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Mentally Packed

Mohamed Mukhtar
Monday, October 15, 2007


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The Institute for Public Policy Research recently produced a report which looks at the impact 25 immigrant communities have on the UK economy. The 50-page report is mainly made up of observations using government figures and is less interested in the background to these figures. The Institute used different indicators such as education and employment to rank communities according to their contributions to the economy. USA citizens ranked consistently higher on most indicators. Americans are least likely to be unemployed or claim social benefit. On the other end of the scale, Somalis consistently ranked lower on most indicators. Why are Somalis in this position? Let us start with two points that are pertinent to our discussion.


First, from a historical perspective, it is usual for every community which is new to Britain to occupy initially the lowest socio-economic position vacated by other communities that have progressed up the economic ladder. The Irish, the Indians and the Chinese underwent that experience. These communities have made solid economic progress even though the rate of their development varies substantially. The Somali community, as a newly arrived community, is bound to join the end of the queue. The report notes this point: “Some relatively newly arrived groups are doing particularly badly in economic terms, whereas more settled groups are doing much better. This may indicate that economic success increases as length of stay increases.”


Second, from a comparative point of view, it is not surprising that a community from a failed state does badly compare to a community from a developed country in this case America. All migrants somehow reflect the circumstances that prevail in their countries of origin; the kind of people that emigrate, their education, skills and job prospects. The report affirms this proposition: “The relatively low rankings of Somalis, for example, may be down to the fact that many newcomers came to the UK as asylum seekers (and probably did not have the right to work while their claim was/is being processed), may not speak English, have few easily transferable skills, and have been housed in deprived areas. Similarly, at the other end of the rankings, Americans may be doing very well because they are mostly elite business people and professionals who are often here to work for short periods.”


These points can be reasonable explanations for the difficult circumstance that Somalis find themselves in but do not elucidate how the actions or inactions of Somalis contribute to this situation or how visible or invisible barriers contribute to Somalis being in this unfavourable condition. Hence, the outlooks and actions of Somalis will be explored in this article particularly how the ardent desire Somalis have for their own country affects their lives. The systematic marginalisation and exclusion that Somalis face will be put aside for another discussion another time.


When people move a lot, voluntarily or involuntarily, it becomes normal for them to remain “mentally packed” – ready to move at a moment’s notice. Somalis, victims of a 20-year armed conflict, have had to move quite frequently. The population bulge of the Somali community in Britain occurred around 1990s. Somalis come to UK seeking a place of safe refuge and resettlement remains their target. However, the hope and talk about returning to Somalia when circumstances improve are always present. In other words, they are “mentally packed” and this greatly affects them politically, economically and socially.


Somalis are a politicised society. Giovanni Sartori, an Italian political scientist, described a politicised society as a society that takes part in the operations of the political system. Somalis are keen to participate in the operations of the political system. But the question is which political system, the British or the Somali one? Somalis actively engage and put energy in the business of the Somali political system but stand apart when it comes to the British political system. In Southall, Ealing, there are about 5000 Somalis. Although some of them are newly arrived people, a large number of them are entitled to vote. Sadly, they do not exercise their voting rights and, as a result, they do not have a voice in the local council.  On the other hand, there are a number of Somali restaurants in this area and lively discussions about Somali politics are always on the menu.


On the economic front, if a person buys a house it indicates where that person is likely to stay for the foreseeable future. According to the report, the Somali community has a very low rate of home ownership. Of course, there are reasonable explanations. Since the price of the average UK house is about £300,000 (or 600,000 U.S. dollar) a lot of people simply cannot get a foot of the property ladder. Furthermore, Muslims are prohibited to utilise any financing which involves interest charges. Therefore, Somalis, as part of Muslim community, do not take mortgages and that reduces their chances of homeownership. This forces those who can accumulate enough money to buy properties to look outside UK especially where properties are cheaper. As a consequence, this reinforces the desire among Somalis to remain “mentally packed”.


On the social aspect, according to the report, Somali children are achieving below-average results in British schools. Poverty, poor housing conditions, breakdown of relationships and under-performing schools are likely to result in poor educational attainment. Equally, when parents are preoccupied emotionally with events that occur in another country they give their children inconsistent or inadequate parenting support and that may have a negative impact on their children’s achievements.


The above discussion highlights the challenges people face when they settle in a foreign country but remain “mentally packed”. People emigrate for political or economical reason; it is natural if they miss their homeland but it is detrimental to live on nostalgia. It is obvious that Somalis are undergoing difficult times to integrate their traditional way of life with the British way of life, but they have no choice other than to rise up to these challenges. Failure is not an option for those who have to shape their future in Britain.

Mohamed Mukhtar

Londonk, UK
[email protected]

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