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Somali Refugees in London: Oral Culture
in a Western Information Environment
Centre for Information Management, Thames Valley University, Ealing, London, UK
Political upheaval and civil war led to hundreds of thous-
ands of Somalis fleeing their country in the late 1980s and
early 1990s. Some made their way to the United Kingdom.
This paper gives an overview of the experiences of these
people from an oral culture in a Western information envi-
ronment. Twenty-five Somalis were interviewed in London.
The rationale for their selection is discussed. The research
found that Somalis communicate by telephone extensively.
Adults who can receive it via satellite dish listen to the BBC
Somali Service – broadcast to the Horn of Africa – in Lon-
don. Young Somalis face problems due to their prior lack of
schooling in the rural parts of Somalia and in the refugee
camps, and because English is their third or fourth lan-
guage. Word of mouth is the main way of finding out about
study opportunities and jobs. Community associations help
single parents with little English. Somali language publica-
tions are few. Use of the Internet is common among Somali
professionals and university students. Research conducted
over a number of years would be of value in assessing adap-
tation to a new information environment. Research on the
information needs and interests of children born to Somali
parents in the UK would also be of value.
The world may well be a global village in the
media sense, but on the ground the borders of the
village are far more rigorously policed than was
the case fifty or a hundred years ago. It is hard
for refugees to move from one country to another
and adjusting successfully to a new environment
may be harder still. War has displaced Liberians
and Sierra Leoneans in West Africa, Rwandans in
the Great Lakes region, and Somalis in the Horn
of Africa. Where people go depends on their
background, their culture, their contacts, the re-
sources at their disposal, and the options that are
open to them, which include the asylum and im-
migration policies of possible host countries.
Many take refuge in neighbouring countries. Some
refugees go to the former colonial ruler: some
Rwandans went to Belgium, while others went to
France, which takes an active interest in the
Francophone countries of Africa (Gourevitch
1998). Substantial numbers of Somalis managed
to come to the United Kingdom in the late 1980s
and early 1990s.
Somalis speak the same language and share
the same religion, thereby ruling out what causes
conflict in many other parts of the world. But the
state that came into being when the British Somali-
land Protectorate joined Italian Somalia to form
the Somali Republic in 1960 collapsed within
thirty years. One reason for this was the in-
creasingly despotic behaviour of Mohamed Siyad
Barre, the president who had seized power in a
military coup in 1969. Other reasons include as-
pects of traditional culture and their transposi-
tion from local to national level: the clan system,
the concept of group rather than individual culpa-
bility, and lineage segmentation, under which in-
dividuals, families and clans act in harmony or in
opposition to each other according to changing
circumstances (Samatar 1991).
Territorial boundaries in Africa often split peo-
ple up rather than encompassing them. The So-
mali Republic did not include the people of what
was then French Somaliland (now Djibouti) or
the Somalis of northeast Kenya and the Ogaden
region of Ethiopia. Siyad Barre went to war with
Ethiopia over the Ogaden in 1977. He lost, and
Libri, 1999, vol. 49, pp. 212–224
Printed in Germany · All rights reserved
Copyright Saur 1999
ISSN 0024-2667
Dr Anthony Olden is Senior Lecturer. Centre for Information Management, Thames Valley University, St Mary’s Road, Ealing,
London W5 5RF, UK. Email:

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Somali Refugees in London
several hundred thousand Somali refugees left
Ethiopia for Somalia (Kibreab 1993). In 1988, as
the situation in Somalia deteriorated, Siyad Barre’s
forces attacked the city of Hargeisa in the north-
west of the country. Several hundred thousand
Somalis fled to Ethiopia (United Nations 1996). A
number of these and others eventually made
their way outside Africa, some to the United King-
Somali men had served on British merchant
ships since the nineteenth century. They estab-
lished small communities in ports such as Cardiff,
Liverpool and London’s East End. More recent
arrivals have been fleeing unrest at home. By the
late 1980s many single mothers with school-age
children were coming (El-Solh 1991). Today there
are fewer immigrants, partly because stability has
been restored in northwest Somalia (the former
British Somaliland, which broke away as the Re-
public of Somaliland in 1991), partly because the
criteria for immigration into the UK have been
tightened. The exact size of the community in the
UK is not known, and there are different estimates.
One recent estimate is 60,000 (Kahin 1997). Offi-
cial data on the size and distribution of refugee
groups in the country is not publicly available
(Robinson 1998), but it is believed that the ma-
jority of Somalis live in the Greater London area.
There are a number of reports on the commu-
nity in London boroughs and other parts of the
UK. These were commissioned under local au-
thority and other auspices, and include Somali
community in Tower Hamlets (CSC 1998); Feeling
exclusion? A survey of the Somali community in
Lewisham (II Ahmed 1998); Islington Somali com-
munity survey report (1994); The Somali community
in Cardiff (1994); Educational and training needs of
the Somali community in South Glamorgan (EA Ah-
med no date); and A survey of the educational back-
grounds and needs of Somali families in Bristol
(1995). But the relative paucity of information
about the community becomes clear when one
consults the subject index of the fourth national
survey of ethnic minorities (Modood et al. 1997).
Bangladeshi women and Bangladeshis account for
three columns of the survey, while under Somalis
there is just one reference.
