Somali-born Mo Farah celebrates with the Union flag after winning his first Olympic gold medal in the 10,000 metres
We’ve never met. I can barely keep on the treadmill for more than 10 minutes. But our lives have overlapped uncannily.
Born in Mogadishu, Mo Farah, now 29, spent a portion of his childhood near Gabiley in Somaliland, a town not far from Hargeisa, where I was born and lived. Mo, so the stories go, would run errands for his family. But his talent had to be nurtured in Britain. Without this he may never have got the chance. This double life is I suspect one reason why it was so emotional for him as he stood on the podium as the winner of the gold medal for the 10,000 metres on an unforgettable Saturday evening in August, as the national anthem roared through the Olympic Stadium.
For me, watching on my telly, this first victory was a great moment of affirmation and acceptance. His second gold, in the 5000 metres one week later, was momentous, breathtaking. He had become one of the greatest British Olympians. And, for once, the attention was on us Somalis for the right reasons—the best of us on screens beaming to millions across the country. No longer would we be only the invisible moving shadows crowded in urban pockets. And Mo’s greatest success lies in his full embrace of Britishness—something that is alas all too rare for young Somalis. Moreover, he is living proof that hard graft can bring success.
We were the generation that arrived here aged 8, 10, 12. Many of us came with memories of war all too fresh in our minds. Our stories were forged in the disintegration of the Somali state amidst the carnage of civil war. Mo and I survived this. Like many other Somalis we were forced to flee our homes and become refugees in Ethiopia and Kenya. We were robbed of what we here call childhood. For us, being a child didn’t mean sandcastles, toys and board games. It was about gunfire, hunger and fear.
We had little in the way of education, and were plunged into unfamiliar British life without manuals or guidebooks. We were thrown into existing zones of poverty in the inner cities, confused, alienated and unable to make sense of our new homes.
Mo Farah’s story, like my own, should not have ended well. Supermarket counter or Feltham Young Offenders Institute was the likely outcome. When you’re a child in those circumstances you do not know your potential. There are no role models: you do not have a parent with a degree, who is fluent in English, able to provide you with economic security and guide you along the way.
New communities only get a few chances before a collective reputation precedes you. Somalis have not had a very good start. The statistics show: the worst rates of unemployment of any minority group; only three per cent with any higher education; large families crammed into small flats; a swelling youth population; and absent fathers addicted to qat, a plant that grows in east Africa and which the men chew to get high. As a report for the department for communities and local government stated, Somali life in Britain was characterised by a cycle of “isolation, poverty and depression.”
* * *
Somalis are some of Britain’s oldest and newest migrants. Small numbers arrived in the 19th century in cities like Cardiff and Liverpool and London’s East End, mostly as seamen who could share in this island’s naval history. It is said Somalis even fought alongside Nelson in the battle of Trafalgar.
Today, the country we escaped from is a byword for anarchy and mayhem, easily topping league tables of the world’s failing states. The majority of those who fled continue to live as refugees. Mo and me were among a lucky minority: we not only survived but we escaped, starting new lives in faraway places like Britain, the Netherlands and Denmark.
No one really knows how many Somalis there are in Britain today. The Office for National Statistics puts our number at 108,000, up from 2001’s figure of 43,500. But this only records Somali-born, like me and Mo. “Somali” is not a separate ethnic checkbox like Bengali or Pakistani. The umbrella “Black African” barely contains the vast differences between, say, Ghanaian middle-class migrants and Somalis who arrive mostly as refugees and asylum seekers. Most estimates place the numbers at 250,000 to 300,000.
Mo began his British life in Hounslow in 1991. When I came here at the end of 1994 as a 10-year-old, I too was illiterate, lacking prior experience of schooling and unable to read or write in my native tongue. Very few Somalis could, as Somali has only been a written language since 1972. Mo got into fights just like I did. He found it hard to settle. Because of the conflict, many of us had never known stability.
Unlike Mo I had no natural talent. I was a chubby kid who enjoyed ice cream and doughnuts too much. I was once like so many other Somali children, stick-thin with a bloated belly, sick with the malaria that killed my older brother, and it had made my mother obsessed with my weight. Before settling in Britain, she would force me to swallow two raw eggs every morning to fatten me up. She had brought a hen for me. In Britain the pounds piled on.
I grew up in Kentish Town in the 1990s. My family was one of the first, but other Somalis began to arrive in large numbers. I often remember those days with some fondness. They were innocent times before the gangs, drug wars and murdered friends.
I recall all too well what happened next. Moving into an area with much poverty and an existing white working class community was not easy. We had to fight our corner. Tell them they couldn’t treat us like they wanted. Mothers would get fearful of their children being on their own. To avoid being beaten up or getting into fights we’d walk together in large groups to school. Laughing and fooling around—many of us were still mastering English—speaking in this hybrid Somali-English mixed in with street language and hip-hop inspired swagger.
