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Somali Portraits

March 6, 2013
by the gentle author

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

Adan Jama Mohammed – Seaman

“I came to this country when I was twenty years old in 1958. Before than I was in Aden, working on a small passenger boat, but when I came here I was thirty years as a seaman and living in Middlesbrough. I started on 8th April 1959 as a merchant seaman, earning £21.50 a month. Until 1980 it was my job, then I worked on big container ships. We didn’t have much to do. I married in 1987 and I had a family in Middlesbrough, but we had to leave because they closed the docks and the factories. I had a house and a family, and a mortgage I couldn’t pay. The building society said if I didn’t pay £70 a month, they would take the house back. I had to sell the house at half price, and now my children are grown up and don’t want to know me. I live on my own in a flat at the Seamen’s Mission in West Ferry Rd, Isle of Dogs, and my family live on the other side of London. I don’t like living here in this city, there’s too many people – but you can’t help it, if you don’t have a choice. I do have some friends at the Mission. It was a hard life as a seaman.”

Ahmed Hassan Sulieman – Seaman

“I was born in Aden, when I was a schoolboy everyone over sixteen joined the army. My father was in the First World War and he was killed fighting for the British in Egypt in 1918, when I was four. So my brother and I, we wanted to join the army and take revenge on the people who killed him. All my family were in the army. All the army, they treated us very good – white and black together, no colour bar.

In 1944, I was shot in the leg while I was on a British ship that was sunk by two German U-boats off Durban. We were at sea on a raft for two days and two nights before we were marooned on land without food. I went inland and walked for six days to search for help before the British found us and took us to Durban, and when we recovered they sent us back to fight. In Egypt, four thousand people were being killed a day at that time.

I was also in Germany and Japan, the kamikaze pilots crashed into our ship.  It was a very bad war, but we wanted to win – losing was nothing. I am brave because I wanted to beat the Germans and I fought for myself, I didn’t want to be captured. I was happy when we won the war and I’m happy that I’m still alive. I had four medals but I lost two recently, I never asked for them.

At the end of the war, they gave us a passport and a suit of clothes, and they brought us here to the Seamen’s Mission where I live today. So we were quite happy. I’ve been here seventy years. They said you are fit to work and I joined the Merchant Navy. I got £200 a month, before that I only got £24 a month and I had to shovel coal but the food was free. I worked as a merchant seaman until I got too old and I have lived in the Seamen’s Mission for the last forty years. I and my brother we used to go back to Somalia every year, until he was killed in a car crash in Poplar in 1980.

They told me I could bring my family over, but  there’s nowhere here for them to stay. I had eight children, all grown up. Now haven’t seen them for over a year and I feel sick, and I want to go home for good. I’m too old and I want to see my children.”

Shamsa Hersi – Manager of Somali Elders Day Centre

“I was born in a town called Burao in Somaliland and I came to UK as a refugee in 1990 when I was a child. From an early age, I wanted to work for UNICEF and in those days my great uncle used to work for the United Nations, he talked to me about his work when I was eight. I cared for my family for many years in Somalia – it is second nature to me, but you have to train to be a Social Worker. I believe that if you can work with people to help them, then it gives you a more rewarding life. I studied at university in the UK and I have a qualification in psycho-therapy and a diploma in working with people who have had traumatic life experiences. It’s about giving something back for the support I received when I came to this country. It takes a lot of guts and hard work and skills to build relationships, but it’s a privilege to work with these people – they are survivors.”

Ali Mohammad – Day Care Officer

“In 1988, there was a civil war in Somalia and I fled to my brother Isaac who was a senior official at the Ministry of Education in Mogadishu. Then, in 1989, there was a massacre – fifty-six people in my tribe were shot. They dug a mass grave and shovelled them in, but there was boy who was not shot and fell in the grave too. He managed to get out and spread the news. My brother told me to go to South Africa or India, anywhere away from Somalia, and he gave me 200,000 Somali shillings and $100. I went to India and then to Bangladesh where I studied at Dhaka University, hoping to come to Europe. My grandfather Uma Hassan sent me some money from London and my visa came through before I graduated, so he told me to come at once and I arrived at Heathrow on August 21st 1992. Because I had a family address, I decided to surprise them. I took a minicab to Poplar and they couldn’t believe it was me when I arrived!