Particular attention is paid to the needs of
younger members of the community in this proj-
ect. Most will spend the rest of their lives in the
UK. Older Somalis may well do so also – includ-
ing those who believe their stay here to be tem-
porary, or wish it to be so – but are more likely to
be preoccupied with lives left behind and with
what is happening to family and friends back
home. They also find it harder to adapt. A nurse
practising in East London found that elderly So-
mali women were particularly prone to non-
specific physical complaints. In Somalia they
would be the focus of the family, to whom others
would come for advice. As refugees in a foreign
culture they no longer have status (Wiggs 1994).
Life is not easy for younger refugees either, but at
least they have better opportunities and pros-
pects. As one interviewee put it, “the younger
generations are more integrated, they ... belong
here [more] ... But the older ones, we belong to
the other side .... It’s painful to be here”.
Research methods
A survey was carried out, although those sur-
veyed were not selected scientifically. The ration-
ale was that the depth and quality of the data
collected would compensate for the limitations of
the selection (Mcharazo and Olden 1999). A pre-
cedent is the large-scale countrywide survey
(Carey-Wood et al. 1995) of how asylum-seekers
to the UK had fared in terms of settling into the
community. It found it impossible to identify an
adequate sampling frame. For reasons of con-
fidentiality, direct access to the records of the Im-
migration and Nationality Division of the Home
Office was not possible. Although the Home Of-
fice was willing to assist, Carey-Wood and her
colleagues felt that the addresses in files might
not be up-to-date and that “official” involvement
might alarm potential respondents. Most refu-
gees leave their country of origin because of
trouble from the authorities. Most go through
anxious periods awaiting decisions on their im-
migration status from the authorities in their host
country. A letter in the mail, a telephone call, or a
knock on the door from a researcher saying that
he or she had been told about them by a govern-
ment department would not be likely to evoke
the most positive response.
The Carey-Wood survey distributed leaflets to
community groups, each leaflet containing a form
that could be returned by anyone willing to be
interviewed. To identify appropriate community
groups in London this Somali project used the

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Anthony Olden
Refugee Council’s directory Refugee resources in
the UK. It gives contact names as well as provid-
ing addresses and telephone numbers. Sixteen
Somali associations were written to, and a con-
tact telephone number provided to enable the
recipient to respond without the bother of writ-
ing a letter. But there was little response, and the
letters were followed up by telephone calls to
speed matters up. It was then that one point
about refugee associations became obvious: most
operate on a shoestring. They have very little
money (sources include local councils, the Lon-
don Boroughs Grants Unit and the Home Office),
and in the main most of those who work for
them do so on a voluntary basis. As a result, per-
sonnel changes, premises change and telephone
numbers change – or telephones get disconnected
when money is not available to pay the bill. Re-
search on Kurdish associations in London found
that new ones were continually being started
while the old ones were disappearing (Wahlbeck
1998). But some contacts were established, and
these contacts led to others. This is the snowball
effect, which has also been used in other surveys
of the Somali community (El-Solh 1991 and 1993,
Griffiths 1997). Other contacts were suggested by
some of the researcher’s students, in particular by
the Somali undergraduate who arranged and
assisted with the pilot interviews.
Ethnographic methods are often used to in-
vestigate oral cultures (Hammersley and Atkin-
son 1995), and the interview was the main tool
that gathered data for this research. The pilot
interviews were opportunities to try out different
approaches, and resulted in the original list of
questions being whittled down to the following
list of issues for discussion:
• Your personal background
• The issues and problems of most concern to younger
members of the community
• Your feelings about Somalis and education in the UK
• How Somalis find information about study opportuni-
• How Somalis find information about other matters (for
example jobs)
• Additional information that would be helpful
• Any other points/advice?
The rationale for starting on a personal level
was that most interviewees would find it easier
to start talking about themselves and their back-
ground. The aim in ethnographic interviewing is
to facilitate a conversation, giving the interviewee
plenty of leeway (Hammersley and Atkinson
1995). “Ask them about their job, their work and
best of all the problems they experience when
doing it” is one recommendation (Nicholas 1997,
346). “The golden rule is not to box people in
with a rigid set of questions, but to be flexible
within an overall plan” is another (Slim and
Thompson [1994?], 76). A further point is that to
start off by asking people what information they
need may bring the puzzled response that they
do not need any, as a study of rural dwellers in
Southern Africa discovered. It was only when the
researcher went on to ask about their farms or
their businesses that they mentioned items of in-
formation that would be an asset to them
(Mchombu 1995).
Following on the pilot phase twenty-five So-
malis were interviewed in the interviewee’s
workplace, place of study, or home. The locations
were the London boroughs of Camden, Croydon,
Ealing, Greenwich, Hillingdon, Hounslow, Isling-
ton and Tower Hamlets. Although originally con-
centrated in the East End, Somalis can now be
found in all parts of Greater London. One inter-
viewee said that in spite of the civil war and
other difficulties at home, Somalis liked to settle
where other Somalis were. Availability of local
authority housing and quality of education are
other factors, as is the absence of problems such
as racism: one person mentioned moving from a
part of London where she had been spat upon
several times.
