism, a lack of integration and for some a longing for home are perhaps all factors which perhaps contribute to the underachievement of the Somali community in the UK. Though the article in The Economist tells a very real story, it is important to ensure that no single article, set of statistics or even opinion ends up defining an entire community.

Samira Sawlani


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