Britain’s host community: who’s in and who’s out?

Esme Madill, 5 March 2011

Last night Esmé Madill, a consultant in the not for profit sector, spoke at a celebration at the Shire Foundation, which runs ‘Rajo’ (‘hope’ in Somali), a project for Somali children in North London.

I had a preview of tonight’s performance one rainy Sunday in January. It was the end of a long week. I had planned to call in briefly to chat with the young people and then head off for a quiet coffee. I walked in — there was poetry, singing, drumming.

The young people performed a play — written and produced by themselves — that had the audience crying with laughter.

I left hours later with an overwhelming sense of hope and confidence — not just for these young people here, but for all of us: if our community can foster this . . .

These aren’t terribly hopeful times. Our Prime Minister, David Cameron, has joined German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Sarkozy in declaring multicultural policies a ‘failure’.

We’re being called upon to defend the values of the “host community” with something called “muscular liberalism”.

I wonder – what is this “host community”? Who’s in it?

My friend’s mum is Iranian. Her dad is English (I think she has an Italian granny). Is she in or out?

My daughters are a little bit Irish. Are we part of the “host community”? Or are we just visiting?

What are the values of this “host community”?

Are chapatis allowed?

What would “host community” music sound like? The amazing drumming we have heard in Tottenham tonight? Or reggae, hip-hop, drum and bass? Or only Elgar?

Who should we read? Is Zadie Smith more “host community” than Derek Walcott? Or should we read only Milton who was, like Walcott, inspired by Homer. A Greek. Not very “host community”, then.

Can we have too much culture? Is that a problem?

Of course it’s crazy and insulting, this idea of the “untainted host community” — and scary too.

The government wants us to believe that community groups such as this, supporting Somali youngsters, are a luxury. Or dangerous. Breeding grounds for extremism.

Here, confident, witty, bright, engaged and engaging young people have told me about the impact that the Rajo project has had on their lives, how they had been shy and reluctant to come at first, felt ashamed of their Somali heritage with little understanding of Somali culture or history.

“I thought there had only ever been war in Somalia,” they said.

They felt that education was not for them.

In six short months this project has led, not to separatism and extremist tendencies, but, in the words of the children and young people themselves:

“I am finding out who I am.”

“Here you think education is for you.”

“This will help you the rest of your life. You learn you don’t have to be shy, no one will put you down. The people here will bring you up.”

Is this a luxury?

If young people have a sense of who they are and where they come from, meet role models like Rajo’s volunteers – graduates, students, youth workers, lawyers, comfortable in their British and Somali identities, investing in their communities — are they going to be more or less likely to become good citizens?

Years ago I spent a day interviewing unaccompanied minors who had fled another conflict. Their parents dead or disappeared back in the Balkans, they had been fostered by white Christian foster parents, had no contact with fellow Albanian speakers. When their foster placements ended they moved into hostels, had regular meetings with social workers who addressed their life skills and job prospects.

Interviewing them was profoundly depressing. Their eyes were dead, empty, they talked in flat tones about existing on the margins. I asked about their Albanian heritage and they looked at me blankly. I came away with a sense that as a community we had completely failed those young people.

I have also met young Albanians who attend projects like this one, and who have the energy and pride and enthusiasm that we see here tonight. Projects like Rajo can and do make a life changing and life-saving difference.

Here we see a project run on a shoestring, driven by the energy of staff and volunteers who believe in what they are doing. Rajo’s young people go to school with a sense of themselves and with skills and talents to share. They build bridges within and beyond their communities.

Those leading members of the “host community” keen to tell us that multiculturalism has failed, some of them schooled in oases of privilege charging £30,000 a year, do they understand community at all?

In the dark days ahead, all of us need to be ready to defend community groups that offer hope, role models, opportunities and good times to our young people.

We are a small island. We have a growing elderly population. We need immigrant labour. We are enlivened and enriched by the cultures of those from across the globe. Here tonight we are choosing to invest and believe in all our young people, enriching their futures and ours.