Seven of the twenty-five interviewees were
women. It proved more difficult to find women,
but the first female interviewees helped by sug-
gesting contacts and by telephoning them in
advance, which meant that the researcher did not
have to write or “cold-call”. One male interviewee
expressed initial reservations. He suggested that
the reason for the poor response to this research-
er’s letters to community associations was the
previous experience of Somalis with projects that
never brought results. In his opinion many re-
search projects were of more importance to the
researchers than to those under research. The re-
searcher acknowledged that there was some truth
in this but pointed out that he had given advice
to a number of interviewees who had questions

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Somali Refugees in London
about education. He had also accepted an invita-
tion from another interviewee to join SOMAID, a
new charity working towards establishing a uni-
versity in Hargeisa.
Most interviews were conducted on a one-to-
one basis. Exceptions to this included two teach-
ers who shared an office and were interviewed
jointly. Their dialogue added an additional di-
mension. Interviews were in English, and their
length depended on how much the interviewee
had to say and the time at his or her disposal.
They ranged from ten minutes to well over an
hour. They were taped with the interviewee’s
permission and the tapes were later transcribed.
Points of interest made before or after the taping
were written down. After the tape recorder had
been switched off one interviewee thought for a
moment and then summed up the situation of
many in her community as follows: “Our prob-
lem is poverty”.
Personal background of the interviewees
Many of the interviewees were teachers or social
workers. Others were journalists. There was also
a translator, a police interpreter and a minicab
driver. Some were graduates of the Somali Na-
tional University. A few had master’s degrees
from British, Canadian or American universities.
Others had studied in the Netherlands and India.
One held a doctorate from the United States; an-
other was registered for one in the UK. Some had
held senior positions before changed circum-
stances had brought them to the UK. One had
spent twelve years in the Somali diplomatic serv-
ice, serving in the Soviet Union, the United States
and the German Democratic Republic. Another
had worked for the World Bank for a period. A
third had worked for the Somali Academy of Arts
and Sciences, managing a group of thirty scholars
compiling a dictionary of the Somali language.
The youngest interviewees were students in
further education colleges. These had arrived as
children or teenagers. One eighteen-year-old ex-
plained how he had arrived at the age of sixteen
with his seven brothers and sisters and their
mother. None spoke English. They came after a
period in a refugee camp in Kenya, and the father
managed to join them later. A twenty-five-year-
old final-year engineering undergraduate told
how government forces had killed his father and
uncle as the family fled from Hargeisa in 1988.
After two years in a refugee camp in Ethiopia he
managed to leave for Europe.
Not all the interviewees had come to the UK as
refugees. For example, the BBC Somali Service
had recruited two as radio journalists, one as far
back as the 1970s. The interviewee who had most
recently arrived had been here just a year, manag-
ing to join his wife and children who had arrived
several years earlier. Since arriving his application
for refugee status had been lost by his solicitor:
So I became very devastated, and then they tried to help
me out and I re-applied again and now I’m waiting to
hear from the Home Office and I try to keep myself busy.
I don’t get even any support, I don’t have the status, I
can’t go to work, I can’t go for further studies. So I work
for the community as a volunteer, that’s my background.
An oral society
Until recent times most of Africa was very largely
an oral society (Sturges and Neill 1998), and
news by word of mouth still has an enormous
significance for refugees. In 1992 there were over
a million Mozambican refugees in Malawi and
up to another million spread between Tanzania,
Zimbabwe, Zambia, Swaziland and South Africa.
They developed their own information systems,
getting news from cross-border traders for exam-
ple. Personal contacts were considered trustwor-
thier than institutional sources such as the op-
posing political parties back home (Koser 1997).
The Somali situation is further complicated by
the fact that the language was only written down
in the early 1970s. Burton, a British traveller in
Somaliland in the 1850s, thought it strange that a
language “which has no written character should
so abound in poetry and eloquence”:
There are thousands of songs, some local, others general,
upon all conceivable subjects, such as camel loading, draw-
ing water, and elephant hunting; every man of education
knows a variety of them ... The country teems with poets
... Every man has his recognized position in literature as
accurately defined as though he had been reviewed in a
century of magazines (Burton 1987 [1856], 1: 81–82).
Referring to traditional nomadic life, one inter-
viewee explained that when “people talk to each
other, it’s in poetry, if they fight, it’s through
poetry, poetry is very, very important in the life of
the Somali”. Burton noted that children learned by

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Anthony Olden
conversation, not books, and that Somalis picked
up both Western and Eastern languages by ear
and memory.
Historically Somalis had used the Arabic lan-
guage for correspondence. During the colonial
era English was introduced to the north and Ita-
lian to the south. In 1972 the government decided
to adopt the Roman script for the language
(Kahin 1997). According to the interviewee who
had worked on the Somali dictionary project, one
reason for this was financial: typewriters in gov-
ernment offices would not need to be replaced.
This led to certain problems:
I can read English very fluently, I can read Somali very
fluently, but though Somali is my first language I can
read English better than Somali. Every person who is
reading Somali sometimes has got some hiccups ... and
that indicates that the Latin script is not the proper script
for the language.
Another interviewee explained that word-of-
mouth is the most successful way to communi-
cate with Somalis: if you want people to pay at-
tention to leaflets containing useful information,
you need to hand these out to them in person,
not distribute them through the mail. Much in-
formation is exchanged in social contact over the
chewing of Khat (qat), the leaves of Catha edulis, a
shrub grown in parts of East Africa and Yemen
(Bali 1997). It is a narcotic stimulant, illegal in
some countries but not in the UK. Fresh leaves
are imported on a regular basis, and there are
Khat houses in various parts of London. Khat
chewing is a form of relaxation mainly indulged
in by men. One interviewee stated that visiting a
Khat house and telling the men there about your
plans or the project that you have in mind is a
much better way of disseminating information
than putting up posters. Somali language news-
papers are on sale, but the patrons of the Khat
house prefer to listen – “Read for us please
what’s in there” – than to buy and read for them-
When receiving travel directions over the tele-
phone before appointments the researcher noticed
that not once did anyone suggest looking at the
widely available street guide, the London A to Z.