We’d fend for ourselves-—from the local sports ground via McDonald’s and the chicken shop—at every opportunity. First, it was Somalis against non-Somalis and then it slowly it became Somali on Somali.
From those innocent groups has come something much darker. From street corners of rocks and sticks to whole areas of knives and guns. A generation of young men I started out with in the mid-1990s graduated to this. I began to see my old mates from the madrassa and school on street corners in Camden pushing drugs. Soon I was seeing them in the news. Not a night would go by without a fight breaking out on the estate I lived on. Police sirens, screams, the sound of mopeds.
The combination of boredom and youth creates a combustible mix. For us there were no summer breaks in France, seaside holidays, visits to museums—it was a long summer of MTV Base and football, crammed in tight urban spaces, families of six to eight people in two and three bedroom council homes.
The murder of Mahir Osman, 18 years old, in 2006 was a defining moment. He was a friend, a few years younger than me, and I remember playing and laughing with him at our local Somali-run madrassa in Camden. He was known as “Smiley” because he always smiled. Like so many other young men I knew, he ended up part of the Centric Crew, a gang that started in Camden in the 1990s. The gang’s initially Somali-only membership was drawn from across the borough. They became involved with low-level drug distribution, the first step selling some weed to a tourist or to one of the private school kids who lived in Hamsptead and would come to Camden Lock seeking nirvana.
From this they moved to robbery and anti-social behaviour. But before 2005 they were barely known outside Camden. They were the kids I grew up with, my age, 15–19—surely harmless. It was after 2005 that they became infamous mainly for their clashes with the North London Somalis, a rival gang operating out of Wood Green and Tottenham.
This was the start of something ugly. Now, gangs became the norm. Story after story would come of stabbings and beatings to murders—from Mahir’s murder to that of Sharma’arke “Sharky” Hassan, shot at close range in Camden in 2008, aged 17. Somalis became all too visible for all the wrong reasons. Fear struck the community. There was fighting between Somalis and Bengalis, Somalis versus Irish. At sixth form I’d get calls from family members, saying “avoid Camden tonight, the Bengalis are out looking to stab any Somali.” But I recall not heeding those warnings.
Mahir, Smiley, was the sweetest boy. He was murdered in the most barbaric fashion. That January day in 2006, up to 40 boys of the North London Somalis travelled from Tottenham to Camden seeking out any Centric Crew members. In broad daylight, they chased Smiley, stamped on him, kicked him, punched him. Witnesses reported hearing screams of “Stab him in the heart” and “Kill, kill.” In 19 seconds he received 21 stab wounds. His killers escaped on the number 253 bus, police catching only 25 of them. Most of them have never been brought to justice. Only four men were convicted of the murder and 11 others, including Fasil Wangita, the son of Idi Amin, were convicted on lesser charges.
Going into a tough secondary school in Somers Town, I initially had the same problems as other Somali children. I should not have done well, and at first I did not. But I was a curious and naturally bright child. While my former classmates sat huddled in hoodies under Camden bridges, grime music blaring out of their phones, I was taking part in a new adventure. At 16 I got the requisite five GCSE A to B grades and began attending Camden School for Girls (which has a mixed-sex sixth form). The school housed students who had attended the most elite schools in Britain—City of London School, Westminster, Highgate. I’d see the boys from my past and they’d be taken aback to find me having a latte on Camden High Street, sorting through indie music in the bootleg record stores, buying Che T-Shirts because I thought it was cool. We who’d started out identically had grown distantly apart. We had grown far apart. At about the same time, Mo Farah was practising his athletics, travelling even to Florida to compete in the Youth Olympics.
Mo and me had left the gangs behind, but at least for me they were never that far away. Smiley’s death came in retaliation for the attempted murder of 21-year-old Mohammed Nur, who was attacked in a car park at a McDonald’s in Haringey. His Centric Crew assailants hit him with concrete slabs and left him permanently disabled. They travelled there using free Oyster cards that Ken Livingstone had given to young Londoners. Oddly, five years earlier, I had helped organise a youth conference in Camden Town Hall prior to London’s first mayoral election. One of our demands was that all candidates should support a scheme to create free transportation for London’s young people. I needed transport as a teenager, working evenings at Poundstretcher and getting up at 5am every Saturday to sell fruit at Borough Market in order to earn the £35 that would see me through the week.
As a teenager I threw myself into working with the Children’s Society, and ended up working for several years on projects such as “Listen Up” and “Live N Direct,” a youth environmental campaign focused on sustainable living in inner cities by promoting, amongst other things, composting. A photo of me with worms in my hand and my mouth wide open made it into the Camden New Journal, much to the amusement of my friends. At the time, I kept myself busy without knowing why. I just liked it. At one point, I was interviewed for Radio 4—I didn’t know what Radio 4 was then, but the next day my headteacher said he heard me speak and that I should continue working on my English. That really stuck with me, so I began to pronounce my words as my teachers did.
