6 Jun 2012

British Somalis going back for a future

Africa Correspondent

Parents of some British Somalis are sending their children back to Africa because they fear what might happen to them in the UK, writes reporter Jamal Osman.

Hassan, a 20-year-old man from Sheffield, is enjoying life in Hargeisa, Somaliland.

Back in the UK he faced so many challenges. His family was always worried about him getting into trouble and ending up in jail – or dead.

Sitting on the rear seat of a white Toyota car, Hassan told me: “Africa’s all right, blud – don’t be thinking that Africa’s dead.

“This place is actually better than I thought it was going to be – like everyone else thinks before they get here. Gaza, that’s what I thought.

Youth crime

“Freedom! Wow! You get a lot of freedom here – no-one will be worried about you. But in England if you’re out late your mum’s going to think the worst case.

Young Somalis in Britain face a huge challenge. They have some of the worst records in education, employment and youth crime.

They find themselves alienated from traditional Somali culture but not fitting into British society, either.

Now hundreds of parents have decided that the best thing to do is to send their children back to Somalia.

Hassan’s father, Abdi Ali, is one of them. He was worried about his son hanging around with the wrong crowd.

He said: “There were lots of youngsters around his age, some older. As they were growing up they were getting into groups and even fighting each other.

“He was young and impressionable, so he could have gone in any direction. So I wanted him to experience Somalia.”

The rehabilitation community

I travelled to Hargeisa to find out what Hassan was learning over there. What struck me immediately was that wherever I went I was hearing people with British accents.

Local residents told me more and more British youngsters were coming to Hergeisa. So many, in fact, that they even have a name for them – dhaqan celis – which loosely translates as “the rehabilitation community”.

Hassan feels a lot safer in Hargeisa than in the UK. His new home is the capital of Somaliland – a peaceful region of Somalia.

It feels far from the war in the south between the Islamists and western-backed troops.

“It’s like the civilians are police. That’s what makes you feel safe – if anything happens to you, you’ve always got help around.”

Hassan regularly meets some other members of the rehabilitation community as they attempt to help each other adapt to the Somali way of life.

They have a meeting place, with activities like basketball, snooker and workouts in the gym.

Fatima Saeed, the unofficial chief of the rehabilitation clan, runs the youth centre. She grew up in Wales, so knows what it is like to arrive from the UK.

Why is this child coming back?

“They can spot the child from the UK,” Fatima told me. “It’s just a body-language thing.

“It’s just a stigma that’s attached to it – why is this child coming back? He’s coming back because he’s done something.”

To help them get to know their motherland, they go on day trips.

Laila was a member of the group. Back in London she loved fashion, acting and dancing, but her parents decided that was unacceptable for a Muslim girl and sent her to Somaliland.

In our culture its always like the men are in control. I grew up in a world where I’ve seen that everybody is treated equally – fair. Laila

Laila understands why she’s there: “They (parents) always want what’s best for you – but growing up in the western world I didn’t see it like that. I was the biggest rebel – I thought if I can’t have it my way, then you’re not going to have it your way.

“I didn’t realise that I was only harming myself. That’s what I learnt – to compromise.”

But one compromise she’s not happy about is losing some of her freedom.

As we arrived at Berbera beach, the local police told us that boys and girls could not swim together, so Laila was “trapped in the bus” while the boys cooled off in the sea.

“I’m being teased because I can see the sea but I’m not allowed in,” Laila said angrily.

Not trusted

“In our culture its always like the men are in control. I grew up in a world where I’ve seen that everybody is treated equally – fair.”

What made it worse for Laila was that local girls were allowed on the beach. But girls in the rehabilitation community are not trusted to behave.

“When you see other girls on the beach and we’re not allowed – it feels like a personal attack because you’re from outside.”

A visit to the Laas Gaal, which has some of the oldest cave paintings in Africa, was a better experience for Laila.

Looking at the paintings, she said: “It’s amazing to see our heritage and our culture. Not in a million years did I think there would be paintings here from thousands of years ago.

“It makes me appreciate my culture.”

And this culture, which at first she did not want to know, has now given her a new direction in life.

She teaches children in a neighbourhood where parents do not have enough money to send them to school.

“I thought to myself: instead of listening to Rihanna, or something meaningless in the house, get those children and bring them to the house; print stuff out from the internet, teach them stuff – numbers, greetings – give them a better chance in life.”

After seeing a neighbour being beaten by her husband, she has also started counselling women.

“I’d like to see Somaliland a bit more like Britain. I know it won’t be, but I’m talking about fairness – things like that.”

But they are all loving their new status there. The money their parents send them from the UK funds a more privileged lifestyle in Hargeisa.

They feel they are upper class there, but back in the UK, they were working class.

Many Somali youngsters in the UK are caught between two different cultures – not feeling British – but not Somali, either.

Coming to Somaliland, they at least understand where they came from. And that gives them confidence and a sense of place.

Laila hopes to return to the UK soon. She really wants to go to university.

Hassan has no plans to come back.

Jamal’s cameraman during the filming of this report was Ahmed Farah.