Obviously such printed sources are rarely con-
sulted. An interviewee pointed out that, when
necessary and possible, one Somali takes another
to a destination in person:
What the Somalis are good at is – if someone comes to the
office and he himself has an errand and when that’s fin-
ished he sees a Somali there who can’t speak English well
and if you ask him, “Please, can you take this lady to the
DSS [Department of Social Security]? ... Can you show
her that place?” ... There’s no problem, they just go along
and help. Even if it’s someone she meets in the street –
just meets in the street and says, “Please can you help
me? I need that place” – no problem there.
Another interviewee remembered how, as a
child in Somalia, a walk down a street with her
grandmother could take a long time because of
all the stopping to ask neighbours and friends
how they were and to exchange news. Too much
talk now makes her impatient, because she sees it
as a hindrance in the modern world, but in a pas-
toral society it was different: “If two strangers
meet ... in the middle of nowhere they would stop
and talk and ask each other what is happening,
and that was the way of exchanging informa-
tion”. “Is it peace?”, traditionally called out when
approaching someone, has been described as,
literally, a request for information (Lewis 1993).
Oral culture and modern telecommunications
The Somali have adopted modern telecommunica-
tions with enthusiasm. There may be no postal
communication between Somalia and the outside
world, but the telephone provides an instant link.
Barakaat, a company based in Mogadishu, the
capital of Somalia, had 5,700 mobile telephone
customers in early 1999 (Hannan 1999). Such So-
malis are an elite, but privately run centres are
available for the public in the major centres of
population and in the refugee camps in Ethiopia
and Kenya. Many Somalis in London have mo-
bile telephones, and telephone centres have been
springing up here also.
One can telephone the camps from Europe.
The local operator will arrange for the person one
wants to contact to be present to take the call at a
certain time on the following day. There is a
charge for this service, but it works well. No ad-
dress is necessary, just the person’s name (made
up of first name, father’s name and grandfather’s
name) and clan details. Somali clans have sub-
clans, and these sub-clans have sub-clans again.
These details perform the same function as a
street address in the West. If necessary someone
well known from the same clan background will

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Somali Refugees in London
be contacted to assist. Several interviewees at-
tested to the success of these arrangements for
tracking people down.
Money is transferred without reference to
banks. One hands over Western currency to an
agency here, a fax is sent to the office there, and
the money is passed to the recipient. There is a
charge for the service (5% was the figure men-
tioned), but the money gets into the hands of the
recipient very fast, “faster than the Western Union,
faster than the banks, faster than the world’s
fastest money transfer”. “People can live without
governments”, one interviewee remarked of So-
There’s no bank, there’s no post, there’s no social serv-
ices, there’s nothing working and everything’s booming
again! The business is booming, they’re dealing with dif-
ferent countries, and there’s money – wire transfers – by
fax, by fax – because the telephone’s working and the fax
is working.
One drawback is the pressure that telephone
calls for assistance can place on Somalis overseas.
Extended families are the norm in Africa, and it
is difficult to turn down a request for help. In a
life or death situation it is impossible. A former
teacher now working with a voluntary agency
explained why a student might fail to succeed:
He is on a full-time course and then he gets a call one
evening – his mother or his brother or his sister – “I’m
desperately needing money, we haven’t eaten for three
days” ... And then the boy ... gets confused and says
“What can I do? I can’t stay here, I have to be looking for
work”. And then he leaves the college, tries to look for a
job for three or four months, probably can’t get any ...
and then his study has gone. He keeps on being in that
cycle for many, many years.
The BBC Somali Service
The BBC was mentioned by many interviewees
as the most important source of unbiased infor-
mation for Somalis in the Horn of Africa and
elsewhere. By way of contrast, in the build-up to
the Rwandan massacres of 1994 Radio Rwanda
spread misinformation and Radio Television Li-
bres des Milles Collines spread propaganda,
encouraging its Hutu listeners to kill their Tutsi
compatriots (Gourevitch 1998).
BBC Broadcasts in Somali started in 1957,
around the same time as broadcasts in Kiswahili
and Hausa. Backing came from the Colonial
Office and later the Foreign and Commonwealth
Office. There are short broadcasts three times a
day, totalling ten hours a week. The emphasis is
on news and current affairs, but there is also a
“missing persons” slot co-funded by the British
Red Cross, Oxfam and Concern (Forty years of the
Somali Service 1997).
An attempt by the BBC to conduct audience re-
search based on random sampling in a rural part
of Somalia was unsuccessful. The researchers were
mistaken for aid personnel and asked to help
with water supplies (Kennedy 1997). But there is
no doubt about the overwhelming popularity of
the service in the Horn of Africa. The flagship
transmission is at 1530 Greenwich Mean Time,
and interviewees pointed out that all Somalis
who possess transistor radios listen. Others will
congregate around a radio in a teashop or else-
where. On contacting the BBC Somali Service in
London for more details, the researcher was told
by one of its staff that “a man will tolerate no
interruption from his wife or his children when
listening to a broadcast”. For him Somalis are the
most information-oriented people in the world.
