Tag: London

Sierra Leoneans in Britain answer Ebola ‘call of duty’

A volunteer in protective suit looks on after spraying disinfectant outside a home in Waterloo, 30km outside Freetown. (Pic: AFP)
A volunteer in protective suit looks on after spraying disinfectant outside a home in Waterloo, 30km from Freetown. (Pic: AFP)

Watching with horror as the Ebola crisis ravages their country, Sierra Leoneans in London are mobilising to help their compatriots fight the deadly virus back home.

Health workers are taking leave from their jobs in the state-run National Health Service (NHS) to volunteer in Sierra Leone, where at least 1 200 people have died so far.

Others are raising funds for medical supplies, protective clothing and even hot meals for those affected – anything that makes a difference.

“I see it as a call of duty – I need to go down and help my people,” said Ajan Fofanah, a 46-year-old trained paediatric nurse who has applied to spend eight weeks working in Sierra Leone.

He was born in the west African country and moved to Britain aged 27 to further his education. Now he wants to use his skills to help battle the virus that has killed four members of his extended family.

“I’m far away from them and this is what is heart-rending. I need to get closer,” he added.

Fofanah was one of around 80 Sierra Leonean medics who attended an event in London last week to find out more about how they could help.

All were successful professionals keen to put their careers in Britain on hold and even risk being infected with Ebola to help their country.

Mohamed Koker, a 50-year-old emergency doctor who has worked in Britain for 12 years, hoped his knowledge of languages and traditions would help break down barriers with locals.

“I think the urge within me to perform what I call a national duty overrides my fear,” he told AFP.

“Most importantly, I have all the Sierra Leoneans back home who have no medical knowledge and who are sacrificing themselves, who are doing more than I think I am doing here.”

It is not only doctors and nurses who are desperate to help.

The British government is leading the international aid effort in its former colony, but members of the 23 000-strong Sierra Leonean diaspora here want to go further.

Ebola “is the only topic of conversation” among many, said Ade Daramy, chairman of the Sierra Leone Diaspora Ebola Task Force, which is working to help co-ordinate the response.

Food campaign, clothing
“When you live overseas and you’ve got family there – that just breaks you,” added Memuna Janneh, a 46-year-old British business consultant who grew up in Sierra Leone.

She started a charity in London to help feed people working on the frontline in Freetown, helped by her husband and relatives who are still living over there.

“LunchBoxGift” provided 2 600 meals to people living rough during the three-day lockdown in September, and now hopes to provide 50 000 more to hospital workers and patients.

“We may not have the cure, we may not have the logistics, we may not have the hospitals, all of those more complicated things that the government is battling to deal with,” she told AFP.

“But we can certainly as ordinary people come together to do food. It was really that simple for me.”

The British-based Sierra Leone War Trust for Children (SLWT) has also raised money to provide protective clothing and non-contact infrared thermometers for health workers and to deliver handwashing stations to rural areas.

In another innovative project, it sent 1 000 plastic raincoats to provide basic protection from Ebola for drivers of the “okada” motorcycles commonly used for transport.

For some, the urge to help is fuelled by a desire to save Sierra Leone from another trauma as serious as the country’s 1990s civil war.

Mayene Sesay (32) saw her mother shot dead in 1999 and lost a foot when a house she was in was set on fire.

She now runs an NGO for young disabled people in Sierra Leone.

Although not a medic, she attended the recruitment event in London to find out what she could do to fight Ebola.

“Whatever happens to me, I’m going to stay strong and help my country because I don’t want (it) to go through something else again,” she said.

“At least I can remember the person who shot my mum but I cannot see Ebola, where it comes from, how it affects my family. It’s like a ghost – you’re gone.”

Somalis in London: What we can learn from them after 100 years

(Pic: Reuters)
(Pic: Reuters)

There has been a Somali presence in London for over a hundred years. The first Somalis to arrive in Britain were economic migrants. Merchant seamen settled in cities including Cardiff, Liverpool and London. There are records of British Somalis in London dating back to 1914 when they were recruited to fight in the First World War and then subsequently settled there. In the 1990s civil war in Somali forced another wave of migration to Britain. Today, Somalis are one of the most misunderstood groups in the United Kingdom, despite their numbers.

Yet they have become integral to the capital’s poetry, literature, culture, and art. Warsan Shire, a British Somali talent born in Kenya, was named London’s first Young Poet Laureate in October 2013. The title includes a residency at the Houses of Parliament.

Just as Somali culture and identity grows and flourishes in new places, likewise, the British Somali population in London has developed with unique characteristics and complexities.

The Somalis in London report, part of a wider research project, Somalis in European Cities, aims to understand the views of British Somalis on issues vital to public life. These include identity, education, and political participation among others. The research has revealed a range of opinions on these matters and demonstrated the vibrancy and resilience of Somalis in London. Throughout the research we encountered many inspirational British Somalis, working hard for their community – and beyond – in voluntary organizations, supplementary education, and sport and youth activities.

Two factors were particularly striking. One was a tenacious devotion to community, marked by ongoing civic involvement in a time of economic austerity and cuts to spending on services. The second factor was the number of women involved in community initiatives. Our research goes some way to debunking the myth that Somali women are passive and silent. Women often step up, encouraging their children in school, and are visible in their communities and beyond. To quote one member who contributed to our research:

[People] get really confused sometimes because when they see Somali women covering, they associate us with the Asian culture, and then they see Somali women are very loud and boisterous. Then they are like, “Oh, okay, I was wrong about that.” I think [people] are very confused by the Somali community in general, ’cos sometimes they think you’re forced into marriage, and they ask, “Do you get arranged marriages?” and I’m like, “What are you talking about? We don’t do that!

These misperceptions are partly due to Somalis’ historical invisibility in ethnic monitoring processes throughout the UK. British Somalis often fall between the gaps of African and Muslim categories. Although country of birth data provides some insight into the size of the British Somali community, exact figures are difficult to ascertain due to the fact that there was no specific categorization of “British Somali” as an ethnic group in the 2011 Census.

Most attempts to classify Somalis muddle their nationality/ethnicity and religion/culture. Labeling a Somali “Black African” will obscure differences between Somalis and neighboring African countries in terms of culture, language, diet, dress, and religious practices. Being labeled as Muslim in contrast, ignores how British Somalis do not share language, diet, or dress with Asian and Arab Muslims who pray alongside them. This broad approach to monitoring categories has often resulted in the British Somali community’s experiences being overlooked, and we hope that the findings of this report go some way to highlighting the importance of capturing such data.

Some organizations are devising ways to learn about Somali life and build relationships with British Somali communities. Tower Hamlets Homes (THH), set up the Somali Tenants Engagement Project in April 2011. This initiative – for which THH should be commended – identified British Somali residents and gathered information on their needs and circumstances. THH was able to capture the unique experiences of their Somali residents.

Soon, all of London will get a chance to learn more about British Somalis. Kayd Arts’ annual Somali Week Festival occurs throughout the city from October 17 to 26. This festival showcases traditional and contemporary Somali art and culture, with events including poetry, literature, panel discussions, documentary film screenings, and music and theatre. It hosts artists, academics, and activists from London, the rest of the UK, and abroad. This year’s theme is “Imagination.” Examples of British Somalis’ contributions to London will also be showcased.