Author: Hashi Mohamed
Publisher: Profile Books
Pages: 312 ISBN: 978-1-788161-112-1
Hashi Mohamed was born in Nairobi in 1983, in a family which shared with many others the grief, hardships and displacements that has befallen so many Somalis. He arrived in England in 1993 as an unaccompanied asylum-seeking child, but with relatives already in the country. His father died in an accident in Kenya the same year, and his mother was not to be with him till 1998. The single-parent family first lived in a dirty and cockroach-infested hostel off Kilburn High Road. In a remarkable testimony to human resilience and the way great character is forged in the crucible of hardship, he is today “ consistently listed as one of the highest rated planning barrister in England and Wales under the age of 35 in the following Planning Magazine’s annual planning legal survey”. People Like Us recounts the journey, both the dark and bright moments with a sense of irony and humour,
When we arrived, our fundamental problem was a complete and utter lack of knowledge and information. We knew absolutely nothing about Britain, and the most basic facts about life here were entirely new to us: a few weeks after we arrived, I knocked myself unconscious by walking into a lamppost. I simply wasn’t expecting it to be there: there wasn’t street lighting in Eastleigh [in Kenya] and I’d never seen one before.
. . . I should explain what life in Brent was like in the 1990s for me and for many of my friends. To see our head teacher badly beaten was only shocking because it happened inside the school grounds: violence and sometimes death were common occurrences throughout the borough at the time and many of us were living in extreme deprivation and in dangerous, unpredictable environments . . . in the summer of 1995, when I had been in Britain for nearly two years, the band Pulp released ‘Common People’. Written by Jarvis Crocker . . . it is a song that always feels poignant to me: that summer was the first time I properly understood that something was wrong with my life as it was, that I was one of Crocker’s Common People, with little control over how things turned out for me. I was eleven.
His life took a turn for the better thanks to an inspiring and sympathetic teacher at Wembley High, who taught him and his peers to take pride in their achievements, through a small and modest community service school project, “she [French teacher Ms Adler] invested in us, and she also allowed us to invest in something in ourselves: when school reconvened after the summer, we were full of pride at what we had achieved.” A further defining moment occurred when Hashi was fifteen, and he came across Paul Boateng [Labour MP for Brent South, 1985- 2005] at the MP’s surgery: “I didn’t get to speak to him directly – but I did manage to catch his eye, and he returned an acknowledgement. It was a tiny moment, but one that mattered enormously to me: from that point on, a sense of place and of direction slowly became a reality, a sense that this representative – this man who looks like me – is here to help me, help us, towards belonging here; towards citizenship and proper roots in this country.”
These inspirations, combined with hard work, a family tradition of enterprise, and talent led to an undergraduate degree in law and French at the University of Hertfordshire, a one-year internship at the BBC, a full scholarship for postgraduate studies at Oxford, a further scholarship for the Bar School at City University, and a call to Lincoln’s Inn. He had lucky breaks on the way thanks to encounters with sympathetic English men and women – for example Peter Barron of Newsnight and Elizabeth Rantzen, chief executive of a barristers’ chambers.
The book has several reflective pieces on the position of immigrants and the ‘unwritten rules’ that govern who succeeds and who does not. He discusses the sense of discomfort and alienation when refugees are expected to be grateful and ‘stay in their place’, but also the love for Britain for the opportunities it has provided. So what does it take to make it modern Britain? Hashi’s view is that ‘meritocracy’ is a hollow word given the advantage conferred by a Public School education,
The chance of you succeeding in Britain today is down to many factors: the wealth and profession of your parents; the kind of school you attended; your mental and physical health; and the quality of your early environment, in terms of stability and attention. You’ll need to work harder than you ever imagined – and hope that whatever talents you have, given the fast-paced development of automation, are going to still be needed when you grow up. You’ll need a lot of luck of luck as you go . . . And you’ll need to make it through all that with your belief in yourself – and your vision for the future – still intact. And then – maybe – you’ll make it.
Hashi is a role model for young Muslims, who now face socio-economic conditions tougher than those when he was able to pull himself up by the bootstraps from a sink school in North West London. His message is one of hard work and having a positive vision for self-betterment.
It is also salutary to reflect on his disenchantment with Muslim practices. For example, he writes that while he may join a Bangladeshi professional in the mosque congregation, there seem limits to brotherhood: “In theory, we belong to the ‘Umma’ – the global Muslim community in solidarity with each other, everywhere – and yet I know that if I wanted to marry his daughter, it’s very possible that I’d revert pretty quickly to being just a black man”. However, it seems his heart remains in the right place, notwithstanding such experiences. Hashi was able to take practical steps for Muslims in his adopted land by accepting a role as one of the commissioners in the ‘Citizens Commission on Islam, Participation & Public Life’ launched in September 2015 [for report click here].
‘Watch this career’, as they say!
Jamil Sherif, March 2020