Refugee Week

Paradise Park Children’s Centre

Paradise Park Children’s Centre is an important stop in Islington’s refugee and migrant history for its links with a key member of Islington’s Somali Community, Councillor Rakhia Ismail. Since 2014, Councillor Ismail has held her monthly Councillor Surgery at Paradise Park Children’s Centre, helping her local community with a variety of services. In May 2019, Councillor Ismail made history when she was elected as Islington’s incoming Mayor and the first ever female Somali Mayor in the United Kingdom. Islington has one of the largest Somali communities in Britain and as a local Somali resident and Councillor, Councillor Ismail has been at the forefront of supporting Somalis in London, alongside her wider role supporting her ward of Holloway.

Stop 5: 164 MacKenzie Rd, N7 8SE

From the early 19th Century, when Somaliland became a British Protectorate, the first Somali seamen came to London, to work in the Merchant Navy, and settled near the docks in Tower Hamlets. Accounts of the time show that many of these seamen only planned to stay in London long enough to earn enough money before going back to their families. In Somalia, they were dubbed ‘The Fortune Men’ as they promised to take their wealth back home. Because they saw their stay as temporary, many did not learn English or integrate fully into British society.

Somalia, located on the Horn of Africa, occupies an important geopolitical position between sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East and southwestern Asia. A former British Protectorate and an Italian colony, Somalia became a nation state in 1960, but by 1977 war had broken out with Ethiopia over disputed land ownership and caused severe difficulties to Somalia’s fragile economy; prices of fuel and grain increased, and these stressed were amplified in 1978-1979 when a severe drought affected most of the country, bringing the Barre Government to the verge of collapse.

Three opposition parties formed and soon committed to an armed struggle against the government, initiating a civil war. Northern Somalia was worst affected at this time, with towns destroyed and 72,000 people killed in the town of Hargeisa alone. 400,000 fled the country. Following further drought and the effects of war, the country faced severe food shortages and in at least 500,000 Somalis died of starvation in 1992. The state-run health system had collapsed entirely, with only a few rudimentary facilities run by foreign relief workers. It was within this context that many Somali refugees arrived in Britain to start a new life.

Hand printing textiles as part of local Somali community group, Back 2 Basics Create

Some of those who arrived were political refugees, fleeing persecution and repression, whilst others were escaping the devastating impact that war had brought to their life in Somalia: famine, insecurity and abject poverty. Many suffered from malnutrition, bereavement, stress and were often deeply traumatised by the civil war. Upon arrival, Somalis faced a language barrier, culture shock, problems understanding their rights and racism. Such problems meant that some people became isolated and house bound, and prevented them from taking up many social or healthcare services on offer in Britain. Moving to a country by choice is very different to arriving as a refugee, when people have been forced to leave their country due to conflict.

If people come together, they can even mend a crack in the sky

Somali proverb

By 2009, the UK was believed to have the largest Somali community in Europe. The 2011 census suggested there were 99,484 Somalis in the UK and over 2,500 people in Islington identifying Somalia as their country of birth, (>1% of Islington’s total population). An important member of this community, Councillor Rakhia Ismail, has worked hard to support Somali refugees and made history in May 2019 when she became the first female Somali to hold the position of Mayor in the United Kingdom. Councillor Ismail was born in Somalia and came to Britain as a refugee in the 1980s. She has lived in the Islington since 1993 and was first elected to Islington Council in 2012.

2019-2020 Mayor of Islington, Rakhia Ismail

Since 2014, Councillor Ismail has held monthly Councillor surgeries at Paradise Park Children’s Centre. The surgery acts as a one stop shop for local residents, where they can find all the information they need. These are important meetings as the community can meet with their representatives directly, ask questions and raise concerns. The Paradise Park Children’s Centre has played a vital role by providing a safe and welcoming space for locals to engage with Councillor Ismail for six years now. The Centre itself was built by Islington Play Association and Islington Council in 2005 and is described by Councillor Ismail as having “the most amazing, friendly and diverse community”.

For over two decades Councillor Ismail has worked in the voluntary sector, first engaging Somali and BAME local residents with children’s services and then in schools across London. She is the founder of Back 2 Basics Create, a charity supporting hard to reach women and mothers and to advance education and relieve the needs of Somali communities within London. She was a founding member of Islington Stand Up to Racism, where she campaigned against Islamophobia. Previously, Councillor Ismail has worked as a freelance surface pattern designer and teacher. She also led numerous art projects placed at venues across London, including the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Crafts Council, and Islington Museum.

Rakhia Ismail

Councillor Ismail said of her role, “It is such an honour to (be) the Mayor of Islington, the borough is my home and this role is a chance to meet and experience the inspiring people and all the things that make our community so amazing.” Aisha Abdi, a committee member at Finsbury Park Mosque, said of Councillor Ismail, “She is a role model to all Somali women. Her becoming mayor is a good opportunity for the younger generation of women to know what’s available to them.”

More wonderful work is being conducted locally by the Islington Somali Community (ISC), a registered charity that was established at the end of the 1990s to help newly arrived refugees. The organisation works with Somalis of all ages in Islington and neighbouring London boroughs to “improve the wellbeing of the Somali population and to work towards the full integration of refugees in the local community”. The group has become an essential pillar for the Somali Community, with over 3,000 cases dealt with a year – providing advice and information to Somali refugees and asylum seekers.

Some of the ISC’s invaluable work includes:

  • Crisis Intervention – help refugees and asylum seekers experiencing acute mental ill health
  • Connect – support to older isolated Somalis in Islington, a two year project focused on Finsbury Park
  • Mother tongue and Supplementary School – classes offering educational support and Somali language – Montem Primary School, Hornsey Road
  • Regular women’s support group
  • Support for young people to:
    • Re-engage with education, training and sports
    • Provide tailored education away from alcohol and drugs
    • Progress unemployed young people into training and jobs.

Organisations, such as the ISC help refugees come together in their shared experience, as well as help subsequent generations of migrants connected with their cultural heritage through engagement and language programmes. With a long musical and art tradition, a core component of Somali heritage lies in their poetic tradition. Somali refugees have brought with them a rich cultural heritage to Britain:

I remember who I am

I am a scattered daughter

Somalia my country

East Africa the broad place

I call home

Excerpt from a poem by MAMA East African Women’s Group 1995

This article was produced for Islington as a Place of Refuge, an online tour developed by Islington Museum and Cally Clock Tower, in conjunction with Islington Guided Walks. Centred around Refugee Week 2020’s theme of ‘Imagine’, Islington as a Place of Refuge explores diverse stories from migrant history in relation to the London Borough of Islington.

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