The cultural centre helping our Somali community in difficult times

The cultural centre helping our Somali community in difficult times

The cultural centre helping our Somali community in difficult times 1920 1280 WeMakeCamden

Supporting our Somali community since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Camden Somali Cultural Centre in Kentish Town has been nominated for recognition by residents for ‘keeping things running during difficult times and providing advice to the most vulnerable’.

We spoke with Ubah Egal, John Kilvington and Rukia Ismael from the centre to find out how they adapted to carry on supporting the community.

What has been Camden Somali Cultural Centre’s role in the pandemic and what inspired you to get involved?

Ubah: In normal times, we have so much going on – including advice and information services, a supplementary school for children, and a parent and toddler group. Everyone was shocked when lockdown began and we had to adjust quickly.

As well as dealing with people’s urgent needs relating to lockdown and our normal work, we worked with Camden Council to disseminate information to the Somali community. We fed into the wider advice network – the pandemic has impacted health, housing and finances so there’s so much need.

We helped share the government’s You Are Not Alone domestic abuse awareness campaign – I was asked to be a community spokesperson because lockdown increased the number of domestic abuse cases and affected our community as well as others. We featured on African and Somali TV and local radio, in English and Somali language. It was important to spread the word about the help available even in lockdown.

John: Our information and advice service had always been face-to-face because this is hugely important to the Somali community. We rearranged ourselves to offer services via phone and email. We’ve started our in-person appointments again, and they fill up so quickly because people do want to see you – I’ve known some people in the community for many years.

Rukia: We had lots of calls in lockdown where people didn’t understand that we couldn’t just visit, so it was very difficult.

What challenges has Camden Somali Cultural Centre faced?

Rukia: We lost so many clients, including one of my neighbours – it was so sad.

Ubah: People in the Somali community were so worried looking at the statistics that COVID-19 was more likely to affect Black and minority groups, even though it’s a small community in terms of the whole country. It’s probably a combination of overcrowded and multigenerational homes, health and people having to go out to work, especially on zero-hours contracts as frontline workers.

The community centre where we were based for 28 years also closed down and we had no money at one point in the middle of the pandemic as funding was delayed. So we had no office for a while, then moved into the Kosmos Centre in Kentish Town.

John: It would have been easy to say we couldn’t continue our advice service because the community is so used to doing things face-to-face, But even though it wasn’t ideal, we adapted, and people adapted, to phone and email.

“It’s been a big priority change as an organisation to put health firmly at the top of our agenda.

Ubah Egal

What’s your most memorable moment from your activities supporting Camden communities during the pandemic?

Ubah: To support people experiencing anxiety and social isolation, we linked up with a professor of ethnomusicology we’d worked with eight years ago for a music and poetry listening project. Over Zoom, we set up a listening group and played some of the earliest Somali recordings housed at the British Library, and people sang together from their homes.

The project evolved and we secured funding and booked in a Somali artist to perform his poetry. It connected people from different generations and was a chance for laughter and to escape from the realities of the pandemic.

John: I’ll remember that as soon as we offered in-person appointment days, they were filled up – it showed how much people valued that face-to-face contact.

Rukia: People have called as late as midnight because they have been stressed out being at home and asking when it’ll all be over.

What is the main thing you have learned since the pandemic began?

Ubah: People in the Somali community have realised they need to look after their health more, even if it is a challenge for some. It’s been a big priority change as an organisation to put health firmly at the top of our agenda. We’ve also realised how important a connection to Somali culture is to people’s mental health. So we’re going to expand our cultural work to help build people’s resilience.

Rukia: I’ve learned that we need to move around more!

What are your hopes for the future?

Ubah: We want to develop our tried and tested work and get more funding to continue to help the most vulnerable. As a small charity, it’s always difficult to survive but we know we have the expertise and creativity to respond to need and we’re surviving in a hugely challenging time now.

John: I hope we can continue to support people who need us through closer work with the Council to make sure there’s good communication and people understand their rights and responsibilities. Some people can fall through the net, and we help them so that next time they can help themselves.

What one change would make the greatest difference for Camden as we come out of the pandemic?

Ubah: We need an increase in social housing in Camden as housing is not affordable. We will also need to deal with the aftermath of the pandemic on children’s mental health. Children are resilient, but they were at home for a long time, many not having the devices needed for schoolwork, and got scared because the adults did. At the moment I don’t think there’s enough in place to help children cope with the long-term impact of the pandemic and lockdown.

John: Housing is a really challenging issue to solve when rent in the private sector is so expensive, and there’s so much pressure on social housing.

Is there an organisation or group you would like to see recognised for their support for people in Camden during the pandemic?

Ubah: The Kosmos Centre is doing fantastic work by staying in touch with people, adapting and keeping their services going. They’ve been very supportive.

How can people get support from Camden Somali Cultural Centre or get involved?

Email if you need any support. Camden Somali Cultural Centre is based in the Kosmos Centre in Kentish Town. They are also running a remote session in Kilburn, but are available for all the Somali community in Camden.

The centre is always looking for new volunteers, especially as they start to offer more in-person services.

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