Burton made a similar point in the nineteenth
The Somal Badawin have a passion for knowing how the
world wags ... . No traveller ever passes a kraal without
planting spear in the ground, and demanding answers to
a lengthened string of queries ... Thus it is that news flies
through the country. Among the wild Gudabirsi the Rus-
sian war was a topic of interest, and at Harar I heard of a
violent storm which had damaged the shipping in Bom-
bay Harbour, but a few weeks after the event (Burton
1987 [1856] 1:131)
The broadcaster believes that 99% of Somali
women in the UK listen to the service, but an-
other interviewee maintained that men listen
more than women, because women are less politi-
cal and because household chores prevent them
from spending as much time listening to the
radio. Although directed at the Horn of Africa,
broadcasts can now be picked up via satellite
dish in Europe. Someone else said that people
take basic jobs such as cleaning in order to buy
the dish. At one time men listened to the broad-
casts in khat houses, but now many homes have
the connection. Another interviewee – a former
radio journalist herself – felt that listening to
Somali political news could have a negative ef-
fect. Yet another pointed out that in the UK only

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Anthony Olden
the adults listen. Her children say “Oh mum,
you’re getting Somali news hour”. Then they
turn their attention to other things.
Education and literacy
Background before arrival in the UK
Literacy has been described as the most impor-
tant single innovation of foreign rule for the non-
Muslim parts of Africa (Afigbo 1985). But for
some Muslim and non-Muslim Africans Western
education was suspect in the early days of colo-
nialism. When the French established a school for
the sons of chiefs the Tuareg of the Sahara
handed over the children of their slaves instead.
They feared that if their own sons were taken
they might never see them again (Shortland
1999). One Somali interviewee mentioned the
fear that the colonial authorities would turn their
children into Christians. Her father and a friend
countered this when they founded the first ele-
mentary school in the British Somaliland Protec-
torate in the 1920s. For Somali nomads, however,
a knowledge of the traditional skills necessary for
survival obviously came first, together with
Qur’anic education.
The adoption of the Roman script for the So-
mali language in 1972 was followed by a literacy
campaign. After progress had been made in ur-
ban areas the government turned its attention to
the rest of the country. The slogan was: “If you
know, teach. If you don’t, learn” (Kahin 1997).
Schools were closed, and older children and their
teachers were sent to the rural areas to teach. The
country’s literacy statistics showed much im-
provement, and Unesco and other organisations
were appreciative. But the advances in literacy
outside the urban areas were not sustained: “It
was deceit! How could it be good? Taught by
children for one year only! ... We got awards, but
it was chaos, it was crazy.” Another interviewee
pointed out that the idea was a good one, but
what was lacking was a strategy to sustain the
The women interviewed in this research were
either highly educated already or in the process
of advancing their level of education. But they
and the male interviewees pointed out that this
does not hold for many of the Somali women in
this country, or for many men either. According
to estimates from the early 1990s, 96 per cent of
women in Somalia cannot read. Early marriage is
the norm for settled rural women (nomadic wom-
en marry later), usually between the ages of fifteen
and eighteen. Children follow, making moving
elsewhere for further education unlikely (Women
in Somalia 1994). There are numerous single-
parent Somali families in the UK, and in most
cases the single parent is the mother. If she lacks
education she is unable to give the children the
support they need at home. One interviewee said
that children sometimes arrive in the UK with
relatives who have no schooling at all, and are
thus unable to advise them. Another summed up
the problem as follows: “Most of the fathers, the
mums, the women are not educated. They cannot
help them with their homework, with the system,
with the school. They don’t even understand,
they can’t read their work.” A third pointed out
that when a child fails to attend school and the
school writes to the parents, the parents may be
unable to read the letter so that they do not know
whether their child goes to school of not.
Somali children come from a wide range of
educational backgrounds. In some cases the father
will have worked in Saudi Arabia or the Gulf
States, and the children will have attended school
there. These will have written and spoken Ara-
bic, but not necessarily written Somali. Children
coming direct from Somalia or from refugee
camps in the neighbouring countries will have
little education. This is due to the disruption
caused by war and the limitations of life in rural
areas and in refugee camps. One interviewee
stated that a child coming to the UK from a rural
area is unlikely ever to have been to school in his
life. Another said that people were “just running
around the camp all day long either looking for
the dry food or looking for the water and all that.
Kids are playing – there’s no proper education
there.” A third comment was that people saw
that education was not always necessary to get
ahead in life. Some had amassed money and
done well without going to school, and others
thought “OK, maybe corruption and stealing was
the better way”.
Experience in the UK
One interviewee said he realised that “this country
if you stay no way you can live without informa-

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Somali Refugees in London
tion”. But there are obstacles, in particular lan-
guage. English is not a first or a second language
but a third or even a fourth after Somali, Arabic
and in some instances Italian. Children are slot-
ted into classes on the basis of their age, and this
can cause serious problems for those with little
English and little experience of attending school:
Some child from a rural area, who knows only how to
look after livestock – ruminants, small livestock – doesn’t
know anything else and you put him in school, what do
you expect of that?
