'We came here and we started our lives anew'
First-generation Somali immigrants tell us how Sheffield shaped their lives
By Sophie Atkinson
Somalia and Sheffield are an unlikely pairing. Somalia is a country in the Horn of Africa, situated on the east side of the continent. Unlike Sheffield, Somalia is largely dry, hot and the country is distinctive for being particularly flat — forget the green rolling hills of the Peak District. All the same: Sheffield boasts a significant Somali population, with estimates suggesting there are around 5,000 Somalis living here. While there are plenty of academic studies written about Sheffield’s Somali population, there’s little coverage of this community in the local news. I wanted to get beyond the statistics and hear stories. What does it feel like to have moved somewhere so different? How easy was it to integrate? Does Sheffield feel like home? I headed to Burngreave to see for myself.
It’s easy to assume that Somali immigration to the UK originated with the civil war sparked by an abortive military coup in 1978 — a conflict which has now raged on for 30 years and has led to mass emigration of Somalis all over the world. But the story is a far older one than that: Britain colonised Somaliland (the Northwest of Somalia) in 1897. According to “Post-conflict identities: Practices and affiliations of Somali refugee children,” an academic research project carried out by the Universities of Sheffield and Leeds, this led to a long tradition of Somali migration to the UK, with seamen migrating from Somaliland to “to work and live in the dockland areas of London, Cardiff and Liverpool” in the early 1900s. The decline of the Merchant Navy in the 1960s meant these same immigrants were forced to seek new jobs and many Somali seamen moved to cities further north like Manchester, Birmingham and Sheffield, where the steel industry had grown and more workers were required. Still, the majority of Somalis currently living in the UK arrived as asylum seekers in the 80s and 90s following the civil war.
Someone directs me to what they describe as a “Somali supermarket,” Ileys Food Store. It’s a Monday morning, so the owner is busy sweeping and restocking shelves. But he’s OK with me chatting to the Somali man behind the counter, he says. Abdikarim Farah, 51, is meticulously polite but I can tell he isn’t overjoyed about doing the interview: I have to stitch his story together from one-sentence answers. Still, he gives me a good chunk of time and we talk intermittently — when customers come in, he breaks off from the interview to chat and joke with them.
Abdikarim has lived in Sheffield since 1998 (he’s based in Burngreave) and he hails from Somaliland, an autonomous region in Somalia which declared independence in 1991 but whose sovereignty has not yet been recognised by any foreign powers. His brother had been a 28-year-old student when civil war had broken out and in 1989, he fled to Britain. His brother lived in London initially but relocated to Sheffield at the age of 31 to study economics at Sheffield Hallam — London was too expensive a city for him to countenance studying there.
Soon after, Abdikarim’s father, mother and sister relocated to Sheffield to join him. Abdikarim wanted to move at the same time, but he was the only member of their family whose visa was initially rejected. He doesn’t know why his first visa application was rejected, but he knows why his second visa application was granted when he was 28: “Because of family reunion.”
“The first six months were very difficult,” he tells me. “I felt homesick. Because the first few months, it takes time. I missed the weather, it was so cold here, raining all the time. There it's dry, sunshine.” But Abdikarim didn’t just miss the sunshine. He fixes the counter with a glare. “And also I was married and at that time I left my wife and my children behind.”
The visa was only for him, he explains, and he felt it was the right thing for their family to relocate to Britain and then try and arrange for the rest of his family to join him. But at the time, his daughter was just two years old and his wife was pregnant with their son. In what I assume is one of this world’s leading understatements, he tells me that his wife wasn’t happy about his decision. But he phoned her regularly and kept distracting himself by working as much as possible — at the time, he studied for his GCSEs at City College alongside a physically taxing job packaging the pies at a pie factory. His wife and children secured a visa a year later and the whole family celebrated their arrival: Abdikarim’s mother cooked them “rice and traditional chicken, meat, all that.”
Nowadays, he tells me his children are bigger than he is. His son is 23 and is figuring things out: he was studying IT at university but after two years, he dropped out to pursue something more in line with his interests. His daughter is almost 25 and she’s married and has a two year old daughter of her own. How does it feel to be a grandfather? “Yes, I’m feeling over the moon to see my family growing big like a tree.” He tells me he’d like to spend more time with his granddaughter, but he has to work.
Later that day, I get a phone call. I’d chatted with a group of men outside a cafe for a while in my hunt for interviewees. Basha is the perfect interviewee for you, said one, because he’s not just Somali, he’s written the book on Somalis — quite literally. He’s a journalist and he’s published a book about his home country. I’d hung round waiting for him for a bit, having heard that Basha keeps a strict routine: he prays at the mosque down the street from the cafe and then he comes and drinks a green tea with everyone. But eventually everyone decided it was too early, so I’d left. Now one of the men was summoning me back. “He’s here, will you hurry?”
Basha Abdi is 65 years old and is a slight, graceful man. He pulls his stool a few metres away from the cafe and gestures for me to do the same. We talk for an hour and during that time, we’re interrupted constantly. Everyone knows Basha and everyone seems to adore him.
