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Somalilanders In Cardiff First Arrived 1880s Settled 1950s
First arrived 1880s Settled 1950s
Centre Butetown, Grangetown, Riverside
Cardiff, Wales, January 23, 2006 (The Guardian) – ‘So, you're here to meet the elders?" asks a young man. There is no time to reply before he swings open a door to reveal a room containing 16 elderly Somali men. Some wear suits and ties, some hats, robes and hennaed beards; some gesticulate with camel sticks, some quietly read the Daily Mirror. Television news and conversation stir the air, which is split intermittently by the scrape of dominos. One of the younger men, aged about 50, stands to make a long announcement in Somali. All the elders listen, and with important faces, turn to look at me.
"Do we have a community in Cardiff?" asks a small man, Ibrahim Deria, as if the suggestion was news to him. "No! We have the people, but no community." Some immediately disagree, others go further. "Our kids are running round the streets like hunting dogs!" Deria continues.
This is Red Sea House, a scheme in Cardiff Bay for retired Somali seamen, but it could be any retirement home in the country. "We have been here 56 years," adds Haji Musa, white-bearded, shrugging off all interruptions, "half of us died at sea. And we did not come here as immigrants! We were brought to work on ships because your men can't lift coal properly!" The elders laugh; at least everyone can agree on this.
In the late 19th century, men such as Deria and Musa were a common sight in the docks of Cardiff, Liverpool, Bristol and London. They were adventurous young men from the British protectorate of Somaliland, who had left their homes to work in often atrocious conditions on the old coal-fired steam ships that used to tour the empire. Many of them served and died in the Royal Navy in conflicts up to and including the Falklands war.
Somali refugees, who have arrived in numbers in the past 20 years and now make up the majority of the community both in Cardiff and nationwide, often feel lost in modern Britain. But the Cardiff seamen, who established the largest British-born Somali community in the UK, feel quite at home. As Abdi Sugulle, the manager of Red Sea House, puts it: "There is a sense of belonging where the docks is concerned."
Nevertheless, this is not a rich community, and Butetown, though it was tastefully redeveloped in 1988, is not a rich area. Most of the refugees, having received little education in Somalia, subsist on low-skilled and low-paid work, while many of those who were born here suffer from low expectations. Apart from Rageh Omar, Britain's Somali community of perhaps hundreds of thousands has produced few prominent successes so far. Given that most of them arrived less than 20 years ago, often penniless, traumatized and unable to speak English, this is hardly a surprise.
And yet there is real hope that the next generation can change everything. "There are Somalis who are trainee solicitors in Cardiff," says Abdi Adhan of the Somali Advice Centre as we await our lunch in Grangetown's Haraf restaurant. "There are Somalis who work in the local authority, managers in private companies . . ." he is greeted by two acquaintances ". . . civil engineers . . ." another man steps in to shake his hand . . . "doctors, although the number is not high . . ." he sticks resolutely to his task, picking real examples from memory despite the buffeting . . . "opticians . . ."
Our food arrives. "Mmm . . . Welsh lamb," murmurs a friend of Adhan's appreciatively over our plates of spiced rice, meat and salad. The meal is fabulous, and I ask what I should call it. The answer is a long string of acrobatic Somali. What would that be in English? There is a brief discussion: "Rice and meat."
After lunch, as if to illustrate his point about the new Somali professionals, Adhan takes me to meet Yusuf Hassan, a young man with three careers. "I'm a dentist, a microbiologist, and I run a shop as well," he explains, leaning against the counter of his grocers in Butetown. When he's not scraping teeth or counting change, Hassan is a research associate at Cardiff University, developing a bacteria-detection system based on the scattering of light. "It's really exciting," he enthuses. "Everything is something new. To be a dentist is more rewarding in terms of money, but you have to work for something that excites you."
Next, Abdi takes me across town, to where another Somali is getting his excitement in a different way. This is Yusuf Ali Hassan (Somali men take their father's first name as their second, which means they often sound very similar). So far as anyone knows, he is the first Somali lollipop-man in Britain. He is clearly loving it. "It is very good, I like it," he says, leaning jovially on a wall in his blinding yellow uniform. Considering that he has been working for 12 hours, after getting up at 3.40am to begin his other job, Ali Hassan is in a remarkably sunny mood.
And does he find the children a handful? "Sometimes," he concedes, "but mostly they are quite all right." This is no surprise. Whatever their financial circumstances, Somali children are usually well brought up. On a visit to a Somali youth centre the day before, several of the boys even went, unasked, to get me a chair. Red Sea House's denouncer of Somali youth, Ibrahim Deria, had agreed to take me to his home, and I mustn't be late. With evident pleasure, Ali Hassan parts the traffic to help me on my way.
Deria is outside the mosque, as arranged. After his complaints of the previous day, he is more sanguine about modern Cardiff. "It's very friendly," he explains in the car. "I've never had a problem, never. My children have never had a problem. I don't see any racists, or whatever they call them." He talks as if "racism" was just a softie's word for robust opinions - but then he has some of his own.
"Bangladeshis, too much," he tuts, as we enter the Riverside area where he lives, across the water from the Millennium Stadium. "One comes first and the other one follows." There's irritation, but no hatred in his voice. What about the people who say there are too many Somalis in Cardiff? "Yeah, I know," he hums.
Like many Somalis, Deria has a large family - a wife and seven children. (His brother has eight.) In the front room he introduces two of his sons, aged 20 and 16. "Welsh boys," he smiles proudly. "You can tell." While Deria's Welsh accent hangs only on certain words, like "work" and "lovely", the boys, who are polite and articulate, sound Cardiff through and through. "The area's got a reputation for being tough," explains the older boy, "but it's never taken too seriously because the elders in both communities [Somali and Bangladeshi] come together and stop it before it gets too serious. Nothing big, like, nothing big."
Downstairs, Deria's wife and some of the other children are watching TV. After joining her husband in Cardiff in 1984, Kinsi Deria had much adjusting to do. Still unsure of her English, she explains through her daughter that she is happy in Cardiff and has many friends, most of whom also came over from Somalia.
"Everything is easier than the language," she says. "I find learning English quite hard." How about English TV, does she enjoy it? "I understand English but I can't speak it myself, so yes. I like Location, Location, Location and Property Ladder." One of the children reminds her of something and she smiles. "Oh, and Changing Rooms. I want them to come to my house"