By: Rageh Omar
Somalilandsun – Since the break-up of Somalia’s government in 1991, many of its citizens migrated to Britain to escape the civil war, but the fortunes of many Somalis have not proved to be as rosy as expected.
Somalis have had strong ties with Britain for centuries, as seamen and traders visiting the ports of London, Cardiff and Bristol. Over the last two decades however the Somali population has grown to 153,094.
Despite this, they are among the poorest, worst-educated and least-employed in Britain, while facing stigma from within the black community. Unemployment has hit Somalis particularly hard, with many unable to find work. The latest Office of National Statistics showing that just 10 per cent are in full-time work.
As well as dealing with racism from their white peers Somalis also face pressure from their fellow African Caribbean and African migrants.
Abdul Omar Rahman, a 22-year-old public service worker, from Walthamstow, east London, says he and his Somali friends faced verbal abuse from black kids, in particular, when he was growing up.
“When we were at school it was weird because people would be asking you if Somalis are black and stuff. Some of the other kids from Jamaica and Nigeria would always cuss us about how we look different,” he said.
“They would say our dads were refugee warriors and pirates. In hindsight, it was really bad stuff, but it was just the way it went.”
Despite Rahman’s nonchalance regarding the verbal exchanges with fellow pupils, the problem signals a wider problem, which is not helped by the school performance of Somali children.
In 2010-11, a third of Somali pupils achieved 5 A* to C grades in their GCSEs, including mathematics and English, compared with 59 per cent of Bangladeshi pupils and 78 per cent of Nigerian kids.
Many of their households are run by women as husbands or fathers who remained in Somalia, and it is common for them not to speak much English, if at all. Added to the 80 per cent of Somali-speaking pupils who qualify for free school meals and the majority of British Somalis who rent from local councils, the issue of poverty is a chilling reality.
Fatuma Osman manages community projects at the British Somali Community organisation in northwest London, providing educational workshops and tutoring for young Somali children to boost their studies.
“Our programmes are a great way of helping the community overcome its problems. For example, the children have been really receptive to our tutoring and mentoring programmes. In fact, in most cases, our lessons and safe environment has seen kids go to school and substantially improve their grades,” Osman stated.
Pointing to a project her organisation runs, Osman says giving Somali boys the opportunity to gain experience working in Somali businesses can be beneficial for both parties.
She said: “We allow young boys to do some volunteering and help in shops or centres. Business owners get good, keen helpers, while the youths get good experience of working in the real world.”
While language barriers, stereotypes and racism may have contributed to the underachievement and isolation of the Somali community in the UK, cultural changes may be turning the tide.
Young Somalis embrace their nomadic heritage, but many have spent much of their life in British culture, sharing dual identities exemplified by role models such as the award-winning journalist Rageh Omaar and Britain’s most successful track and field athlete Mo Farah.
Dr Laura Hammond, head of the Department of Development Studies at SOAS, University of London, said it is within the Somali tradition to integrate into different countries, while also placing an emphasis on family and relatives in their homeland.
“The stereotypes of Somalis don’t help. There is a perception of all Somalis coming to the UK to be on the dole, but that’s a misconception. They are very interested in integrating in their new lands, trying to be as successful as possible, so they can be in a better position to help those back home.”