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Sarah Ainslie’s Somali Portraits

April 24, 2023
by the gentle author




Contributing Photographer Sarah Ainslie undertook this fine series of Somali portraits, accompanied with eloquent testimonies dictated by her 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.”

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

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7 Responses leave one →
  1. April 24, 2023

    Sarah Ainslie has such a way with the camera. These portraits are beautiful, presenting the subjects with tenderness and dignity… I would be honoured to know these men and women.

  2. Mary permalink
    April 24, 2023

    Sarah has taken beautiful images of some wonderful people. Their grace and dignity shine through in the images and the stories. I would love to meet them.

  3. Cherub permalink
    April 24, 2023

    Thank you for letting these people tell their stories, they are very uplifting. All of them making a quiet contribution to society. Also thanks to the men here who served Britain in times of war, they deserve much gratitude.

  4. Christina permalink
    April 24, 2023

    Wonderful portraits. Stories of courage.

  5. Mark Clark permalink
    April 24, 2023

    Such beautiful portraits, and inspiring stories. Each portraying lives of hope, optimism and humble service. They all bring great credit to their adopted community.

  6. April 24, 2023

    A beautiful set of portraits from Sarah. They capture dignity in human form and tell of strength defeating adversity. Life is very hard for people who have fled their home to start a new one here.

  7. Maria Osman permalink
    July 21, 2023

    beautiful…important history of proud people

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