For centuries London has been a beacon for those seeking to carve a better life for themselves, whether economic migrants hoping for a change in circumstances, or refugees fleeing terrible wars.
We often reflect on their journeys to the capital – watching news reports of desperate, dangerous voyages – but what of their lives after they have arrived?
Cynthia Cockburn’s new book Looking to London: Stories of War, Escape and Asylum explores just that, delving into the experiences of female refugees including Somali women who settled in Tower Hamlets.
The gender, war and peacemaking researcher was inspired by her own background – having moved to London from the East Midlands as a ‘labour migrant’ aged 19 – and chose to highlight experiences from the city’s Kurdish, Somali, Tamil, Sudanese and Syrian communities.
“I chose women I knew to have come from countries caught up in terrible poverty and conflict – women who were not just ‘migrants’ but ‘asylum seekers’,” said the author, honorary professor at the University of Warwick’s Centre for the Study of Women and Gender, and City University London.
“All their stories are of suffering and loss, but the accounts I can’t get out of my mind are those in which the pain was deliberately inflicted – accounts of imprisonment and torture. Having said that, good things happen in this book too – lives are regenerated, some lost loved ones are found.
“I think most of us reading the papers and watching the news are shocked by the stories from war zones and migrant camps, we feel sympathy with those people ‘out there’.
“But it’s important, I feel, to connect more directly to those events, by being aware that many of the people on the street around us in our London neighbourhoods were not long ago the subjects of those newscasts and deserve that same sympathy. But more than that, we have so much to learn from their survival skills.”
One chapter is dedicated to sharing the stories of three Somali women – two in Tower Hamlets, one in Brent – all of whom have “suffered greatly from the country’s history of drought and famine, its deadly clan conflicts and, in recent decades, religious extremism and terror”.
Hinda Ali, who is now in her forties and living in Stepney Green, moved to London in 1998.
She grew up in the midst of conflict, and Prof Cockburn mentions in the book a particularly dangerous time when the family locked themselves in their home for a week, with no food to eat, while hundreds of bodies piled up in the street.
But worse was to come, and in 1993, when Hinda was 20, her father was shot in the head while trying to break up a fight.
The daughter and two of her brothers were sent to live with an aunt in Kenya, walking and travelling by bus for seven difficult days. But Hinda didn’t feel safe there either.
She described the journey to Prof Cockburn: “We had very little money, barely enough to eat. We were scared of the Kenyan soldiers.
“It was particularly dangerous for a woman, a young woman like me. They can so easily rape or kill you. Rape is a big issue for us. You are punished for being raped. In Somalia, when you think of rape, you think it would be better to die.”
Another aunt lived in London and sent money to Hinda to arrange passage to the UK. She was able to feel secure for the first time in a long while, and now has a husband and six children.
She feels lucky to live in Tower Hamlets, which has a large Bangladeshi community as well as many Somali families, mostly of Somaliland’s Isaaq clan.
“I love living in Tower Hamlets,” she says in the book. “I feel like I’m safe here.”
Looking to London, published by Pluto Press, is out now, priced £16.99. Visit plutobooks.com.