Towards the end of 2019, I was asked to speak at two events that focused on Mental within the Black/Somali community. Both invitations asked me to speak on trauma within the Somali community and the intergenerational impact.
This is always an difficult topic for me to discuss, because the lack of willingness in the Somali community to talk about mental health, and the lack of cultural sensitivity presented by mental health organisations, means that there is always an uncomfortable conversation that must follow whatever is discussed.
I want to be clear, the views I share here, are my own, but they stem from over 10 years of work with the Somali community on issues around education and mental health. In particular, within my professional career I have spent 6 years researching Somali masculinity and the experiences of boys and men. And it goes without saying that I have spent most of my adult life, in a personal and professional capacity, working with and supporting Somali girls and women who like me, are trying to make sense of what it means to be a Somali, British woman in a hostile political climate.
The issue of mental health and trauma within any community is complex and difficult to unpack and the Somali community is no exception. Mental health within the Somali community is usually presented through the lens of a refugee narrative, with a focus on war trauma, PTSD, social isolation, self-medication and depression, to name but a few.
Indeed, these are all very real issues that capture the impact of some of the collective trauma we have experienced over the last 30+ years. There is a lot of research and literature available to better understand the impact of these traumatic experiences on mental health. But a focus solely on these factors, risks positioning our community as victims of circumstance, failing to recognise that these circumstances have heightened, brought to the surface more complex issues that impact how we experience, understand, frame and talk about mental health with our families.
It is vital we understand the importance of language when we use terms like ‘trauma’. Trauma must be defined by those that experience it. It is contextual, which means that an event that may have been experienced as traumatic or abusive to one person may not be seen or experienced in that way by another.
There have been a number of traumatic encounters we have had as a community, war being the one people most recognise, but I would also like to draw our attention to generational cultural patterns that many of us have tried to maintain in a new context and the differing impact this has had between and across genders.
There are structures and systems that exist within our communities, that hold in place power dynamics, practices and beliefs. These dynamics allow us to understand the role of gender in family and social life for example, and like many cultures that norm presents men as the breadwinners and women as the homemakers.
Context is very important so to understand how these expectations now function for the Somali community in the UK and pass through to new generations, we must first understand how they functioned in Somalia and the turbulent events that led to cultural disorientation.
The majority of people in Somalia and Somaliland live as nomads, just as their ancestors did. This way of life functioned through collectivism and so although men and women had clearly defined roles, their roles existed within a collective system. Men were not only responsible for providing for their families, but also protecting the name and honour of their clan. Women were not only responsible for taking care of their homes and raising children, but also protecting the name and honour of their husband’s clan as well as their own.
When the civil war happened, families were torn apart, livestock was lost and many women were forced to flee with their children, leaving their husbands behind. These women, (like my mother) arrived in various places around the world with nothing more than their clothes on their back and their children (sometimes even additional children of relatives that they brought to safety).
Now in a new environment, perhaps still living close to people of cultural and clan connection but with no network of support, the women were faced with a dilemma. They arrived without their ‘providers’ and now had to find ways to keep themselves and their children alive. They arrived in a society that told them they could not stay at home and raise their children, they had to learn English, study and/or work. Their responsibilities within the family home remained unchanged, but in addition to all they had to do, they now also had to be the providers or rely on the state for support as they studied. The cultural expectation to maintain kinship and clan honour remained unchanged and so these women sent what little money they had left back home to support relatives and clan causes.
Meanwhile, the men who later arrived to join their families found themselves also without the extended support network. They surrounded themselves with men of the same clan but found that the clan did not have the same structural power or social influence in this new context. Many of the men who arrived had experienced the trauma of war much longer than the women had and so arrived with some level of PTSD.
But still the expectation to be providers remained. Many tried to find employment, but a language barrier, poor literacy and systemic racism made it difficult for many to find secure employment. Unable to provide for their families, and with a clan name that now had no real social status, the men experienced a crisis of their masculine identities. In the most extreme cases some self-medicated, some abandoned their families and some even committed suicide.
This description does not reflect the experiences of all, but it is does outline the experiences of many first arrivals post-civil war. Imagine this dynamic in the family home. The Somali mother arrives with all cultural expectations intact, with additional social expectations of education and employment in the new context. She occupies all roles for her family, and although being the provider is an additional burden, it also grants her more independence then she has ever known.
The Somali father on the other hand, does not feel he can fulfil any cultural expectation to a level of satisfaction for his family or his community. He sees his wife grow independently and sees her (if she works) or the state (if she doesn’t) as taking his role away from him. He may be resentful and try to assert his authority in other ways to maintain control and power within his home.
The mother is no longer financially dependent on her husband but carries the cultural expectation of honouring the family name and her husband’s clan, so she does all she can to keep the family unit intact. Divorce carries a cultural stigma and she would always be tied to her husband clan through her children anyway. Again, this is not the experience of all, but many of the families share these experiences.
The reason I set this scene is because I am from a generation of young people, who were raised in a home with a similar dynamic to this. These experiences filter through to children by the messages parents send indirectly through behaviours, practices and expectations. The messages that filter through each parent differs and are received differently by sons and daughters.
The mother raises her daughters to be strong, independent and self-reliant, telling the stories of how she came to be. Alongside these messages however, she reaffirms cultural expectations that honour for a girl lies in marriage, in raising children and in her family name, so the daughter is raised to excel academically, gain financial security and be domestically competent in the home… and she must not complain.
In homes where the father is not present, mothers raise their sons with a protective shield. The son carries the fathers name and it is to be honoured and respected. The son also by his positioning as a Black, Muslim man in the UK is socially vulnerable and so the mother makes it her priority to give her son what society and his father can not.
For fathers of that generation, raising daughters is about protecting their modesty, and that often equates to making sure she does not engage in unsolicited and culturally inappropriate social activities, and then when she is ready, to support her to get married.
Fathers of that generation however have a much more complex relationship with their sons. Sons are raised with knowledge of their clan and the importance of respect, status and being able to support and provide for the families they will come to have. For the young men who are able to see this modelled, the messages are retained. However, for the fathers who have struggled to demonstrate these ‘masculine traits’ they try to pass forward, there is a disconnect with their sons. They witness their sons adopt other representations of masculinity that society presents and the gap between fathers and sons widens.
So how can we begin to nurture well being within our homes? I don’t have an answer or a solution, but I think it starts with being honest about where we are and how we got here.
I’d like to ask us to reflect on the generational changes we have seen as a community and the impact this has had on our family dynamics and in turn the impact this has had on how we discuss and define mental well being with our children.