UK
28/09/2013 03:54 BST

After The Nairobi Terror Attacks, UK's Somali Community Fears Reprisal

Abdi Ahmed was in the middle of spring-cleaning his West London house when the doorbell rang. Worrying that the house was not presentable, the Somalia-born English Lit graduate headed for the door, to greet a man he did not know, who introduced himself as a journalist.

"He told me that he was looking for people who knew a person by my name," Ahmed recalled. "I told him that I was that person and asked why a journalist would want to speak to me. He apologised and told me that one of the suspects of the Nairobi shootings shared my name."

The merciless killing of 67 men, women and children by Somalia-based Al-Shabab terrorists, in an upmarket shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, has found its way not just into Ahmed's home, but into the living rooms, cafes and mosques of Britain's Somalis, roughly 350,000 strong. They are feeling the heat of the spotlight on them.

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A Somali man at work in a shop in Wembley

"It's a terrible reflection of Somalis," says Somali campaigner Amina Ali, the chair and founder of Somali Friends of Labour.

"It's a negative spotlight again, and that's very worrying. I know two women verbally abused about the incident on the streets of London. We are shocked this group can still function, that they can still commit atrocities like this."

Ali's family arrived in Britain decades ago, and she recalls growing in in London in the 1970s and 80s that there was "about five Somali families in the whole of London."

"It's only since the refugee community came during the civil war that things have changed. I grew up with a real proud history, a strong image of Somalia. Now you are embarrassed to say you are Somali, if I'm honest, because of the negative press. The narrative is 'failed state', 'terrorism', 'pirates'."

Jamal Osman, an award-winning journalist for Channel 4, who came to the UK as a refugee, said he was terrified for his family's safety whenever such attacks make global headlines.

"I phone my wife, we have five children, and I tell her to stay indoors. Keep a low profile, I will do any shopping, any thing you need, but please don't go far from the house. We do fear attacks," he told HuffPosT UK.

"If it's an incident related to Islam, or Somalis, people on the street will see sensationalist information about Somalis here and turn on Somalis close to them. The right-wing press think the best way for them to make this far-away conflict relevant, is to go after the Somalis in Britain, and demonise them, and ask 'Why are they here? Why is Britain helping them?'"

For Ahmed, the visit from the journalist brought back painful recollections. There was a time, he says when he was approached to join a radical Muslim "sect", after he agreed (in part to please his mother) to attend a religious conference in Birmingham.

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Members of the Somali Community at the Banaadir restaurant, Wembley

"It dawned on me then that I was in the midst of cult and that their constant badgering of moderate Muslims was a way of strengthening the cult’s image of exclusivity."

He wonders now, he says, if the Nairobi attacker who shared his name might have been at that same conference.

Mohamed Mohamoud, of the Bristol based charity Act4Somalia, said the pictures of cowering children in the mall as militants stalked through killing their hostages, sickened him. He is keen not just to distance the British-Somalis from the aims of Al-Shabab, but also Somalis in general. "The Somali people are often portrayed as fanatics by some media source that misunderstand them. This could not be further from the truth," he told HuffPost UK.

Al-Shabab, he said, were not now a wholly Somali organisation, but "a member of the international Jihad movement".

"Al-Shabaab appears to be strong on the outside, but we know the organisation is split and crumbling from the inside. It is built on unsustainable lies and an ideology that is abhorrent to all Muslims," he continued.

Britain's Somalis monitor the conflict obsessively, hooked on tiny Somali websites that tell you any death in any remote village "within minutes", according to Osman.

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Amina Ali wants the British Somali community to get more involved in local politics, not just politics back home

"I would say Somalis are the biggest news consumers in the world. In Somali culture, you greet each other with 'What's the news?' We don't ask personally how she or he is!

"There are so many Somali news website. Anyone killed in any remote village, it's on the web in minutes."

British-Somalis are so wrapped up with events abroad, it hinders assimilation, Ali believes. "Their heart is not in British politics but what's going on in Somalia, who is in government, what tribe is in power. Why? Are they going back to live there? No. It's escapism. They have a terrible time here so they obsess about home."

She believes the increase in the number of Somalis in the UK, and a culture of benefit-claiming and non-assimilation has damaged the image of her motherland. "We never took benefits, the men worked hard, they were economic migrants. Now Somalis are immediately associated with benefits.

"My drive is to get them involved in British politics, get them signing petitions, demonstrations, and have a voice. There's a long way to go, they are obsessed with what is going on back home. Their heart is not in British politics but what's going on in Somalia, who is in government, what tribe is in power. Why? Are they going back to live there? No. It's escapism. They have a terrible time here so they obsess about home."

The increasing religiosity of the community is in part, Ali believes, because an attachment to Islam feels like an attachment to home. "Somalia was a very secular society before the civil war. But I think the community has become more religious because it feels like a link to home. They want to keep their identities alive."

Ahmed agrees, and says that was in part why he had agreed to attend the Birmingham meeting, which he later regretted. "I remember good things from my childhood; I remember mangos that were bright yellow and melted in your mouth, bananas that were much smaller and much sweeter.

"Most of all, I remember not having doubts about who I was, nor walking the streets in deep contemplation at my own foreignness. Things are much easier when you belong, when your skin does not make you stand out, when the call to prayer is an assuring reminder to remember God and forget your inner demons, when there is someone to greet or talk to at every corner. I remember bad things too, but those memories are not as easily accessible."

SOMALIS IN THE UK

  • There is no accurate figure for Somalis in the UK, an estimated 115,000 Somali-born immigrants residing in the UK in 2010 according to the Office for National Statistics. Community leaders estimate the actual number is roughly 350,000.
  • Somali seamen arrived in the UK in the 19th century, but the majority arrived in the civil war of the 1980s and 90s.
  • British intelligence services warned that Somalia could lapse into anarchy and tribal warfare just months before the country gained independence, according to newly-released documents from the National Archives. Somalis were described as "volatile and opportunist" people whose "deepest loyalty" was towards family and tribe, in a secret report prepared by the joint intelligence committee in 1960.
  • The banning of the plant Khat, classified as a Class C drug this year, was a blow to the Somali community, as the drug has a long tradition in the culture, as an alternative to alcohol or tobacco.
  • The overwhelming problem of the community is poverty and lack of access to education due to poor English. Over 80% of Somali pupils qualify for free school meals and in 2010-11 around 33% of Somali children got five good GCSEs, the exams taken at 16, compared with 59% of Bangladeshi pupils and 78% of Nigerian ones.