[When] a child of that age [fifteen] is taken to the class
which suits his age he finds it difficult to adjust because
he was either illiterate or unable to speak English ... and
when he’s asked a question the children laugh at him and
therefore he becomes violent or disorderly in his be-
haviour and soon he’s excluded from school. So we find
that many young people are facing this problem – ex-
clusion from schools, or they start being truant.
A study of immigrants from Russia and the
other states of the former Soviet Union attending
an Israeli high school showed the majority felt
that other pupils laughed at them. Most of their
friendships were with their fellow immigrants.
But there the similarities end, because their aver-
age educational level was high relative to that of
the rest of the Israeli population. Also school-age
immigrants to Israel receive intense grounding in
Hebrew for a number of months before being
slotted into classes according to their age and level
(Shainer 1998). Section 11 of the UK Local Govern-
ment Act 1966 made available grants to local au-
thorities to provide services to immigrants from
Commonwealth countries whose language or
customs differed from those of the community.
Most of the money was devoted to education, but
libraries were supported also. In 1993 the scope
of Section 11 was widened to benefit refugee stu-
dents from non-Commonwealth countries (Jones
and Rutter 1998). Money is spent on assistance
with English and on the employment of refugee
support teachers. The importance of both is ob-
vious: as one interviewee said, “all the people in
that younger age they trying to learn and educate
themselves but the very difficult hurdle for them
is the language barrier”. Support teachers can be
liaisons between school and home. They also
serve as role models, professionals drawn from
their own community to whom young Somalis
can look up. But the feeling in the community is
that not enough language help and support teach-
ers are provided.
Educational methods in Africa are traditional,
and different approaches such as group work in
class may puzzle some students. They believe the
teacher’s job is to instruct them (Suleiman 1991).
Library development in Somalia was virtually
non-existent outside the capital (Abdulla 1996
and 1998), which means that experience of work-
ing with learning resources is very limited. One
interviewee said that children never use the li-
brary because they are not trained to make use of
the resources: “they’re from a system where
they’re spoon-fed”. A former teacher explained
why worksheets handed out to children are not
always taken seriously. Somalis are used to learn-
ing from the Qu’ran,
the Holy Book, and they treat that with respect. And once
you give them a book which contains all the information
... including the exercises and the drilling and everything
that you want them to learn then it becomes easier for
them and that’s something that they take away with them
and bring it with them ... on day to day basis.
Mathematics was mentioned as a strength by
one interviewee, who said that it was better taught
in Somalia than in the UK. Reservations about
the level of mathematics teaching can be found in
the literature (McDonald 1998).
Finding out about further and higher education
The large-scale countrywide survey of refugees
by Carey-Wood and others includes the follow-
ing quotation from a Kurdish man:
English was my problem, trying to study language, and
to find out the best place to study – college or language
centre. It was very difficult in the beginning with me. It
would have been better if someone advised me the best
place to study language ... . After one year I found the
best place... . I couldn’t get good information (Carey-Wood
and others 1995, 27).
Information about further and higher educa-
tion is obtained by visiting colleges, but one
interviewee complained that “if I go to colleges I
don’t find people whom I can understand”. Other
sources of information are local newspapers, leaf-
lets, prospectuses, careers advisors, and – more
than anything else – other Somalis. In the words
of one interviewee “Somalis are basically copy-

Page 9
Anthony Olden
cats and they talk quite a lot and the word gets
around very quickly”. If someone is succeeding
on a particular programme of study, others will
follow suit. One Somali community centre organ-
ised a gathering of around a hundred young men
and women, and got Somali university students
and graduates earning good salaries to talk to
them and tell them about their experiences.
An engineer who has since switched to social
work explained that he found out about degree
programmes in engineering through going
through as many brochures as possible. Already
qualified and experienced when he arrived in the
UK as a refugee, he found an institution that
admitted him with advanced standing, so that he
was able to get a British qualification in less than
the standard time. An engineering undergraduate
mentioned that he obtained a lot of information
through searching the Internet. His friends con-
tact him to search out appropriate programmes of
study for them. But a social worker pointed out
that those who drop out of school do not know
where to go for advice or information.
The Africa Education Trust and the Refugee
Education Training and Advisory Service of the
World University Service (UK) were mentioned
by one interviewee. Both are based in London.
The former has been providing free educational
advice since 1958. The latter assists in helping
professionally qualified refugees to practice their
professions in the UK. Another interviewee
teaches Information Technology at the Refugee
Training and Employment Centre, which is part
of the Refugee Council, an organisation that looks
after the interests of refugees and provides a
range of services for them at the start of their stay
in the UK. The Centre runs free training courses.
Cultural changes
Children exchange information with each other,
and one thing they quickly learn from classmates
and friends is that there are limits to the amount
of chastisement that parents can inflict in the UK.
One eighteen-year-old said that when he and his
family arrived “a lot of children said your father
can’t shout at you ... and if your father shouts at
you, you could go away to Council to complain
and then your father will get locked up”. An-
other interviewee recalled that the police had
asked him for his opinion about an instance in
which a recently arrived father was taken in for
questioning after beating his son. The man was
puzzled, saying “this is my child, and I need to
give him anything that would make him a proper
child, and what is the fuss all about?” He was let
go with a caution. Someone else said that “every
Somali parent is now trying to concentrate to
make sure that his child is brought up in a proper
way so that he can lead a better life”. But the
proper way must not infringe the laws of the host
country. Female circumcision (female genital mu-
tilation), prohibited in the UK, is a health issue
discussed in the literature (El-Sohl 1993, Rutter
1994, Kahin 1997). A topic of such sensitivity is
unlikely to be raised in a single interview with
someone from outside the community, especially
when the researcher is male.
