From civil war to the cult of cool

The policy of dispersing migrants in Britain has led to large numbers of Somali refugees in Smethwick, a town notorious for anti-migrant mobilising in the 1960s. In the first of her Letters from Smethwick, Jenny Morgan describes a meeting with charismatic Somali community organiser Hodan Rashid.
Jenny Morgan
11 August 2011

It's one of those bleak summer days that England does so effortlessly. On Waterloo Road in Smethwick, in the West Midlands, an icy wind tears across the dark Victorian facades and buffets the population, many of whom are fasting for Ramadan and can't console themselves with coffee or cigarettes.

Hodan Rashid arrives in a rush, ushering her three children into the sliver of an office from which she runs the Ileys Community Association. She's fasting; her child-care person is sick; she's unfazed, and charming.

Smethwick used to be famous for its foundry, now defunct. In 1964 it became notorious for returning to Parliament a Conservative candidate whose supporters' unofficial slogan was, 'If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour'. This election brought anti-immigration policies onto the agenda of both main parties, as Paul Foot described in his 1965 Penguin Special, Immigration and Race in British Politics.

But that’s nearly fifty years ago. And Hodan Rashid has other things on her mind. Smethwick has a population of Somali refugees that wasn't there ten years ago. And she says that Sandwell Council is only now waking up to the fact that this new community exists.

Somalis are in Smethwick because of the Labour government's dispersal policy, which started in 1999. Hodan Rashid herself first lived in London with her Somali refugee parents, but when they left England she came to Smethwick to be near her aunt, who'd been dispersed there. The presence of Somalis in Smethwick has acted as a magnet for family members who'd initially found refuge from Somalia’s civil war elsewhere in Europe – in the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark. When refugees have got citizenship in these countries, some have used their right to move within the European Union to come to England, to be near relatives. ‘They say they feel free to practise their religion here, free to live with their community’, says Rashid.

But these families – very often, says Ahmed Sirad, community support worker at Ileys, women-headed single-parent families – bring with them children, often in early or mid-adolescence, who have grown up speaking Swedish or Dutch or whatever. They arrive in a Smethwick whose language they don't speak, whose schools have been slow to institute policies to improve their English skills quickly, where gang culture is in any case strong among boys, and where the worst thing a person can be is a 'freshie' – someone whose clothes and language mark them as having just arrived. To be wearing second-hand clothes; to be speaking your own language – deeply uncool, says Hodan Rashid. Ex-freshies can be ruthless in their turn: 'If you're a freshie, you represent everything they don't like about the refugee experience', says Rashid.

Somali refugees, she says, are 'a punch-bag for the whole of Britain. Everybody needs someone to look down on', and Somalis feel they’re at the bottom of the heap. She describes a workshop on self-esteem at her advice centre, where the women laughed; they asked how it was possible to feel self-esteem when it regularly happens that the person in front of you in a shop is served politely but you're treated with rudeness. And Somali boys ‘get it bad’, she says, when it comes to stop and search by the police, because 'number one, they're black, and number two, they're Muslims'.

But the worst tension right now in Smethwick, she says, is between the long-established African Caribbean community and the 'new' communities. Her centre is dealing with the case of an 11-year old Somali boy who was beaten up by an 18-year old African Caribbean youth. The police wanted to use mediation to resolve the incident; the Somali mother didn't think this was adequate.

Rashid organised a meeting early in August that drew in councillors, a police inspector and members of the Somali community (including teenage boys) to discuss this specific case and the tensions in the area. One outcome is that the 18-year old youth will be interviewed under caution at the police station, which has satisfied the Somali mother. But overall, says Rashid, Somali parents are fearful of anything to do with the police, because they feel their presence here is precarious. This fear puts them on a kind of collision course with their male children, since, says community support worker Ahmed Sirad, many Somali boys are in gangs and 'fighting Jamaicans, fighting Afghanis, fighting Pakistanis, fighting with themselves. What can you do when you've got nothing? You fight'.

FGM (female genital mutilation) is a huge factor in the lives of Somali women, and Ileys Community Association is developing a trail-blazing project with Sandwell PCT to assist Somali women giving birth. The idea started around two years ago, when Sara Leaker, the PCT community development worker for Smethwick, was asked by Somali women in a meeting why so many of them were giving birth by emergency caesarian section. It emerged that most local midwives didn’t know about FGM, and most Somali women lacked the language (and the confidence) to explain.

A brilliantly simple device has been developed, to make sure medical workers know if a woman’s been mutilated from early on in her pregnancy. In collaboration with Sandwell and West Birmingham Hospitals NHS and Primary Care Trusts, Ileys has designed a bookmark that can be stuck inside a woman's maternity notes. Drawings on the bookmark illustrate the different forms of FGM, and all the woman has to do is put a tick next to the drawing that reflects her situation. The bookmark will be launched formally with doctors and community midwives in September; Ileys' task then will be to ‘empower’ the women to use it: 'this is such a taboo subject', says Rashid.

Are they able to do anything to protect Somali girls in Britain? 'I tell women that FGM is illegal here, and that even if they have the operation done abroad they can be prosecuted here', says Rashid – but, she says, 'everybody knows' it's still going on.

Ileys conducts training with social workers and workers in school health and children's centres, to inform them which countries practise FGM (‘more than I initially thought’, says Rashid), remind them that school summer holidays are the danger period – because parents believe the girl can recover before she has to go back to school – and tell them what to look out for – a girl no longer doing PE, for instance, or going to the lavatory very frequently (because the sewing-up means urine is excreted very slowly…).

The UK Female Genital Mutilation Act, passed in 2003, threatens people who mutilate girls abroad with up to 14 years in prison. ‘So’, says Hodan Rashid, ‘why hasn’t there been a single prosecution under the Act? I would love to see it happen. A successful prosecution would protect so many girls in the future.’

There’s been civil war in Somalia since 1991, with no central government, and Somalis have desperately sought the protection of passports elsewhere. ‘We’re seen as flotsam and jetsam, with our “failed state” that can’t stand up for us’, says Rashid. ‘Amnesty International acts as the Somali people’s government.’ In this tiny corner of Smethwick, she and her colleagues translate letters on job seeker’s allowance, negotiate with the council on housing issues, and deal with the thousand and one needs of a newly arrived refugee community. ‘We don’t have time to get involved in bigger issues’, says Rashid. ‘We spend all our time fire-fighting.’



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