I shared a two bedroom flat with another guy in Woolwich. The country was in recession at that time and there were no jobs. Some of the Somalis who came before me didn’t try to find work, they were so negative. They said, ‘As a black guy, you haven’t got a chance.’ But I tried and, after a month, I got a job as a kitchen porter at Queen Elizabeth Military Hospital in Woolwich, all the kitchen staff and cleaners were employed by a contractor. At first, I found it hard to get all the work completed on time but it got easier after a while. I got £2.85 an hour. Language was a problem and it was a very physical job, I found it exhausting. I couldn’t understand the people I worked with because they spoke colloquially – innit? – whereas I spoke more formal English.

I enrolled at Greenwich University and while I was working seven until seven for five days, on the other two days I did my part-time course. What I earned, I sent home but there wasn’t much left after I paid the bills. I lost my job when the contract ended after one year and eight months but by the time I finished I was earning £4.50 an hour. After three years at university, I left with a diploma in computing but I was unemployed for three months. I could only get work one day a week, doing cleaning and security in the City, I couldn’t find a decent job – they were all shut to me.

Someone told me there was an apprenticeship in Social Care available for a resident of the Ocean Estate. I was still living in Woolwich but I thought, ‘I could move to the Ocean Estate.’ A Somali landlord had a four bedroom flat with an empty room, so I took it and I got the job. They paid £500 a month and I did six months working in Social Care with disabled people, seniors and children. I did well and, in 1995, I spotted a job for a Day Care Officer advertised. By then I had my certificate, so I applied  and I won that one. And this is the job I do now here at the Somali Elders Day Centre. I got married in 1997 and I have three daughters and I live in Bethnal Green, five minutes walk from my work. I know everyone in this area.”

Ahmed Yunis – Seaman

“I came here in 1956 when I was a sailor in the Royal Navy. I felt comfortable in London because at that time my country was a British colony. I came on a Saturday and I left on the Monday. I was only here two days, I went to the Merchant Navy office and they gave me a job which lasted until 1982, when I retired. I lived in Liverpool for twenty-eight years but I consider London my home.

I am ninety-three years old. I have two wives, one here and one in Somalia. My London wife is forty-five and I have four children under eleven, the youngest is six.  I am a grateful father. I am also a great-grandfather. If you don’t smoke or drink or kiss women, you stay healthy.”

Kinsi Abdulleh – Artist

“When I got off the plane in the eighties as an eighteen-year-old refugee, I had an older family of relations to go to in Cable St. I remember thinking, ‘We’re going to England.’ and we passed Westminster and the Tower, and we ended up in this run-down, dark little side street. I thought, ‘God, what have we come to?  This is really poor, like being in Africa. I’m jumping from the frying pan into the fire!’ But, on the other hand, I fell in love with the place. I went to college and it was exciting that I could get up and go without supervision. I watched the Jackson 5 on TV and bought jeans, even though the older generation expected me to be more conventional. They said, ‘You’ve only been in the city two days and you’re going ice skating!’ They had a false outdated view of my country that I was supposed to believe. I came from the city not the village. People imagine you’ve come from Zululand and you live up a tree. I spent the formative years of my life being displaced, so I should be the one longing for tribal culture, but I am frustrated by the patriarchal tribal culture. I’ve been fortunate to end up in a place where people have extended a hand to me. I can go anywhere in Tower Hamlets, and that’s why I’ve stayed because I can walk down the street here and make my own history.”

Ali Mohammed Adan – Seaman

“I first came to London by ship in March 1958. I stayed in Aldgate for a night and went to Newport where my cousin had a house. There are many Somalis there. From that day until I retired in 1990, I was in the Merchant Navy, and I brought my family over from Somaliland. In 1970, I moved back to London to Bethnal Green but my wife and daughters chose to stay in Newport.

In Somaliland, I owned over a hundred camels and sheep. Nobody keeps camels anymore, everyone sold them and moved to the city. They say, ‘It’s too much work.’ But keeping camels and sheep and living on a farm, it’s a good life because you eat every day. Everybody wants to do it again now.”

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 from 8th-31st March, with a programme of events and activities hosted at Idea Stores and other venues throughout the month.


You may also like to take a look at

Surma Centre Portraits

4 Responses leave one →
  1. Peter Holford permalink
    March 6, 2013

    Interesting insights into the lives and experiences of refugees.

  2. March 6, 2013

    Great post and great portraits

  3. Gill Cork permalink
    March 6, 2013

    Very moving stories – thanks as ever, Gentle Author

  4. Nadra permalink
    September 22, 2016

    This is amazing, similar stories of how my family came here, thank you!

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