Women may find that they now control the
family finances because social welfare payments
and so on will be channelled through them. This
alters the relationship between them and their
partners, particularly if the man is out of work.
But other relationships are altered also. One in-
terviewee referred to the old days when boys got
the Islamic education and travelled in search of
knowledge. Girls on the other hand “were just
told they were here on this earth to get married
and have children and then perish.” This has
long gone, but women with little English will
find themselves dependent on their children for
routine things such as consulting a doctor. The
child has to leave school to accompany its mother
and interpret. At least one London clinic, how-
ever, employs a Somali interpreter (Wiggs 1994).
This problem is by no means confined to the
Somali community. A survey of 1000 non-white
patients attending Bradford hospitals revealed
that 58.8 per cent were illiterate with regard to
their first or any language. The hospitals’ solu-
tion is to employ interpreters and produce audio
and videotapes in appropriate languages (Tufnell
et al. 1994).
Pressures that all teenagers face are exacerbated
by conflicting cultures. At school someone may
ask a girl “Do you have a boyfriend? ... What’s
wrong with you? You’re not normal!” At home
the mother will say: “What are you doing? You’re
putting on lipstick! Are you going crazy! You’re
not religious any more.” Boys may find them-
selves under pressure to join gangs and get in-
volved in drugs.

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Somali Refugees in London
In most countries, immigrants, if they manage to
find employment, tend to get the jobs that others
do not want. Unemployment levels are very high
among Somali men in London, and those who
are employed may find themselves working as
casual labourers, night watchmen or minicab
drivers. This is particularly painful for those with
good qualifications. One interviewee mentioned
people with Ph.D.s who worked in warehouses.
They knew Somali, Arabic and Italian but their
limited knowledge of English blocked their path.
Another explained that, although he had a British
qualification in engineering, his accent might
have posed a problem if he had technicians who
spoke English colloquially working under him.
He turned to social work instead. Someone else
said that “it’s not easy to get jobs in this country
... whether you have ten Ph.D.s or not, it’s not
easy for refugees.” She mentioned Somali medi-
cal doctors who were out of work, and how use-
ful they could be at interpreting for patients who
lacked English if only provision could be made
for this. A study of Latin American women work-
ing illegally in Brussels said they often remarked
that they “came there to get a Ph.D. in cleaning”
(Leman 1997).
Information about employment is obtained
from the Department for Education and Employ-
ment’s Job Centres. But an interviewee pointed
out that language barriers and the strangeness of
the British system – “this is not the way we work
back home” – limits access to such mainstream
services. Somali community associations provide
some information about jobs, and he believed it
would be useful if they had career advisors. As
usual, much information is communicated orally:
Normally when one Somali gets a job ... a friend will
come to him and ask him, “Oh, is there a vacancy there?
OK, I’m going to talk to the manager, and I’ll ask him
when there will be a vacancy.” That’s how they get there.
So you find a lot of Somalis working in one place and no
Somalis working in the other place.
Not recognising qualifications from elsewhere,
or not making special provision to enable those
who hold them to acquire equivalent local quali-
fications in the shortest time possible, is a waste
of resources for the host country as well as a
frustration for the immigrant (Stalker 1994). As-
sistance in preparing for employment goes some
way towards ameliorating this. For example, Refu-
gee Employment Advice in the London Borough
of Hounslow and Ealing Tertiary College in the
London Borough of Ealing provide advice on job
applications, interview techniques and so on.
Community advice
A study of the information needs of refugee
groups found little evidence that statutory serv-
ices in the UK felt this area important enough to
involve specialist staff or services (Raddon and
Smith 1998). Research into public libraries, ethnic
diversity and citizenship concluded that the main
information provider for many people from black
and ethnic minority backgrounds is the commu-
nity organisation or the religious group, not the
library (Roach and Morrison 1998). There are So-
mali community associations in many parts of
London. Staffing is mainly on a voluntary basis.
One interviewee said she was a single parent
with four children, some of them teenagers, so
she had problems of her own. But as she was
educated and spoke English she felt it was im-
portant to spend time helping women who had
neither of these advantages. Some of the women
who came to her could not read the letters they
received from the local authority or deal with
their gas or telephone bills. Another interviewee
said that his and similar associations were in
between the service providers and the community.
They provide a service for those with limited
English in particular. Criticisms of community as-
sociations were that some became too involved in
administration or caught up in internal struggles.
Advice is provided on a full-time professional
basis also. One location is Oxford House, a multi-
purpose community centre in Bethnal Green,
East London, originally established in 1884 by
Oxford University staff and students “to provide
a centre for social, educational and religious work
amongst the poor of East London”. It employs six
Somali staff, with others working as volunteers,
and is visited by up to one hundred Somalis a
day. Its two full-time immigration workers pro-
vide free advice and representation for asylum
seekers from Somalia and other parts of the Horn
of Africa (Oxford House 1999). The backlog of
applicants is such that years can elapse between
an original application for refugee status and a

Page 11
Anthony Olden
final decision by the Home Office. Uncertainty as
to what will happen casts a shadow over every-
thing else, and sympathetic and informed profes-
sional legal advice is essential. One immigration
advisor said that solicitors know the law but not
necessarily the background of their clients. This
limits their effectiveness. As an example of back-
ground knowledge he instanced a short report he
had compiled on the Midgan, Yibir and Tumaal
clans, a small minority who had faced discrimina-
tion in Somalia and would do so again if forced
to return.
