Being Black in Downham Market

31 October 2023: East Anglia Bytimes: It’s Black History Month. Apart from its university cities, East Anglia is overwhelmingly white, including the town where Mariam lives

Mariam Yusuf arrived in the UK in 2008 fleeing war and gender-based violence in Somalia and leaving behind two children, convinced that they would soon join her. Mariam found herself detained and was destitute, bearing the full weight of what was later termed the hostile environment for migrants in the UK. She was dispersed to live in Middlesbrough, then Manchester. She’s lived in Downham Market since 2017.

The charity Migrants Organise posted a Crowdfunder page to aid Mariam’s asylum bid, in April 2022. It speedily reached its goal of raising £5000 for the process. I began the interview by asking what she’d been doing since then.

M: I’ve been working on my case with the Home Office. We were able to get a good lawyer to look at my case. We’ve been gathering evidence for the last year, and we’re waiting to submit a fresh claim.

A: In 2016 you were honoured as Woman of the Year by Women on the Move Awards. What difference did that make to your life?

M: It was a recognition that someone somewhere is listening. My concern was for people to hear human stories of people seeking asylum, to change the negative narrative about people seeking sanctuary in this country. And I felt that this had reached a number of people, especially the person who nominated me. And secondly, it motivated me to become a public speaker – to go out and share the challenges that people seeking asylum, especially women, face in the UK.

The fields in lockdown

A: What’s been the best and the worst of your time in East Anglia?

M: The best. The countryside is very beautiful. During lockdown, I really enjoyed this because we were not allowed to go anywhere. I had the chance and privilege to walk in the fields and just to reconnect with nature. But you don’t find people of colour, such as Africans, Indians or Arabs. I came to Norfolk in 2017 from Manchester, which is a cosmopolitan area. I went shopping at the supermarket, I looked around, I could not see anybody of my colour. Now I can see one or two. I have not seen any organisations that support people seeking asylum here in Norfolk. As an activist and advocate for women’s rights, I find it challenging to speak to the community around Norfolk, as it feels to me they may not have much knowledge about people seeking asylum. I have to travel to Cambridge, London or Manchester, to be involved.

A:  How are things between you and your Downham Market neighbours?

M: They’re interested to hear from me on what I do as a woman seeking asylum. I educate them on why people come to seek sanctuary in UK or anywhere else – the challenges. And the good things we have experienced as well!

A: How often are you in East Anglia’s multi-ethnic areas – Cambridge, Norwich?

M: I visited Norwich only once, with a colleague based in Cambridge. We wanted to start a group that supports women, and men were also welcome. I had a chance to speak to some charities. I felt they had a support network already there in place. Cambridge is a bit challenging, there are some charities that support people seeking asylum, but it was not very easy to get to speak to the people seeking asylum themselves. My focus is on Manchester where I lived before I came here. In London, I volunteered for Migrants Organise and Women for Refugee Women.

A: Do you know if there are any other multi-ethnic areas in East Anglia besides Cambridge and Norwich?

M: I happened to meet a lady from Ipswich at a conference in Sheffield, and she told me she works with an organisation that supports the migrant communities there. I’ve not had the chance to visit them.

Volunteer work for charities

A: Can you tell us a bit about the charities you volunteer for?

M: There’s Women Seeking Asylum based in Manchester, and Migrants Organise in London. And Status Now 4 All – that’s a network that has 140 organisations signed up. And we have Sisters Not Strangers, which is a coalition of women’s organisations across England and Wales. My organisation in Manchester is a member. And I’m also a member of One Strong Voice, which is a group of people with lived experience. It was formed during lockdown.

A: What exactly is your role with Migrants Organise?

M: My role is to develop and see how I can work with migrants and organisations that support migrants in Cambridge – to explore how we can support them. Now and again, we get students from Cambridge University. They joined us in some online activities. So, we are still exploring – it’s not done yet.

A better world for everyone

A: Is there anything you’d absolutely like us to tell our readers in East Anglia Bylines?

M: Yes. A migrant or person seeking sanctuary coming into this country, they have left their home countries, they could be professionals, or they could be housewives or anybody – they come and find a hostile environment, not enabling them even to integrate into the community, because the community has a negative narrative of them coming as scroungers. People who really need safety miss out. Some are destitute, and homeless, and they find themselves exploited because of their situation. And this whole hostile environment has made it very much worse. We work with organisations that support us, but we need the support of the public, too. We need to build a community where everybody feels safe, regardless of where they come from, or why they’re seeking sanctuary. It’s the only way we can build a better world for everyone – where everybody is safe, and everybody is allowed to integrate and give back to the community.

A survivor

Mariam has built up an extraordinary resilience from what life’s thrown at her. Her charity work, on behalf of other migrants and other women, makes her somebody East Anglia can be proud of. We of East Anglia Bylines wish her well in her own continuing campaign for asylum – and look for the day when the world she is working towards, one that is safe for everyone, becomes a present reality.