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More Somali Portraits

March 23, 2013
by the gentle author

Contributing Photographer Sarah Ainslie has been working on a series of Somali portraits in recent months and we publish more today, accompanied with eloquent testimonies dictated by the subjects.

Ismail Ibrahim - Seaman

“I came to this country in 1958 from the South Yemen which was a British colony. I was born a British subject and I am still a British subject. They say to me, ‘Why do you like it so much?’ I say, ‘I don’t know any other government.’ I joined the Merchant Navy in 1960. After we fought in the Falkland Islands in 1982, I came back and joined the Ministry of Defence from 1983 until 2000. I was in Czechoslovakia with the United Nation Forces from 1984-89, then I was in Georgia. I was in Cyprus but when they were going into Iraq, I said, ‘I’m not going.’ I retired four years ago. In the Navy, I worked in the engine room and in the Merchant Navy, I was coxswain.

I was born in British Somaliland, in the city of Berbera, one of six brothers and four sisters. In 1960, we got independence and they joined British Somaliland to Somalia which had been an Italian colony and was run by the mafia – they rape, they kill. So we decided to get our land back and have self-government, and we fought for twelve years. They killed my father, they killed my brother and they killed my children.

In 1991, we got independence again, and we settled down and all was ok in Somaliland. The country needs European help because there are no roads and no facilities. So what can I do now? – I’m ok but a bit old. I’ve got four boys and two girls, and an ex-wife in Somlia that my brother took on, and a wife here in the City Rd that I don’t live with. I was away on a ship while my children were being born, I was always at sea not here with my children as they grew up. They don’t know me. My life was sea, sea, sea.”

Ahmed Esa - Seaman

“I joined the Navy in 1953 in Aden, I was a young guy and I just wanted to work and visit other countries. I came to Plymouth in 1953 and stayed with the Navy until 1969 when I joined the Merchant Navy. I retired in 1988 after thirty-nine years. My brother was in the Merchant Navy too, he was younger than me. He came to London and enlisted, but I never worked in London. All that time, my family was at home, so I fetched them here and they live in London now. I haven’t been back to Somalia since 1996, I can’t afford to cost of the trip. Being in the Navy, it was a hard life – all that time at sea, even if you got to different countries. I’ve have no home, I’m living here in the Seaman’s Mission and waiting for flat of my own. I’m a single man again, now my children have grown up. My brother caught a virus and died in Forest Gate. Life in London is solitary, though I have a few friends at the Mission from the Merchant Navy. I was a deck hand, a carpenter and an able-bodied seaman, an odd-jobs man.”

Yurub Qalib Farah - Day Care Officer

“I came to this country on my own as an asylum seeker in 2001. I had friends here to stay with and I went to college in Haringey, studying English Language and Computers – before I came this country I was working as a secretary. In 2002, I started searching for work, and people said Tower Hamlets is the best place to find a job and I learned that Mayfield House was advertising for a Day Care Worker.  I called up the number and came for an interview with the manager at 2pm on November 11th 2002, and I have worked here ever since. My ambition is to help people and be a good care worker, and in this job I am using the experience I have had to help others. I got married in February 2004, and we don’t have children but my sister came to join us. I went back to visit my family in Somalia for the first time in ten years last Christmas. There had been some changes and my friends had moved to a different area, so it was like another country to the one I knew. It was safe but so hot. I think I have two homes, here and there – and I’m glad to have that. When I said to my friends, ‘I’m going home,’ they say,‘Which home?’ And then they say, ‘Can we come with you?’”

Ahmed Awad Yusuf - Seaman

“I first came here in 1959 at nineteen years old. At that time Somalia was a British colony and I had a British passport. Seven of us, we took a ship to Marseilles and caught a train to Dover and then arrived at Liverpool St. There were a couple of Somali coffee shops in Leman St and I stayed at one for three days. A friend of mine lived in Newport so I took a train from Paddington and stayed with him for four weeks, and then I lived in Cardiff for three years. First of all, I went to the Social Security and they gave me £2.10 a week, while I was looking for a job. I worked three years in Cardiff Dock. The Merchant Navy were looking for seamen and they gave me a job for twenty six and a half years. I moved back over here to London in 1965, and I lived in Leman St, Cable St and at the Seamen’s Mission in East India Dock Rd, and in 1984, I returned to Somaliland. But in 1990, I came back here with my wife and children. I live in Leman St, it’s the place I first came and it’s where the people I know are. I’ve been all over the world, Africa, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Gulf States, China, Japan – all the places the British ruled.”

