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Hackney's only Somali centre must expand to meet community's needs

PUBLISHED: 09:53 29 October 2019 | UPDATED: 09:53 29 October 2019

Local Hackney-Somali women come to the shop in Dalston for advice and support. Picture: Holly Chant

Local Hackney-Somali women come to the shop in Dalston for advice and support. Picture: Holly Chant

Holly Chant

For decades, a little shop on Ridley Road has been Hackney's first and only Somali community centre, where women go to discuss the issues affecting their lives and to get support and advice.

Councillor Caroline Selman speaks with women from the Somali community in Hackney. Picture: Holly ChantCouncillor Caroline Selman speaks with women from the Somali community in Hackney. Picture: Holly Chant

But despite all it gives to the community, the shop isn't big enough to fully support the hundreds of women and children that could benefit from an expansion of its services - so now they hope to create a community space that reflects the large population of British-Somali people living in Hackney.

"We've been here for 27 years and never had a safe space in Hackney. Somewhere to go and get support when we're struggling. We don't have a place to go and do exercise, activities, just to get out of the home - I also travel outside the borough for support services," said one Somali woman.

Bashiir Hassan leads a social isolation and loneliness project at the shop and has been an activist and local campaigner for more than 20 years. He often helps by filling out forms or contacting organisations and services.

One Somali woman told the Gazette: "We come to Bashiir and he helps us. We come every day to talk, to drink tea [but] this is a shop, you can't do a community place here."

The front-room of the shop-turned-community centre where Somali woman have come to discuss the issues that affect their lives with Councillor Caroline Selman. Picture: Holly ChantThe front-room of the shop-turned-community centre where Somali woman have come to discuss the issues that affect their lives with Councillor Caroline Selman. Picture: Holly Chant

Language barriers can make it difficult to talk about complicated issues like mental health, housing, the impact of Universal Credit - or even to share concerns about young Somali people, education and crime. Many of the women worry about their health and talk about high rates of diabetes and cancer in the Somali community.

One woman told the Gazette: "When I've got a problem, I don't know where to go. Some people, they don't talk, they stay at home.

"It's very difficult when you can't speak the language properly - the kids, sometimes, they're busy working [or] they study. There's many opportunities in this country [and] we're happy we're British - it's our home here. I like Hackney but we don't have help."

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Despite a considerable number of Somali people living in the area, this is the only space available to them. Many Somali people came to Britain after an ongoing civil war erupted in Somalia in the late 1980s.

The shop has an area at the front and a back room that leaks when it rains. It's used as a prayer room and for the weekly social isolation and loneliness group. The number of people attending often stretches the room's capacity.

"Last week we had 60-plus here," said Abdi Hassan, who founded the community cafe Coffee Afrique CIC and supports Bashiir with the project. "It's those sort of numbers and all through word of mouth - it's tight. At the front we have food and activities - Arabic-based classes, mindfulness talking therapy and budget management."

Connect Hackney - a borough-wide, Lottery-funded programme working to prevent loneliness and isolation in older communities in Hackney - funds the project.

Abdi Hassan speaks to Cllr Caroline Selman about the project he supports and the need for funding. Picture: Holly ChantAbdi Hassan speaks to Cllr Caroline Selman about the project he supports and the need for funding. Picture: Holly Chant

They've also started collecting data to shed light on the issues affecting the Somali community.

Abdi told the Gazette: "There hasn't been that community space where you can get support [and] do activities - a lot comes back to the fact that there isn't data that exists for Hackney Council around Somali community needs."

Cllr Caroline Selman, cabinet member for community safety, policy and the voluntary sector, visited the shop earlier this month to discuss the project.

"We recognise the challenges of space for voluntary and community sector organisations, so the council is exploring ways to maximise the affordability and use of available space," she said.

Dalston shop-turned-community-centre is too small for the growing numbers of women using services provided by the Connect Hackney Project. Picture: Holly ChantDalston shop-turned-community-centre is too small for the growing numbers of women using services provided by the Connect Hackney Project. Picture: Holly Chant

Cllr Selman thanked the group for sharing their experiences with her and said: "We are keen to continue to work with the group to make sure their voices and needs are heard."

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