9 Jul 2013

Community rebuilds after ‘Islamophobic’ arson attack

Africa Correspondent

The arson attack on the al-Rahma community centre in north London – blamed on the EDL – has left local Somalis and their children deeply affected. Will the area and its people ever recover?

It was around 4am in the early morning of 5 June when Abubakar Ali’s door was knocked by someone calling his name, writes Channel 4 News reporter Jamal Osman. Abubakar knew it wasn’t going to be good news. And he was right. His brother Omar gave the bad news: “The community centre is on fire.”

“It was one of the biggest shocks in my life,” Abubakar told me.

Last month the al-Rahma Centre, a Somali community project in Muswell Hill, north London, was burned down in what appear to be an Islamaphobic attack.

The place was used by hundreds of people from the area, especially children. It offered after-school activates, academic and Islamic studies. For many of the children, they regarded it as their second home.

Abubakar established the Somali community project 20 years ago. Since then, it has been serving his people. It’s not the first time the community centre was attacked.

Windows smashed

The place had its windows smashed in after the 7/7 London bombing and it was ransacked around the 11 September anniversary, two years ago. This time, however, the building has been devastated.

“The building can be rebuilt,” said Abubakar. “But the life of our children and the shock is still there.”

When I spoke to most of the parents, they said their children are in a shock. A child of around seven said: “I’m depressed.” I asked why, and he said: “I don’t know.

“I just sit alone and think about it, why they wanted to burn, destroy our lives.”

Attacks against Muslims have gone up quite significantly since the brutal killing of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich almost seven weeks ago.

EDL under suspicion

The police are still investigating the fire that destroyed the building. But the suspicion is that English Defence League members were behind the attack, after EDL graffiti was discovered on the building.

And it’s the link to the far-right group that’s making the community fearful.

Dahabo Ahmed has been using the centre for a long time and is worried for her kids. Idris, nine, and Ebyan, 11, loved going to the al-Rahma centre. They used to do lots of activities there and get help with their homework. Now Dahabo has to help them by herself and deal with the trauma.

“I’m very scared,” Idris told me. “They may burn other mosques and schools.”

Abubakar called a meeting to reassure the parents. He told them the local authorities are offering counselling to the children.

To boost the morale of the community, he showed parents a video from fellow Somalis living in Canada who tell them they feel their pain. Closer to home, letters from children at a local Jewish school were read out.

Jewish community ‘very supportive’

One read: “We were so sorry to hear about this terrible tragedy. We wish you all the best in rebuilding your community.”

Abubakar told me the Jewish community has been very supportive, especially Rabbi David Mason, who organised a multi-faith walk to show their support.

Rabbi Mason said: “I organised this because I believe this was the time when we needed to get together to do this (walk). It was a moment to show faith groups can come together, irrespective of our differences.”

The “solidarity walk” ended at the ruins of the al-Rahma centre – still a crime scene. It was also an opportunity for the locals from all faiths to get to know each other.

Abubakar was overwhelmed by the solidarity: “For me, it shows we have a community behind us. A community that’s feeling our suffering and showed we are not alone.”

He has been given a temporary office with two computers in the local library and he is now starting to reorganise some activities. A number of local schools, churches and synagogues are also offering temporary places, so at least, they can keep the children together.

The al-Rahma centre holds an annual ceremony to celebrate students’ achievements. It’s one of the biggest events for the parents and their children. They almost gave up this year, fearing they might be targeted. But they decided not to give in to whoever destroyed their centre.

Abubakar thought it would be “impossible” to realise it, but with the help of the local authority, who gave them an alternative venues, and the police, who reassured them of their safety, they have managed to do it.

On the day, every enjoyed the event. But the children are waiting for answers on who destroyed their second home. For now, the centre remains a crime scene – their playground is a no-go zone. But there are hopes that one day life will be normal again.