In our series of letters from African journalists, Ismail Einashe reflects on the impact of the coronavirus on the Somali community in London.
Signs for Dahabshiil, the Somali money transfer company, are familiar on some streets in London.
The green and white logo is displayed in the windows of internet cafes and shops, from the densely crowded downtown streets of Camden, Mile End and Shepherd’s Bush to sprawling suburbs.
The Somali community in London is one of the largest in our diaspora and a regular ritual for its members is to visit these stores to send money to their families back home.
It is a vital lifeline for those in a country still emerging from decades of conflict.
Missing crucial payments
Somalis are estimated to transfer more than one billion dollars (£ 0.8 billion) each year – more than Somalia receives aid.
But the coronavirus crisis has an impact on these crucial payments.
The pandemic, which has claimed the lives of more than 16,500 people across the UK, has hit the Somali community hard both economically and humanely.
Among the dead are a disproportionate number of Somalis, such as Nadir Nur, a 48-year-old bus driver who is 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 alone of the virus in hospital. His family could not even attend his funeral because they were forced to isolate themselves.
At the other end of the age group was Ahmed Ismail Hussein Hudeidi, a founding father of modern Somali music, who died in London after contracting a coronavirus at the age of 91.
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It is impossible to be sure of the exact number of Somalis in London.
According to the UK Office for National Statistics, there were 108,000 Somali residents across the UK in 2018.
But this only applies to people born in Somalia, not ethnic Somalis born in the United Kingdom or those who came from other European countries, such as the Netherlands or Sweden.
Most estimates suggest that there are around 250,000 in the UK, 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, as well as port cities such as Cardiff and Liverpool
- After 1991, thousands of people fled the civil war
- In the 2000s there was a wave of secondary migration, for example 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 ethnic minority groups in the UK, appear to have been severely affected by the virus.
Many older Somalis in the UK suffer from preexisting conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure. They often live in overcrowded multigenerational social housing in the low-income neighborhoods of large cities.
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Somalis in London often hold vital but low-paid jobs, which now makes them vulnerable on the front lines of the crisis.
They are part of London’s migrant workforce: carers, nurses, bus drivers and cleaners who work in the most precarious jobs, often on precarious contracts.
Covid-19 revealed the deep economic and social divisions that exist in London.
Since the start of the foreclosure and most London stores, including many Dahabshiil outlets, have closed, some Somalis have struggled to adapt because they don’t know how to send money using applications or phones.
The pressure to send money to Somalia can have consequences and now that some have lost their jobs, the pressure is even heavier ”
I recently spoke to an elderly parent who was concerned that he would not be able to return money to his family because the stores near his home were closed. In the end, another parent had to help him transfer the money through an app, which he didn’t understand.
The money, usually between $ 150 and $ 300, that people return each month makes a big difference to their families. People depend on it for their daily expenses: to pay for food, rent or medicine.
But the pressure to send money to Somalia can wreak havoc on poor people living in one of the most expensive cities in the world.
Now that some have lost their jobs due to business closings, this pressure is weighing even more heavily.
Many may be unemployed for a long time, in debt, and facing serious financial difficulties for years to come.
The streets of London have never been paved with gold, but now many of us will have to explain to incredulous parents that things have gotten even more difficult.
Somalia is already facing its own epidemic of coronavirus, as well as floods and an invasion of locusts, and it is now facing loss of income from abroad.
This virus is not only a tragedy on the streets of London but also on the streets of Mogadishu, Hargeisa and Bosaso.
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