‘British society today respects diversity and people from different countries’ was the view presented by a panel of refugees from the Horn of Africa who are members of Initiatives of Change (IofC)’s Agenda for Reconciliation programme. The theme was ‘Overcoming the barriers to integration and inclusion’. It took place at IofC’s London centre on 17 March.
Ali Hindi from Eritrea, a TV commentator on Middle East and East African affairs, chaired the event and began by expressing gratitude to the UK for giving refuge to so many from his region. However he said there are nevertheless considerable challenges to integration into British society, and ‘first generation immigrants face very different challenges from the younger generation who have been born and educated here and have lost touch with their parents’ countries.’
‘Many young Muslims have fallen victim to an extremist ideology,’ he said, ‘as we can see from the recruits heading for Syria and Iraq.’ In his view this was partly due to an identity crisis: they have made religion their identity because they are caught between their British identity and their parents’ attachment to their own identity. But, he said, Islamic teaching is that ‘religion purifies identity, and should not be an identity itself.’ He questioned whether enough is being done to integrate immigrants into the British way of life through ‘education, arts and culture’.
Dr Yusuf Ali, President of the Anglo-Somali society, also felt that language and culture are the main barriers to being accepted. ‘When you come to a different country,’ he said, ‘you have to learn the system to be able to go along with the mainstream.’
Hindi observed that since 9/11 a ‘new kind of racism and discrimination’ has developed partly due to media reporting of extremist incidents. This has fueled fears of immigrants among the host community, and fears of discrimination among the immigrant community.
Zeinab Saharded, a Somali, also hadn’t faced much racism before 2001 but had noticed a difference after 9/11. But her biggest barrier to integrating was in her own mind, because when she came to Britain as an asylum seeker, her ambition was to study here, and then to go back home. So initially she didn’t try to integrate.
Finding employment was a significant barrier for Samah Ahmed, a Sudanese who has a Masters degree from London University. ‘In job interviews,’ she said, ‘those whose work experience had been in Britain will always be selected over those whose experience had been in other countries.’ She had also noticed at interviews that ‘When I speak quietly, it’s not that I don’t know how to do my job – it’s my culture, but it is interpreted as weakness.’ For her, a ‘spirit of persistence’ and the ‘willingness to integrate’ were key to achieving ones goals. ‘I try to volunteer for activities in my local community. I am now part of an art and music association in Greenwich.’
Jim Baynard-Smith was introduced as an ‘honorary citizen of the Horn of Africa’, having worked there some years ago with IofC. He recalled that when he first went to live there, he took all his British traits and tendencies with him. ‘We have to recognize that traits can be barriers – manners, attitudes, sensitivities,’ he said. He had concluded that trust-building requires one to be aware of others’ sensitivities, to recognise what creates mistrust, to build ‘creative connections’, to learn to share the heart and to serve.
Dr Muna Ismail, a biochemist of Somali origin, had had a positive experience of living and working in Britain since she arrived 24 years ago. ‘I was lucky – I came to Britain at a time when there were hardly any refugees’ she said. In the early 1990s, she had found Britain a welcoming place, and had found her ‘niche’, where people were kind and helpful. ‘I felt it was always best to be open and honest. Sometimes this makes you vulnerable, but it can also be a strength,’ she said.
Ato Betana Hamano, an Ethiopian former Member of Parliament, similarly had not experienced obstacles to integration, but recognized that barriers exist everywhere. We have to understand why, and then they can be overcome.’
The Question and Answer which followed focused largely on the theme of identity, and particularly how to help young people feel comfortable with their British identity.
The overriding message of the evening was that Britain is not doing too badly in handling its diversity. But as a nation, we need to give more thought to the changing demographic landscape and in particular the role of education and culture as pivotal for achieving full integration and inclusion.
Report and photos by Yee Liu Williams
Initiatives of Change (IofC) is a world-wide movement of people of diverse cultures and backgrounds, who are committed to the transformation of society through changes in human motives and behaviour, starting with their own. IofC works to inspire, equip and connect people to address world needs, starting with themselves, in the areas of trustbuilding, ethical leadership and sustainable living.
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