Breaking the cycle: step by step in Smethwick

The Somali refugee community in Smethwick is less than ten years old. Muni Abdikarim and Ahmed Sirad spoke to Jenny Morgan about their work with middle-aged Somali women who are being turned away from a doctor's surgery and told 'Come back when you've got an interpreter'
Jenny Morgan
23 August 2011

One woman is talking about mice. She'd spotted a couple in the kitchen, and contacted the local council; workmen came, widened the holes the mice were using - preparatory to blocking them up, they said - then disappeared. Now she has tribes of mice, whole clans of mice, dancing around the children's bedroom and frightening her daughter.

Sitting next to her is a woman in trouble with the council because, as the law allows, she stopped paying council tax when her working hours dropped below 16 a week -- but she hadn't let the council know. Ahmed Sirad, community support worker at Ileys Community Association in Smethwick, West Midlands, bashes the phones: the women don't feel confident enough in English to deal with the council on their own. It's a quiet morning in the second week of Ramadan, and Ileys is, as usual, open for business; 'people's problems don't go away', says Hodan Rashid, founder of Ileys, 'just because it's Ramadan'.

Smethwick sits between Birmingham and West Bromwich, both of which are to experience rioting and looting that night and in the next few days. Smethwick features only once, briefly, in a Channel 4 news report on August 10 that says a young black man, allegedly jeering at men guarding a temple there, has been dragged from his car and beaten up. This happens minutes before three young men of Asian origin are mown down in Dudley Road, Birmingham, by a driver witnesses describe as black; Tariq Jahan, the father of one of the murdered men, becomes a national figure for preventing a potential explosion of intercommunal violence with his eloquent, grief-stricken appeal to turn away from vengeance.

But on this peaceful Monday morning, a young volunteer in Ileys, Muni Abdikarim, is reflecting on her good fortune. Muni has just completed a BSc Hons in psychology at Birmingham City University -- an 'amazing experience’, she says -- and is volunteering at Ileys to help people like her mother, whom she thanks 'every day, for getting us away from a war-torn country. My mother is so determined', she says, 'she should have been prime minister'. Instead, driven out of Somalia (where Muni's late father had been a district mayor) by the chaos of civil war, Muni's mother brought her children to Smethwick, partly because other family members were already there, partly because she wanted Muni to go to Oxford University. They came via a small town in the Netherlands where Muni was the only black girl in her school, but where they managed to get Dutch passports.

On Muni's first day at school in England, aged 11, a boy said to her, 'What are you looking at, dickhead?' (only Muni doesn't say 'dickhead' initially when she tells this story). Her mother told her, 'Well, you're going to have to be tougher'. And here is Muni with her BSc Hons, planning to do a Master's degree a year from now, and aiming in ten years' time to have her own practice as a forensic psychologist, working with youth offenders. Somali parents don't bring their children to England for their sons to 'join a crew', she says, but that's what happens to so many Somali boys. Muni wants to help break that cycle; 'it's not just a question of having a career', she says. Only 21, she says she feels a lot older.

A woman comes in with a letter that threatens to cut off her jobseeker's allowance. She has post office slips recording her mailings to potential employers, but the local job centre has accused her of not making the obligatory six applications a fortnight. Hodan Rashid says the job centre is policing job seekers intensively, and some people who've been cut off are now destitute. She says many of the Somali women the centre deals with want to be school dinner ladies; Ileys has so far run courses for 28 would-be dinner ladies, and has got jobs for two of them, one of whom is now going on to be a teaching assistant.

By such small, practical steps, and with the help of someone like Muni, does Ileys try to mitigate the rebuffs and blows middle-aged Somali women encounter: Muni says she knows of women turned away from a doctor's surgery with a curt 'Come back when you've got an interpreter'.

Fifteen minutes' walk from Ileys, past windswept wastelands where tower blocks used to be -- 'the green fields of Smethwick', says Teresa Clements wryly -- Clements, project manager of community organisation Brushstrokes, says that when Sandwell Borough Council, which Smethwick comes under, did research into hate crime locally, they found that Somali women were regularly the target of ridicule and name-calling. Hodan Rashid's organisation is one of the very few women-led Somali community organisations. 'I was involved some time ago in a project with Birmingham City Council', says Clements, 'working with Somali community organisations on their management structures. On board after board -- no women!'

Clements describes attending a meeting between Birmingham education department and Somali voluntary groups who were worried about under-achievement by Somali children, and the fact some were travelling long distances to school. A representative from the education department told the meeting it would take them three years to start to respond to a phenomenon like the increased Somali refugee presence. So the response, says Clements, has been institutionally slow.

'We're building up a lot of problems by ignoring the trauma of war', says Clements. 'I've lost count of the number of people who've seen killings or been tortured. Parents' trauma, or what the children have seen, is often re-enacted in adolescent years. And I've never met an asylum-seeker who hasn't been depressed. They go through terrible things in their own country, come here, into an atmosphere which says "we have meagre resources -- why should we share them with you?", and then they wait for a Home Office decision, never knowing whether they might be moved away or deported.' Early in August, Birmingham City Council had announced it was cutting £15 million from voluntary organisations. 'Youth unemployment is rising steadily', says Clements, 'and the Education Maintenance Allowance (maximum £30 a week paid to tertiary learners) has been cut. There's a generation of young people growing up without hope.'

Sandra Tittel, the young Brushstrokes home support co-ordinator, comes into the room. She’s been battling to find shelter for a Ugandan woman, eight-and-a-half months pregnant, and homeless. So many of the local authority services she's called say they used to provide X or Y, 'but now we can't' -- because of the cuts. But, says Tittel, 'we are working in a sector where we can try and move things along'. After two days on the phone, she has found the woman a room in a hostel and got her registered with a local doctor.

Muni Abdikarim, born in Somalia; Sandra Tittel, born in East Germany. If anyone can take this society forward rationally, humanely and equitably, it’s young women like them.












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