When Ayaan Gulaid’s sixteen-year-old brother was tortured at the hands of Somalia’s Siad Barré’s military dictatorship in Somaliland, the family realised that they had to flee their homeland.
Making the journey with her mother and one of her siblings, five-year-old Gulaid and her family travelled to East London in 1987 where they were housed in Pulteney Close just off the Roman Road in Bow.
Though they were safe from the bombs being dropped on their home in Somaliland, it was hard for Gulaid to adjust to her strange new life in East London. As she explains: ‘Back then the Roman Road wasn’t as diverse as it is now. We were one of the only Black, Muslim families in the area and we used to get racially abused quite a lot.’
This racial abuse came to a head when Gulaid’s home was petrol bombed when she was just nine years old. Though no one was hurt the family was rehoused in West London, picking up their lives and starting all over again in Paddington.
Despite the attack, Gulaid remembers moments of happiness from her childhood in East London, and was determined to carry on her education at Old Ford Primary School in Bow. Ayaan and her siblings would get the number 8 bus all the way back to the Roman Road to get to school every morning.
The family came back to the area when Gulaid was a teenager, which she views as a turning point in her upbringing. As Gulaid says: ‘I feel like I didn’t fit in until we got settled in our new home in Electric House on Bow Road … that is where I really flourished and formed my East End identity.’
Much smaller than it is today, Gulaid says that the Somaliland community in Bow was like an extended family. ‘We were all facing the same realities of what was going on in our homeland which made us very close,’ she smiles. ‘We used to take summer trips together to Margate and Southend.’
Yet the whole time Gulaid was carving out a new life for herself in East London, her family back in Somaliland never left her thoughts.
She remembers going to demonstrations with her mother about the brutal treatment of Somalilanders by the Somali regime. An activist from a young age, Gulaid recalls: ‘While my sister was running away from bombs in Somaliland I was protesting outside of the Somali embassy in London at six years old.’
Gulaid, now aged 39, is a natural campaigner with infectious energy. ‘Somali women are fierce,’ she says: ‘We’ve lived through war, we’ve protested against the dictatorship in the 60s and 70s, we’re used to fighting for our rights.’
During the Somaliland War of Independence between 1981 and 1991, Tower Hamlets was home to the headquarters of the Somali National Movement that waged a rebellion against Somalia’s dictator Barré.
Gulaid explains that the Somaliland community has a long history in Tower Hamlets, going back to the early 1900s when the families of seamen like her father who worked for the RAF came to settle here.
With the support of the diaspora in the UK, the rebels won independence from Somalia in 1991 and have since built Somaliland up as an independent, functioning democracy. This self-declared state, home to 5.7 million people, lies to the north-west of Somalia and has its own flag, parliament, currency and capital city of Hargeisa.
Gulaid lights up when she talks about her homeland: ‘We’ve pulled Somaliland up from the ground because we are a people with so much hope and so much vigour for life,’ she says.
Yet until Somaliland is internationally recognised, its people will remain in fear of invasion from their oppressive neighbour, Somalia, and continue to be starved of the financial aid, foreign investment, and trade benefits that come with being a nation state.
Tower Hamlets is the only London Borough that recognises Somaliland as an independent country and, with Gulaid at the forefront, local Somalilanders are continuing to fight for international recognition.
During the civil war, many Somalilanders like Gulaid fled to western societies to escape the violence. As a consequence, she explains: ‘We have this young diaspora [in the UK] who are using their talents now to take the baton in the fight for recognition.’
A further eight members of Gulaid’s close family were brought over as refugees during Somaliland’s decade-long war, including her brother who was tortured during the conflict.
‘Our parents’ generation liberated our nation and brought it this far, so now it’s up to our generation to get that recognition,’ says Gulaid. ‘And that recognition comes with engagement and dialogue with governments like Britain.’
Last month Rushanara Ali, Labour MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, took part in a debate in Parliament about the recognition of Somaliland as an independent state. Gulaid says that the debate had a huge impact in Somaliland: ‘It meant so much to our people,’ she smiles. ‘There has been an absolute Twitter storm about it.’
According to Tower Hamlets Labour councillor Amina Ali, the Somaliland community is struggling to capture the attention of British politicians. However, Gulaid was encouraged by the younger generation of British Somalilanders who came out in force for the first time to lobby their MPs surrounding the Parliamentary debate.
She says the Somaliland diaspora is eager to harness current momentum and continue their campaign for recognition of their homeland, which will require continued and tireless political engagement and participation.
Much of Gulaid’s work in Bow has centred around increasing political engagement and representation of Somalilanders, and she is determined to change the perception that the Somaliland community is invisible and unreachable.
Gulaid says that she always knew she held strong moral views, but it was her postgraduate degree in Law and Community at School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) eight years ago that convinced her of the difference an individual can make to their community.
‘While studying at SOAS I realised that the Somaliland community in Tower Hamlets particularly was not part of the political process,’ says Gulaid. ‘We didn’t have any councillors, we had hardly any membership in any political parties, and I knew something had to be done.’
Gulaid’s political activism in 2014 was instrumental in the election of Councillor Amina Ali who put forward the motion for Tower Hamlets to recognise Somaliland as an independent nation.
Gulaid worked as a Parliamentary Caseworker for Rushanara Ali’s for four years and is currently working with the council on the Somali Working Group, focusing on young people’s mental health and the impact of Covid on her community.
Whilst working for Rushanara Ali, Gulaid provided a crucial link to Tower Hamlets’ Somali community and alerted people to Somaliland’s 2016 drought before the catastrophe was picked up by mainstream UK media. Galvanising a group of Somali mums across Tower Hamlets, Gulaid formed a group called the East London Sisters that raised over £20,000 for those affected by the drought in Somaliland.
Involved in what seems to be a never-ending stream of community and charity projects, Gulaid compares herself to a swan gliding seemingly peacefully above water, her legs kicking frantically below the surface to keep itself afloat.
Despite the work she does in the local area, Gulaid says she struggled with the sense of having a split identity for a long time. ‘You’ll always come across people that make you feel like the other in society, so when I’m in East London I think I’m more Somali … but then I’ll go to Somaliland and there are huge cultural differences arising from the way that I’ve been shaped here as a Black Muslim woman – it’s my culture from the UK which I didn’t think I had.’
‘But as I’ve got older I’ve realised that I’m not going to allow other people to define who I am … and now I’m happy to celebrate both those identities, I’m a Black Muslim Somali British woman, I’m all of them combined,’ Gulaid smiles.
Despite Somalilanders’ long history in Britain, Gulaid says that it still feels like they’re facing some of the same inequalities she had to overcome when she arrived on the Roman Road in 1987. She knows that her daughter faces many of the same challenges that she faced carving out an identity in this country. But for Gulaid, there’s no doubt in her mind if she belongs here.
‘In Somali culture nicknames are very important,’ she explains: ‘In my group of friends my nickname was ‘Ayaan Bow’ but they’d say it in a grime accent,’ laughs Gulaid. ‘So Bow is home, Bow has always been home.’
Roman Road London