* * *
Mo found it hard to reconcile his Somali background with his new-found British identity. Torn between cultures, he was socially isolated in an invisible community. Mo might well have gone off the rails had it not been for the support of Alan Watkinson, his PE teacher, mentor, and best man at his wedding. He has found happiness with Tania, his teenage sweetheart, and Rihanna, their daughter. Tania is expecting twins any day now. After his victory in the 5000 metres, Mo said his two gold medals would be dedicated to them.
Athletics was the vehicle for his journey out of isolation, just as education and youth activism would prove to be my way out. I too chose to integrate. I took every opportunity to get out beyond the walls of the community—to see and hear unfamiliar cultures, spending all my spare time on weekends in the local library and in theatre workshops. This “searching” often got me into trouble and set me apart from my peers, often making me a target for bullying. Some Somalis have a phrase for people like Mo and me—those who are seen to be “acting English.” They call us “Fish and Chips.” There’s a tendency within the community to fight this cultural curiosity. The older generation fears the younger will lose its culture and religion. Parents scold their children for not speaking Somali at home. English is positively discouraged—in stark contrast to Ghanaian and Nigerian migrants who speak to their children only in English.
Some traditions do endure. Qat is tolerated, and there have been a number of reported cases of girls being subjected to female genital mutilation, where the external parts of their genitalia are cut off. This is common practice in Somalia, but illegal in Britain. But in 2009, The Foundation for Women’s Health, Research and Development reported that an estimated 70,000 women in the UK had undergone the procedure. Girls are still expected to play a role at home, providing their mothers with support. Attitudes to women in the community hamper their integration. Somalis have high rates of lone female parents. The majority are dependent on social benefits. Even when the fathers are there, they’re often distant. A number spend time in qat cafés. There is a sense that Somali men lose their honour if they are unable to be breadwinners for the family. For young men unable to overcome the memory of war, there are no male role models. To compensate for this vacuum, they indulge in hyper-masculine behaviour—using the cloak of a gangster rap that is alien to their Somali parents and serves to widen the generational distance.
Meanwhile, there has been a broader religious awakening among the young. We come from a society where Islam was rooted in our culture. Growing up, I recall women would wear bright, colourful, traditional clothing, such as diracs and coantinos, and diverse styles of hijabs—some were covered and some were not. But how Somalis in Britain practice Islam has changed in accordance with global developments. Many have adopted Gulf standards, such as the black niqab—my sister now wears one, like so many other young women I grew up with. Embrace of different forms of Islam has allowed them to avoid the cultural baggage of their parents’s generation, and to connect with the lives of other young Muslims, particularly those from the subcontinent. Yet the vulnerable young are also drawn to radicalisation. Take the Oxford Brookes university student, the first British-Somali suicide bomber in Somalia. He was from Ealing and in 2007 blew himself up in Baidoa, in the south of the country. Mo Farah, at ease with his place in British society, provides the best antidote to this.
Many who arrived here in the early 1990s expected to return eventually to their homeland. With the situation in the Horn of Africa still dangerous 20 years on, many Somalis in Britain now realise that this may be their permanent home. Somalis are mostly refugees and asylum seekers, so we did not come to fill a gap in the labour market, as previous cohorts of migrants did. Somali leaders in Britain wonder how to follow the success of other migrant groups. But the template put down by previous cohorts is no longer working. We need to integrate more than those earlier groups of migrants have done. Somalis are known for their entrepreneurial spirit—Africa’s largest money-transfer business is Somali-owned and operated from London. Somalis have already established thriving businesses—internet cafés, restaurants and taxi companies. This bodes well for their long-term integration. The rate of inter-racial marriage, where Somalis marry people from other races, is growing too—look at Mo!
His triumph shows how a community once invisible, moving like soundless shadows on street corners, is finally becoming more visible in positive ways. It should not be forgotten that my generation of Somalis fled one of the worst civil wars of the 20th century—a war that continues to blight the most comprehensively failed state in the world. Mo has become a British hero, but he has not forgotten these origins—he regularly returns to Somalia, and runs the Mo Farah foundation, which provides aid to millions at risk of starvation and disease in East Africa. We should be proud of his success, and proud to see ourselves as part of this community—but, like Mo, we must first and foremost see ourselves as individuals, and as British.
His success is great for Somalis and for Britain, too. He’s the best face of us, but his achievements are all the more remarkable because he is deeply unrepresentative of the current wave of young Somalis. The problem is we don’t have enough like him. If Somalis are to overcome the real problems they have, then we must find ways to create more Moes. Perhaps his success may inspire his generation, and the next.