Occasionally, talking to Basha gives me the same sensation that discussing complicated subjects in German to other non-native speakers of the language gives me: the sense of talking at a slight remove, like there’s a closed window between us. We can make out most of what we are saying to each other, but sometimes the specifics grow muffled. Basha’s English is excellent, but at points, the story of his life and his politics is so complex that it strains the limits of his language. As such, this won’t be a perfect representation of Basha’s story. There will be gaps, holes, ambiguities. I think that’s OK, though.
Basha was 30 when he left Somalia, which he fled because of the lack of political stability that the civil war ushered in. “Most of the intellectuals left the country. We came here and we started our lives anew,” he says. Back in Somalia, he’d been the editor-in-chief of a magazine called Socialism, which did what it said on the tin. He moved to Cairo, in part, because it was also an intellectual hub with lots of opportunities for journalists. But while he describes Cairo as a good place, it wasn’t his end goal. Basha dreamed of moving to Britain, primarily because he was an idealist.
“I wanted British people to understand what was going on in Somalia, how the conflict is, what the role of the United States and Britain in Somalia was,” he says. “Somalia is a very rich place. If there's a place in Africa where there is fighting, there is something of value there. I thought if the people understood this, they could try to do something to solve the problem there.”
After spending three years in Cairo, he moved to Paris, because he thought it would be easier to get to Britain by train. He spent two months in Paris before achieving his dream and ending up in London. The thing that struck him most, he says, was the sense of freedom. “You could talk about what you want, you could express yourself, nobody could catch you. In Somalia, if you talk, they can shoot you.”
In London, he started his own magazine called Freedom, which was published in both Arabic and English and was about the Horn of Africa, Somali topics, Somali culture, the conflicts in that part of the continent. In 2000, he moved up to Sheffield to be closer to his mother, who was already living here alone — she’d separated from his dad years before. He brought Freedom with him, which he funded via grants from the council and donations from the local community. He set up an office in the top floor of the building at the end of the road we’re sat on. We wander down the road and gaze up at it.
He had a team working for him, but many of them were volunteers — since his income from the magazine fluctuated, he couldn’t always afford to pay other professional journalists. “Sometimes I got £5,000, other times £10,000.”
Early on, like Abdikarim, he worked packaging items in a food factory but he was fired after a few months. The cause of his dismissal? Sometimes he would arrive at 9:02 instead of 9am on the dot and he didn’t realise his superiors were making a note of this. After four months his supervisors told him “We’re losing a lot of time because of your laziness, you’re always two minutes late.” He told them he couldn’t live like that. “Because I like to talk, it was very hard. You have to work like a machine. I can't do that.”
But his life wasn’t only about work. At the age of 50, he married a woman 21 years younger than him — a Somali-British woman who had grown up in Sheffield who he met through his community. They stayed together for twelve years before divorcing. “Why did you fall in love with her?” I ask. I’m waiting for the usual: eyes like stars, we couldn’t stop making each other laugh, she felt like home. He watches me, wry. “We say in our culture: ‘You're lucky if it's like that.’”
Still, Basha describes her as a very nice and a very sociable person. Honestly, she sounds like a second Basha: according to him, everyone adored her. But that was the problem. He describes her as having “too many friends” and suggests that their home felt more like a community centre than a private residence.
Now he lives alone, but he’s not lonely. He ascribes his happiness to having a library in his home. He follows a strict daily routine — he gets up, he drinks a green tea at the cafe we’re next to, he goes to the mosque to pray, afterwards he sits at the cafe for two hours with his friends, “talking too much.”
What do they talk about? Politics in Muslim countries — what’s going on in Afghanistan or Somalia, say. “Today I came here and they're talking about the British girl who won the tennis. Somali people are very sociable, they like politics. The first question when you sit down is always ‘What's happened?’” He tells me he functions like a one-man newspaper: because he likes reading news, all his friends always want him to distil the latest politics for them. When I ask him what he likes reading about best, he tells me he likes reading about African problems.
“If you don't read, you become stressed. When you read, you're OK, because you spend time on something of value. If you read about history or geography or about politics, you're not wasting time. If I don't read, I become confused,” he says.
I press him: don’t you become depressed, reading about serious political problems? He considers this for a second and then smiles. “You know,” he tells me, “when you pray, it takes the stress out of you. So when I read the news and become stressed, I go and pray.”
It all sounds so idyllic, I say. His routine, his community. Well, things aren’t perfect here for Somalis, he says. “The last 15 years, those who grew up here and became British, some of them got involved with Jamaicans who exploited the Somalis. Somebody comes to you and says I'll give you £200, take this hash, take it to the other side, sell it, make money. You come back, you get £200. Now there are a lot of Somalis in prison.” He argues these are the generation of Somalis who were born here, who were exposed to British culture, which “is about get rich quick, no patience.”
What Basha loves about Sheffield is Burngreave and the way it feels like a smaller version of Somalia. Some of the best rules from home still apply here: generosity is an integral part of the community. If somebody’s car gets wrecked in a crash and the person needs £3,000 for a new one, every person in the community will donate £20. If a couple can’t afford a wedding, everyone donates. If someone needs to travel and they can’t afford the ticket, no problem. If there’s a funeral, you have to go, even if you didn’t know the person. Why? “Islam is like that. Islamic culture says help each other. Because one day you will be in the same place. The same fate will wait tomorrow for you.”