Speaking for Ourselves

Hafsa Muhammad’s Story

Hafsa Muhammad’s Story

Michelle Fuller

 Migrant Voice -
 Migrant Voice - Hafsa Muhammad’s Story

When Hafsa Muhammad and her young son arrived from Nigeria West Africa to join her husband in 1992 she was shocked by British people's isolation.

“I thought, 'people were separate, and on the move all the time'”, she recalls.

But after 25 years helping people, working among communities and seeing more of the country, her views have broadened - to the point where a visit to Totnes a small town in South Devon reminded her of Nigeria because of the way residents helped each other.

Similarly, Muhammad says her neighbours in the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea work together and support each other.  At her lowest ebb, when going through a divorce, “I had a lot of support from different people from diverse backgrounds … I can go to my neighbours anytime.”

She is reaping what she has sown because she has been a builder as well as a recipient of community spirit.

She and others in her block of flats set up a residents’ association to deal as a group with Notting Hill Housing, a London Housing Association that manages their homes.  She is secretary of the group, which secured an allotment for a communal garden in 2014. A place where she and her neighbours grow plants and have barbeques and garden parties in the summer: “This has brought the tenants closer and it helps those who are isolated.”

Muhammad also volunteers with Notting Hill Housing on another project as a resident monitor to help residents improve local services and sits on several panels, including those for disability and repairs.

Her voluntary work followed a couple of year’s research for the Evelyn Oldfield Unit, an organisation that supports migrants and asylum seekers: “I live in the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, it appears to be rich but there is a lot of poverty and marginalisation in the north of the Borough.” Following her recommendations to the council she decided to act by “giving my service to the community.”

After finding that many of the elderly in the area were isolated she became a ‘falls prevention tutor’ in chair-based exercise, helping those who needed it to strengthen their muscles, improve posture and encourage them to get out and socialise.

In her full-time job as community researcher with Camden Council in London, she meets and helps people and communities. Her specific task is to find out how government cuts in services have affected people's lives and discuss improvements they would like the council to make.

She knows first-hand the hardships of families who go to food banks because they can’t afford to buy the food they need, or whose children have mental health problems.

Another problem she sees every day is gentrification, the process by which those born and raised in working-class communities are being priced and forced out to make room for better-off middle-class newcomers to the area: “The gentrification that’s happening is putting more families at risk.”

She has seen an increase in hate crimes and racial and ethnic discrimination as well as more barriers to the ability of minority communities to access services such as health care. She would like to see the involvement of more BME (Black and minority ethnic) people in bringing about change. “Communities and people need to come together to help each other,” she emphasises.

Now a new problem is coming down the track – ‘High Speed 2 (HS2)’ the multi-billion-pound scheme that will extend the UK’s high-speed rail network from Birmingham to London. The development will take at least a decade or more to complete and will require the demolition of many homes, private and public. Muhammad and her colleagues were recently sub contracted from Camden Council to work on a project for HS2. Though Camden council is building new homes for those being displaced, leaseholders are not happy that they are being offered less than market value for their properties and are unable to sell and move.  

She explains that the other residents whose properties are not going to be demolished, are offered secondary glazing to minimise the noise from building the rail link. “They are worried about the noise, construction etc. and the impact this will have on their lives for a long time to come.”

Where does her desire to help others come from?  Her answer is simple: “I want to make people’s lives better.”  Now 53, Muhammad looks 10 years younger, which she attributes to having a positive mind-set and a raw vegan diet which consist of vegetables, grains, nuts and fruits. Along with everything else she does, Muhammad is also a nutrition consultant and gives workshops on the importance of raw food. She also finds time for creative writing as one of her hobbies.

Amidst all these activities, she continues to freelance as an interpreter and translator, sometimes for TV companies and media agencies. Programmes have included documentaries on asylum which allowed her an insight into the many reasons people are forced to flee their countries. She is disappointed at the lack of compassion shown to asylum seekers by the UK immigration system: “Instead of being embraced they are shunned and locked up … try putting yourself in their shoes.”

Muhammad refers to her four children – ages ranging from 18 to 25 – as a gift. All are working, at university or taking A-Levels.

“It was very hard to raise them as a single parent,” she admits, “but I managed the challenges with the support of my family and I am very proud of them.”

She is an example of the resilience she attributes to the people with whom she works: “We all have our strengths and we need to bring that strength in the face of calamity and chaos, [even though] it’s not always easy.”

Her advice to anyone going through tough times? “You are strong enough to get through it! Focus on the positive – try and see the bigger picture, the best side of life."

“Your difficulty might be to bring out the strength in you, some gift, some talent. It might not be apparent but through that difficulty something good will come out of it.”

Helpful links and information:

Hafsa Muhammad’s research: Poverty within Kensington : evelynoldfield.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/hafsa-muhammad.pdf

Evelyn Oldfield Unit: evelynoldfield.co.uk/

Notting Hill Housing: www.nhhg.org.uk/

NOVA: www.novanew.org.uk/

Family Friends (Helping families to help themselves): www.familyfriends.uk.com/

Dadihiye Somali Development Organisation: london.cylex-uk.co.uk/company/dadihiye-somali-development-organisation