Although best known for its South Asian population, Leicester has since the turn of the millennium hosted between 6,000 and 9,000 Somalis, many of whom moved to the city from the Netherlands. In this article, Jawaahir Dahir of Somali Development Services offers her reflections of the reasons why Somalis came to Leicester and the challenges that they faced – and continue to face – in the city.
This article is a response to Public Spirit’s profile of Leicester.
It is interesting to see how Leicester’s profile has changed over the years and how it has become one of the most religiously diverse cities in the United Kingdom. It is interesting, too, to see how it has moved from a position of opposing new arrivals to welcoming new communities, making Leicester a role model of how multiculturalism works not just in the UK but in Europe. The arrival of a large Somali population in Leicester (peak time was between 1999 and 2001) was a surprise to the Local Authority (LA) as well as the established communities. The lack of knowledge of Somali culture and community’s needs has raised questions within the LA and other service providers, and prompted the council to commission research into Somali community’s needs in 2002 (conducted by Hashim Duale and myself). This produced a range of recommendations for the LA and other agencies working with Somali community and became a baseline for helping the community to settle in Leicester.
The transition period was a challenging one for the community, for established communities and for mainstream services, which were not well equipped to accommodate these unexpected and significant changes. There were lot of fights between Somalis and Caribbean, white-British or Asian children in secondary schools and colleges. As one of young person’s story states in Somalia to Europe:
Things didn’t always pan out as smoothly as we planned … since we stumbled upon many obstacles during our transition into living in Leicester. At the schools and colleges there were a lot of other students who didn’t like having us there. There were so many fights and name-calling, especially from black students.
There were access issues in relation to mainstream services as well as bullying and racism both in schools and in certain neighbourhoods.
“Most Somali people moved to Leicester because of its multiculturalism, religious freedom and opportunities for personal development.”
On the other hand, most Somali people have moved to Leicester because of its multiculturalism, religious freedom and opportunities for personal development. Many of them were amazed how Muslim communities have thrived here and how various members of the society from different ethnicities and all walks of life are respectful of each other’s values and culture, which was not the case in the other European cities they had lived in for years. It is clear that this didn’t happen overnight but was a gradual process that witnessed a change of political attitudes towards immigration.
The new arrivals strategy of Leicester City Council was part of the process of creating a cohesive society capable of providing a welcoming and supportive environment for new communities, despite the challenges this brings in. Moreover, all the sectors of public have shown strong commitment towards the city’s diversity regardless of their difference. This has led to the Leicester we know today, which is a role model for the many European cities that are keen to learn from its good practice. Many times Somali Development Services (SDS) has hosted European delegations, including Dutch, Danish and Swedish, who want to learn from the good practice that enabled the Somali community to settle in Leicester.
“The Somali population has a very limited voice in the decision-making process, which makes it hard for them to influence the political response to the current economic situation.”
It is important to note that the economic crisis and budget cuts faced by the city are a significant threat to its community cohesion, as many services have been cut by the LA. It is evident from the focus groups that SDS conducted that some established communities were hostile to the Somali community when they arrived as they felt their neighbourhood’s resources were threatened – hence the fights we have seen between groups of young people. The budget cuts have caused many services to close that were vital to local people, especially youth groups and other vulnerable people, and this can lead to tensions between different communities.
Furthermore, the Somali community has no representation in the mainstream political parties. They have a very limited voice in the decision-making process, which makes it hard for them to influence the political response to the current economic situation. This is made worse by the fact that Somalis are not recognised by the census in the way that White-British and Asian communities are; there are roughly 250,000 people of Somali origin living in UK but rather than being counted as a distinct ethnic group they are counted as ‘Black: Africans’. This places them in an even more disadvantaged position compared to established communities.
Jawaahir Daahir is the founder and Managing Director of Somali Development Services, which offers support, advice and training within the Somali community and beyond. She is also one of the authors of Somalia to Europe: Stories of Somali Diaspora.
 Jawaahir Daahir et al., Somalia to Europe: Stories of Somali Diaspora (Leicester: Leicester Quaker Press, 2011), 63.
 Leicester Partnership, Leicester New Arrivals Strategy (Leicester, 2008).
 Somali Development Services Ltd: Consultation Workshops (Leicester, 2013).