Viewpoint: Chandler case offers UK Somalis a new start

Image caption Official estimates suggest there are 108,000 UK-based Somalis

When Kent couple Paul and Rachel Chandler were released by Somali pirates after 13 months, much credit went to the UK's Somali community.

The BBC's Hashi Mohamed offers his perspective on how this might affect the way British Somalis are viewed - and shape their future.

Much has been written about the role of UK-based Somalis in securing the release of the Chandlers but, as a first-generation immigrant, I wonder what this means for a community that has so far struggled to find a voice.

The story of the release is familiar.

A former mini-cab driver from Leytonstone, east London - mortified at the embarrassment suffered by his children being called pirates - took matters into his own hands.

An ashamed community used every means to mount international pressure on the pirates, even securing funds reported to have contributed to the ransom money.

Although this story has a happy ending, for many Somalis in Britain the future remains complicated.

Civil war

The 2001 Census recorded 43,000 Somalis in the UK. The Office for National Statistics' annual population survey currently estimates Britain's Somali-born population at 108,000 - though many observers suggest 250,000 would be a truer picture.

Now mostly concentrated in London, Birmingham, Liverpool, Sheffield and Cardiff, Somalis are documented to have arrived at Cardiff's docks as merchants as far back as the 1880s.

Settlement really only started in the 1950s but the majority came as refugees in the 1990s, as Somalia's civil war worsened after the collapse of the state in 1991.

The Netherlands, Sweden, Norway and Denmark have also welcomed sizeable Somali populations, while the largest diaspora communities are concentrated in the US Midwest and Toronto, Canada.

As Somali author Nurdin Farah said: "When it rains in Mogadishu, the umbrellas go up in Minnesota."

However, older exiles often spoke of the day they would return to find their ancestral home and this is now commonly recited by younger generations.

When publicising his 2006 book, Only Half of Me, British-Somali journalist Rageh Omaar noted that many Somalis have "never really unpacked their bags".

To me, it seems that dreaming of a return home, while failing to fully integrate, has had unintended consequences.

Family breakdown

Last month, an Equality and Human Rights Commission report on fairness found that half of all Britain's ethnically black African children grow up in poverty. They are also more likely to have caring responsibilities.

While GCSE attainment has improved, black boys eligible for free school meals still struggle.

Many of these are Somali children. Often raised in large families and overcrowded households with no breadwinner, English can be the second - sometimes third - language.

Image caption The Chandlers thanked the Somali community for helping secure their release

The use of the stimulant khat, chewed predominantly by Somalis and Yemenis, is legal in the UK and spreading among youths.

A Home Office report in 2005 found the drug was associated with weight loss, depression and hallucinations.

It also underlined social problems attributed to the use of khat - usually by men and after midnight - including family breakdown.

Crime gangs have sprung up in deprived areas, as a poverty of ambition takes hold of Somali youth, and mothers continue to lose their sons to knife crime - more than half a dozen in a few years.

A 2007 report by the Centre for Local Economic Strategies found that, since 2003, Somalis had made up the largest proportion of foreign nationals (30 of 160 at the time) at the UK's biggest young offender institution, Feltham in west London. Early criminalisation for minor offences can make finding work nigh impossible.

Terror threat

Then last December, Somalia's first female health minister, Qamer Aden Ali - a British citizen whose daughter I went to school with, was killed in Mogadishu by another Somali holding Danish nationality.

The killer had reportedly joined the militant Islamist group al-Shabaab.

Its activities recently prompted MI5 chief, Jonathan Evans, to warn of the increasing threat from UK residents, some of Somali origin, being trained in Somalia.

This is certainly not the last generation's vision of their offspring returning to rebuild their homeland.

In stark contrast, the Chandlers' story illustrates how desperate many UK-based Somalis are to be regarded as part of British society.

The cabbie Dahir Abdullahi Kadiye, a refugee, told the BBC Somali Service he felt "ashamed" at people in his native country holding innocent people from his adopted nation as hostages.

An increasing number of UK-based Somalis are keen to rebuild their community's reputation, with many successful young people getting involved in mentoring programmes. British Somalis sit on several local councils, while peaceful activists have rallied against the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia.

The Chandlers' release undoubtedly offers them encouragement, demonstrating the community's ability to rail against the brutality engulfing their homeland - especially when it threatens to make life difficult where they now call home.

Mr Kadiye was welcomed back a hero at Heathrow Airport, where one woman told Somali network Universal TV: "Dahir has today raised our reputation. I am here in solidarity with my fellow compatriots, with the nation that adopted us.

"We have been compelled to share the pain of those who gave us [Somalis] a second chance."

However, this also offers a moment to reassess.

The encouraging signs that the generation coming of age will have a positive role might only bear fruit if British Somalis address the issues of underachievement, disenchantment and destitution, both individually and collectively.

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