Rama was born in Mogadishu in 1982. She is Somalian – except it’s not that simple. There is a widespread perception that the Somalis are monocultural and monolingual, but they’re not. Rama belongs to the Benadiri people, who speak the Hamari language. It is related to Somali but quite different.
So Rama is a Somalian. Except she’s also British. She came here aged 13. When I ask if she feels British, there’s a pause, then a slightly nervous laugh. “I do, but at times I don’t,” she says. “I am constantly reminded by people in this country that I came here. I don’t feel Somali either. We Benadir are lighter skinned. Somalians say we came from somewhere else.”
She lives her life “in the middle of two cultures, trying to find my own path, sandwiched between the conflicting influences of my parents, my community and society”.
Rama has remarkable resilience. She has experienced a great deal more tragedy than a young woman should, and it has left her scarred. As a child, before she left Mogadishu, she made a friend called Faisal. He was fun, a joker, a charismatic lad. She loved being with him, but when the civil war broke out, she didn’t see him for a long time, until she met him one day by chance at the mosque. As they were talking, a sniper shot him. She watched him die.
When she came to Britain, Rama’s parents spoke no English, so she had to learn. She is the eighth of 12 children, yet when things go wrong, she is the one who looks after everyone. They have been homeless, without money, without food. When her mother went to hospital seriously ill, Rama had to choose between staying home and college. She left college.
Eventually, she got a place at university, which her father found threatening. “He thought I was getting out of hand and too westernised,” she says. Rama is very loyal to her family, but she disagreed with the tradition that Somali women must marry a man her parents choose. In the end, she gave in, and married a man she had no feelings for. It was hell. “Basically, he wanted a slave and I’m not the type of girl who believes in this rubbish.”
Her own self-respect wouldn’t allow her to stay. After having a child, she left him and went to university. “I was so happy,” she says, “that I woke up each morning as if I was reborn, looking forward to starting my new life.” Then tragedy struck again. Her beloved younger brother, Abdul Kadir, was stabbed at school, standing up to bullies. “I was very close to him; to me he was not like my brother, more like my son.”
At every turn of Rama’s life in Britain she has needed help, and it has almost never been available in the right way. The examples are legion, but when her mother was in hospital she tried to get help from social services to look after her brothers and sisters. She should talk to the hospital, they said. She did. By the time they responded, her mother was better. She should talk to the council, they said. “Whenever they talked to me, it was in English, but it made no sense to me,” she says.
Then she met Bill Bolloten and Tim Spafford, refugee support workers. Instead of seeing if she fitted this criteria or that criteria, this agency or that agency, they were advocates for her across all her problems. Forging relationships with others – such as nurses and housing workers – they guided her through the maze. “We started from the simple principle that what we do is in the interests of a family’s children,” says Spafford. “Everybody understands that. It allows us to make a relationship with a family, with parents, and with a person’s community.”
Rama’s life so far may have been punctuated by extreme drama, but that merely throws into starker relief a basic truth that she, like all of us, “is not a number”. She is Somalian, she is British, she is loyal to her family, she resists their restrictions, she is Muslim, she feels western in her thoughts and ambitions, she is determined. She is Rama. In truth, as she says, when it comes to who you are “each of us has only our name and our individuality”.
Article originally appeared at: