Deep in the sprawling Andover estate in Finsbury Park, north London, talk turns to an identity crisis holding back teenage and twentysomething British Somalis.
Born in London, 23-year-old Najma Sharif laments how some view her as not British enough, as others in her community believe she is not sufficiently Somalian. In her parents’ birthplace she is dismissed as diaspora; at home a mere ’Mali.
Speaking as darkness fell on Friday – just a day after Ali Harbi Ali, a 25-year-old, British-born man of Somali heritage, was charged with the murder of the Conservative MP Sir David Amess in Essex – Sharif said the intersectionality of being black and Muslim was hitting young men particularly hard.
The fear is that the killing of Amess has compounded negativity towards Britain’s Somali community; an anecdotal rise in hate crime has already been recorded.
Almost immediately after the MP’s killing, death threats were reported, according to Kahiye Alim, director of the Council of Somali Organisations. The morning after, advice was issued to Somali groups and businesses to get in touch with their local police and crime commissioners, and their council, for possible help.
“We’ve had death threats against members, people telling them: ‘Go home, terrorist’, abuse on social media,” said Alim.
Younger members of the community have been specifically targeted, and a couple of youth clubs were forced to shut.
Already, Alim’s organisation has approached the mayor of London’s office for policing and crime for help reporting hate crime more effectively. This week he is hoping for a meeting with the Metropolitan police’s hate crime unit.
After Ali was charged on Thursday, the Council of Somali Organisations produced a video on how the community can report hate crime; it is also offering tips on “personal safety”.
Sitting in the office of the charity Minority Matters, in the heart of the Andover estate, Sharif said there had been no reprisals during the past week.
Yet on the streets around the labyrinthine 1970s housing estate, she describes how police frequently target her brothers and friends.
“Some are even stopped in their school uniform or on their way to medical college. They are facing such negative stereotyping, suffering isolation and alienation from many sides,” she said.
Away from the Andover estate, the ethnicity of murder suspect Ali has shone a spotlight on Britain’s Somali community, which, although sizeable, remains largely overlooked, according to its representatives.
We are forgotten. We exist but at the same time we do not exist
Alim anticipates the imminent results of the 2021 census will put Britain’s Somali community at 500,000.
For such a significant size, it has, he said, conspicuously little political clout.
Some councils still do not categorise Somali as a separate identity, despite Somalis first arriving in the UK during the mid-19th century, he added.
Recently his organisation felt the identity crisis had become so acute that it released a video guide on how to self-identify as Somali.
Sadia Ali, co-founder of Minority Matters, also points to the lack of an umbrella organisation championing the community’s needs.
“We are forgotten. We exist but at the same time we do not exist. There is a real crisis, we don’t belong in Somalia but we also don’t belong here,” said Ali.
Rakhia Ismail, former mayor of Islington in north London and now a Tory councillor, believes the Somali community’s lack of political heft is thwarting its hopes of improving outcomes for its young people.
She blames the Labour party, of which she was once a member, for treating the Somali electorate with “complacency”, accusing it of taking Somali support for granted.
Sharif said that while British Somali young men are too easily criminalised and targeted by police, their female peers are also viewed through the prism of inaccurate stereotypes.
“There are a lot of assumptions about black women – loud, obnoxious, aggressive – so when people talk to me, they are surprised. And as a Muslim they may think I’m oppressed – I’m not – or that I know all about FGM [female genital mutilation]. But I had no idea of it when growing up.”
Challenging stereotypes runs alongside campaigns for rehabilitation programmes for young men caught selling drugs. Too many, Sharif said, are written off after being caught dealing small amounts.
“They go to jail and come out with a criminal record and no opportunities,” she said.
Compounding the issue is that the model of university and career is failing many. “Some struggle to get a part-time job in a shop,” added Sharif.
Sadia Ali estimates that out of every 100 young British Somali men, between five and 10 end up with successful careers in white-collar sectors, such as the legal profession.
A bleak outlook is nothing new for Britain’s Somalis. Many of their parents have struggled to secure an enviable job. More than a third of Somali-born men with children born in the UK are economically inactive or unemployed. Of those working, Alim said that a “very large proportion” work in the gig economy or navigate life on zero-hours contracts.
Gesturing to the towering Andover flats surrounding her charity, Ali said: “We have to protect young people. We are losing a generation who were born and bred here. Then there is the question: ‘How do we make our young people safe?’”