Mainstream help can be obtained from the Citi-
zens’ Advice Bureaux. The immigration advisor
described these as good organisations that sup-
port people. Another interviewee recalled that
when he worked as a volunteer with a Citizens’
Advice Bureau in a particular part of London
people came from a wide area to consult him:
They believe that if there’s no Somali person there then
they are not represented... . Normally when you’re going
to somebody at least you will want him to know of your
background and where you come from and if somebody
just says “Where’s Somalia?” it just shows that he knows
Somali language publications and local radio
Little is published in Somalia itself because of the
unsettled situation there. In London there is
Haan Books, a small firm that publishes books in
Somali and books about Somalia written in Eng-
lish. Occasionally a Somali newspaper or maga-
zine “pops up, but again it disappears”. Sales are
poor. One interviewee said that there was a lack
of trained personnel to produce such material.
Another felt that the content of these newspapers
was not sufficiently interesting, and went on to
add “generally Somalis are not good readers”. A
third mentioned that his young daughter enjoyed
looking at the pictures and being told the story in
Somali books, but was not keen on reading the
text. Experience shows that young immigrants
often lose some of their facility in reading in their
mother tongue, while children born to immigrant
parents may never learn to read in it in the first
place, or at any rate to read well. Mother tongue
classes are arranged to try to keep children in
touch with their language and culture.
A number of interviewees mentioned the local
radio station broadcasting in Somali in Sheffield.
The feeling was that a similar service for the com-
munity in London would be appreciated. A radio
journalist said that such a service would have to
be a professional operation, because “the Somali
community in London is highly politicised”.
Over the last fifty years the UK has provided a
home for both economic migrants and political
refugees. Hostility is sometimes expressed, for ex-
ample in tabloid newspaper headings: “Scroung-
ers now pouring in on the Eurostar train have
come from Somalia” (Troup and Bentham 1997).
Economic migrants are frowned upon nowadays,
although the British who emigrated to the United
States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South
Africa in the nineteenth century are praised in
retrospect for their initiative (except perhaps by
the descendants of the indigenous people whose
lands they acquired). Chinese economic migrants
to the UK in the 1950s and early 1960s also
showed initiative and did well. East African
Asians who were thrown out of Uganda and took
refuge in the UK in the early 1970s have pros-
pered also. Many minority groups are now better
represented than whites in higher education (Mo-
dood et al. 1997). But because most of the Somali
immigrants have come here relatively recently,
and earlier arrivals were few and did not see
themselves as being here permanently, they have
no representation in government. This is in con-
trast to the Asian community. Also, as one inter-
viewee pointed out, Somalis are outside the
mainstream of society because “they don’t social-
ise with them, they don’t go to church, they don’t
go to parties”.
A Western information environment is a new
experience for the majority of Somalis. Apart from
those attending college they do not make use of
libraries: “they are not reading a lot – but they’re
talking a lot”. One drawback to oral communica-
tion is that the person passing on information
might not be sufficiently well informed and might
mislead without intending to do so. One Somali
may advise another to go to a particular college
to learn English, when another college might be
more appropriate. In the words of one inter-
viewee, “what you might call adaptation to the so-
ciety is controlled by a few facts or non-facts
which they get from their relatives or friends – So-

Page 12
Somali Refugees in London
mali friends”. Statutory providers of information
such as public libraries need to do more to link
with the community and find out how to help.
Generalisation has its limitations. One inter-
viewee pointed out that, as a member of the
Internet network Somaliland Forum, he receives
ten to twenty messages a day. There is always a
debate going on. Most Somali professionals and
students are likely to have email addresses, and if
one groups Somalis according to their educa-
tional background and compares them with
similar groups from other communities “you will
find them just as eager to use written forms of
There is plenty of scope for research. One com-
mentator has stressed the importance of longitu-
dinal studies of refugee settlement (Robinson
1993 and 1998). These would provide a picture of
how panels of immigrants adapt to a new society
over ten or twenty years. A study of how a panel
with an oral culture adapts to a new information
environment over a period of time would be of
much interest. Research on what the second
generation in particular wants and needs was
recommended in a review of the literature on
black and ethnic minority/multicultural provi-
sion by public libraries (Olden et al. 1996). Chil-
dren born to Somali parents in Britain will grow
up in this country with their own information
needs and interests. These will require attention.
I would like to thank all the interviewees for
their time, helpfulness, and hospitality; Farah
Abdullahi Mohamud for setting up the pilot in-
terviews and clarifying a number of points about
Somali culture and society in the early stages of
the research; Fawzia Y.H. Adam, Mohamoud
Aden, Sadia Ahmed, Joyce Amirahmadi, Ita Dris-
coll, Theba Islam, Philippa Joy, Alli A.S. Mcharazo,
Farah Ali Mohamoud, Alison Shuttle, Megan Met-
calfe Thornton and Sue Thurston for suggestions,
advice or contacts; and Thames Valley University
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