Coronavirus: Somali diaspora sends home stories of woe

Undated handout photo issued by Bishara Maye of her husband bus driver Nadir Nur with his 10-month-old daughter, Sahra Nadir. Nur died in the UK after testing positive for coronavirusImage source, Bishara Maye
Image caption,
London bus driver Nadir Nur, seen here with his daughter, died after contracting coronavirus
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In our series of letters from African journalists, Ismail Einashe reflects on the impact that coronavirus is having on the Somali community in London.

The signs for Dahabshiil, the Somali money transfer company, are a familiar sight in some London's streets.

The green and white logo is displayed in the windows of internet cafes and shops from the densely packed inner-city thoroughfares of Camden, Mile End and Shepherd's Bush to the sprawling suburbs.

London's community of Somalis is one of the largest in our diaspora and a regular ritual for its members is to go to these shops to send money to their families back home.

This is a vital lifeline for those in a country that is still emerging from decades of conflict.

Missing crucial payments

It is estimated that Somalis transfer more than $1bn (£0.8bn) every year - more than Somalia receives in aid.

But the coronavirus crisis is having an impact on these crucial payments.

The pandemic, which has claimed more than 16,500 lives across the UK, has hit the Somali community hard in both economic and human terms.

Image source, PA Media
Image caption,
The family of Ismail Mohamed Abdulwahab who died at 13, could not attend his funeral

The dead include a disproportionate number of Somalis, such as Nadir Nur, a 48-year-old bus driver who was said to be in good health. He leaves behind a 10-month old daughter and four other children.

Ismail Mohamed Abdulwahab, a 13-year-old boy from South London, died of the virus alone in hospital. His family could not even attend his funeral, as they were forced to self-isolate.

At the other end of the age-range there was Ahmed Ismail Hussein Hudeidi, a founding father of modern Somali music, who died in London after contracting coronavirus at the age of 91.

It is impossible to be sure of the exact number of Somalis in London.

According to the UK's Office for National Statistics there were 108,000 Somali-born residents of the UK as a whole in 2018.

But this this only records those born in Somalia, not ethnic Somalis born in the UK or those who have come from other European countries, such as the Netherlands or Sweden.

Most estimates suggest there are around 250,000 in the UK, with by far the largest group living in London.

There have been several waves of Somali immigration:

  • In the 19th Century, some Somali merchant seamen settled in London, along with port cities such as Cardiff and Liverpool
  • After 1991, many thousands came fleeing the civil war
  • In the 2000s, there has been a wave of secondary migration, for instance some 20,000 Dutch Somalis arrived in the 2000s - a third of all ethnic Somalis in the Netherlands

Diabetes and blood pressure

There are a number of reasons why Somalis, like some other minority ethnic groups in the UK, appear to have been badly affected by the virus.

In the UK, many older Somalis suffer with pre-existing conditions such as diabetes, and high blood pressure. They often live in overcrowded, multi-generational social housing in low-income areas of large cities.

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Somalis in London often work in vital, but low-paid jobs, which now leave them vulnerable on the front line of the crisis.

They are part of London's migrant workforce: the care workers, nurses, bus drivers and cleaners who work in the most precarious jobs, often on insecure contracts.

Covid-19 has exposed the deep economic and social divides that exist in London.

Since the lockdown began, and most of London's shops, including many Dahabshiil outlets, have closed their doors, some Somalis have found it hard to adapt as they are unsure how to send money using apps or phones.

Image source, @najivisuals
Image caption,
Oud player Ahmed Ismail Hussein Hudeidi died in London at the age of 91 after contracting coronavirus

I recently spoke to an elderly relative who was concerned she was unable to send money back to her family because the shops near her home were closed. In the end, another relative had to help her transfer the money via an app, something which she did not understand.

The money, typically between $150 and $300, that people send back every month make a world of difference to their families. People depend on it for their daily expenses: to pay for food, rent or medication.

But the pressure to send money to Somalia can take a toll on people who are poor and living in one of the most expensive cities in the world.

Now that some have lost their jobs as businesses are shuttered, that pressure weighs even more heavily.

Many may be jobless for a long time, in debt and facing serious financial woes for years to come.

London's streets were never paved with gold, but now many of us will have to explain to disbelieving relatives that things have become even harder.

Somalia is already coping with its own coronavirus outbreak, as well as flooding and a locust infestation, and now it is facing a loss of income from abroad.

This virus is not just a tragedy on the streets of London but also on the streets of Mogadishu, Hargeisa and Bosaso.

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