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Thursday, December 11, 2008

Exile youth lead 'double lives'

Mohammed Halif
Mohammed Halif volunteers with Somali youth in Birmingham

By Samanthi Dissanayake
BBC News

On a street corner in Stratford, Birmingham, is a place where stylish Somali youth can be found. It is an internet cafe that doubles up as a barber-shop.

From here 24-year-old Mohammed Halif hatches plans to transform the life of Somali youth in this city.

"I looked at the youth, and they were suffering from lack of a social life. Parents don't understand. Most youth have never even seen Somalia."

At the age of 16, Mohammed left Mogadishu and travelled alone to Birmingham. He started volunteering with young Somalis and says he realised that their parents prepared them not for life in Britain but for life in Somalia.

"Somalis are like wolves," he says. "Never settled."

Parental pressure

The children of the first wave of refugees fleeing conflict in Sri Lanka, Somalia, Turkey and Iraq are coming of age now and are confronted with the expectations of their parents and their peers.

Serhado
The only thing I don't like about British Kurdish youth is how far they are from Kurdish culture
Serhado, Kurdish rapper
The first imperative is to preserve their cultural and ethnic identity, to engage with their homeland. Then there are the expectations of the society they were born into.

The evidence so far is that many are expected to lead parallel lives.

Mohammed does not have to worry about such parental pressure. Earlier this year his father was killed in Mogadishu by a small missile.

"I am the oldest. My dad was helping my little brothers and sisters."

He says he wishes to stay in Britain but his claim for asylum has been rejected. He shares with the first generation of Somali refugees a profound sense of responsibility towards people back home and a deep involvement with their daily travails.

But community workers say that a preoccupation with life in Somalia, rather than in Britain, has led to a neglect of young people here and is one possible reason for some of the problems they face, such as gang violence and educational under-achievement.

"They don't want their kids to change," says youth worker Ayadrus. "They want their children to know that one day they will go back. They are in transit."

Threatened identity

L-R Gorby, Jeyanethan, Kirthiga, Caroline
Young Tamils in Harrow discussed politics and identity
For the settled Tamil and Kurdish communities in the UK, there is the added pressure of feeling their ethnic identity is under threat not only in the countries they fled but in the diaspora as well. It is for that reason that Tamil and Kurdish schools can be found across London teaching language, history, dance and music.

Many offspring of Sri Lankan Tamils who came to Britain in the 1970s and 1980s appear to have taken on their parents' political ambitions. Analysts describe the Tamil community as close-knit and deeply conservative. But many Tamil youth are becoming more outspoken and confident. One small group in Harrow discussed politics, love and youth identity quite openly.

Gorby, 22, was born and brought up in Britain and has been to Sri Lanka only once. But he has inherited a sense of responsibility towards Tamils in Sri Lanka and a belief that they must have a separate state.

"I don't like to do things excessively. There is a background guilt. I feel I shouldn't spend money because of what is happening," he says.

Student Caroline Francis says: "We are very close to our families compared with other groups. With expectations, you have to fulfil them or you feel you have let them down."

There are expectations on every front. Kirthiga says most of her friends are Tamil and she knows when it comes to questions of marriage, pressures over issues like caste still exist. But, she says, that is changing - the older generation are loosening their grip.

At the Western Kurdistan Association, L-R Homa Reziya, Alleh Jonroy, Shom Shaswar, Pava Amin
Different generations meet at the Western Kurdistan Association

Those gathered in Harrow were also members of the Tamil Youth Organisation (TYO), which, they say, is primarily a social club and charitable group. But the TYO has also been politically active, taking part in protests against the Sri Lankan government.

Jeyanathan, 28, is a member of the TYO and also a full-time worker for a campaigning group, the British Tamils Forum. He hopes one day to see a separate homeland for Tamils.

"If it was just the Tigers [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam], I wouldn't support it. Tamils must have the right to self-determination," he says.

Shanthini Cowley-Sathiakumar has conducted research on Tamil youth identity among professional middle-class Tamils, many of whom voluntarily migrated to Britain in the 1960s.

"Children of professionals don't have much of a clue as to what is going on [in Sri Lanka]. Children of refugees tend to be much more politically involved and aware," she says.

She added that those middle-class professionals also tended to be quite disapproving of the LTTE and dissociated themselves from the refugees who came in the 1980s. In a polarised and politicised climate, this has presented quandaries for young middle-class Tamils.

Jana, a second-generation Tamil from North London recently took part in a peace protest but is wary of being labelled as an LTTE sympathiser.

"The terrorist brush is like a broad brush which is being moved from the Tigers over the whole Tamil people. There's a huge underpinning of extremists out there.

"I think of myself as Asian British. Even saying the word Tamil, people just think Tamil Tigers, you see it on their faces. I wouldn't say it very often and I blame both the [Sri Lankan] government and the Tigers."

Kurdish challenges

Where young Tamils tend to do very well academically, Turkish-Kurdish students can struggle. This is of great concern to organisations such as Day-Mer, a community centre that has invested large resources in educational support.

Shom Shaswar
I'm starting to get the passion. I feel British here, but I say I am from Kurdistan
Shom Shaswar
It says students from the Turkish-Kurdish community in north London secondary schools are among the lowest achievers - fewer than 10% of Turkish Kurds go to university. One pro-Kurdish activist also said it was notable that the first Kurdish student group was founded only in the past few years.

But at the Kurdish Community Centre a few miles away, a youth reading group regularly discusses political texts as a way of raising political awareness among Kurdish youth.

Earlier this year, Serhado, a celebrated Kurdish rapper from Sweden came to north London for a gig. He says he loves performing for London's Kurds but adds: "The only thing I don't like about British Kurdish youth is how far they are from Kurdish culture. While performing I asked how many understood what I had said - not many raised their hands."

Contact between the generations in other Kurdish communities has been critical for keeping alive the Kurdish issue. At the Western Kurdistan association in Hammersmith, west London, young Iraqi Kurds can meet older refugees from Syria and Iran.

Shom Shaswar feels very British having lived here for 15 years. But she says: "I'm starting to get the passion. I feel British here, but I say I am from Kurdistan."

Medical student Pava Amin says that she took the Kurdish flag to university with her.

There is a background guilt. I feel I shouldn't spend money because of what is happening
Gorby, 22-year-old Tamil
Most young people said they saw themselves as both British and Somali, Kurdish or Tamil. Politics played a part, but only in certain contexts. They gave expression to their ethnic, British and youth identity.

In Birmingham Mohammed Halif might have fled extreme violence, he might be jobless and facing deportation, he might now be responsible for his family back home and a family here. But he has been in Britain since he was 16 and is firmly entrenched in British youth culture.

"Let me put on my fancy jacket, man," he says, before he is photographed.

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