In April 1991, Musa came to London as a refugee from the civil war in Somalia. He explains, “As a refugee, I didn’t know where I would end up; in America, Canada, Germany, Italy. I don’t know how, but fortunately, I would end up in London.”
At the airport Musa remembers “the human rights agencies and United Nations” at the airport who were there to welcome refugees on arrival and connect them with accommodation in London. Musa’s was found a place to stay in Plumstead. On the whole, he found people to be welcoming because “they had seen the news”, although, he says, there were always challenges presented by the differences in “the language, the environment and the culture.”
One big difference between Somalia and the UK was the freedom to become involved in community activity and organisations. “In Somalia there was no such community activity…there was only a dictator at that time…We were not allowed to be activists or express your ideas…Even sometimes they would put you in prison, or even kill you. It was illegal to form any organisation at all.”
“As a refugee, I didn’t know where I would end up…America, Canada, Germany, Italy.”
Musa first began studying in Woolwich and then became a student at Lewisham College. It was Helen, one of his tutors, who got him involved in community activity and the voluntary sector. His involvement began with Lewisham Refugee Network,1 to which most refugee groups in the borough were connected at the time. He says, “That’s where I started integrating into this community…I didn’t have any idea about organisations. I learned through that. I use to go to the AGM and everything”
As different communities began to establish themselves in the borough, Musa acknowledges the vital role played by Lewisham Council in supporting the Somali community, particularly through providing venues from which they could carry out activities. In 1997, Etta Hall became home to Lewisham’s first Somali community organisation and in 2000, Musa became its coordinator. His qualification in Community and Youth Studies enabled him to develop his work as a youth worker when he started work for Lewisham Youth Service in 2005. In this role he worked with young people from all communities, but was particularly aware of the issues facing many young people of Somali heritage. “The Somali young people started having a difficult time, in terms of the gang issue in terms of drugs…At that time the violence was very, very high…”
Musa’s vision was for a place that would offer activities for young people and successfully helped to establish a centre in Deptford arches. When his position as youth worker was made redundant in 2013, he volunteered with others in the community to take on the management of the centre. “We took the responsibility of paying the bills and everything.” The Deptford Somali Islamic Centre is now also a place of worship for Muslims of all communities in the area.
“lt’s a place to relax, a place to play, a place to share.“
There is a focus on work with young people, but also an emphasis on maintaining contact with those who are 18 and above. The centre is also used by parents, and runs sessions for women and men. Musa believes that the centre is the community’s only local resource and has a key role to play in helping to address the challenges it faces, “Internally…we have a legacy of the civil war” and “mental health is a big issue”, particularly for individuals or families who are isolated “so it’s where they can really come out from that indoor activity and where they can meet together to connect over activities to improve weIIbeing”.
“We always involve the larger community. We’re well known and involve all young people in the area.”
1 Lewisham Migrant Network was formed in 1992.
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