Ruquiya Egeh – Housing Association Manager

“I came here in 1988 as refugee from Somalia at the age of fourteen. I came speaking not a word of English.  I was one of twelve children, but both of my parents were teachers and my father was able to send money to support us. Fortunately, my elder sister who I came with was nineteen, that’s why we weren’t fostered, she was old enough to be my guardian. At first, we were taken to the Home Office and then sent to a refugees’ hostel somewhere in London, before being taken to temporary accommodation in Forest Gate. We met some Saudi people at the mosque and I was able to go to Swanley School in Whitechapel. But the other pupils treated me as a stupid person because I couldn’t speak the language and I had playground fights because I thought they were swearing at me. Within a space of two years, I managed to learn enough English to pass seven GCSEs. I came from a good educational background and I wanted to prove I knew something.

I found college much more difficult because there was less support yet I managed to pass Health & Social Care, but I hated it and my sister went through depression at that time too. In the second year of college, I changed courses so that I could use my strengths and I did Arabic, Maths, Chemistry, Biology and Physics, and I did well and applied to University. Getting into University was a big deal and I studied Biomedical Science at Greenwich University. I got married in my second year of college and became pregnant with my first child, which let me down because I was so exhausted I fell asleep in classes. But my husband supported me and his parents looked after the baby so I could work. By the third year of University, I had three children. It made me want to achieve, I was the first person in my family to get a University degree and, when I rang my father, he said, ‘Well done, you made me proud. You were my first child to go University, now I can hold my head up.’

When I work with people who have got language problems, I know their frustration. Now I’m pushing my children. I say,‘You’ve got to be first in the class,’ just like my father said to me. I tell them, ‘If you have a good education, you can get a good job and earn good money. Knowledge is power.’”

Mahoumed Ali Mohammed - Seaman

“I came to London in 1948 and I stayed here at Seaman’s Mission for a while and for four months at the Strand Palace Hotel. I worked for the British railways for twenty years, as a porter, as an assistant lorry driver and in signalling in the Underground. Then, in the seventies, I joined the Merchant Navy and the Royal Navy for another twenty years until I retired in 1992. I was based in Cardiff but I came back to London in 1996. I have a girl and boy and my wife lives in Cardiff. When I called and said,‘I’m going to London,’ she said, ‘I’m staying here with my kids.’ I’m eighty-eight now and I live in Bethnal Green.”

Ibrahim Abdullah - Surveyor of Works

“I first came to London in 1956 and studied at the Brixton School of Building for a Diploma in Civil Engineering and then I went back home. At that time, the British ruled the country and I became a Surveyor of Works. I did not return to Britain until 15th June 1990, fleeing the Civil War, and then I brought my wife and family with me. We became British Citizens and now I come regularly to Mayfield House Day Centre to meet other Somalis who were seamen, and there are lots of them. I find it calm and cool, no problems here.”

Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie

These pictures form part of the new exhibition Don’t Just Live, Live To Be Remembered: the Somali East End produced by Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives. On view at Oxford House, Derbyshire St, Bethnal Green E2 6HG until 31st March, with a programme of events and activities hosted at Idea Stores and other venues throughout the month.

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You may also like to take a look at

Somali Portraits 1

Surma Centre Portraits

2 Responses leave one →
  1. March 23, 2013

    A wonderful start to the day reading these blogs and seeing the photographs, very insightful, uplifting and encouraging.

  2. Andy Willoughby permalink
    March 23, 2013

    Thank you for these accounts and photos. They were real eye-openers to me. Very impressive histories.

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