Lost in Little Somalia


As soon as we stepped out of the Finsbury Park subway station, it was immediately apparent to Jim and me that we weren’t in the safe, touristy part of London any more. There wasn’t a McDonald’s or a Starbucks in sight, and people stared at the two of us—American journalism students with press passes and cameras, as if we were from an alternate universe.

For me, it was an unsettling introduction to an unfamiliar neighborhood. But for Jim, a native New Yorker, it must have felt as if the Victoria line train we had just stepped off had crossed the Atlantic.

“This is just like New York,” Jim said as we made our way toward the Somali Community Centre to work on our final Cronkite Euro story. “I feel like I’m in the Bronx right now.”

We were in the middle of doing field work for our last story here in Europe, about the Somali Muslim community in London. According to the Guardian‘s religious correspondent, Riazat Butt, Somali Muslims are segregated from the rest of Britain’s Muslim community, made up largely of Pakistanis and Bangledeshis. MI-5, a British intelligence agency roughly equivalent to our FBI or Homeland Security Department, has also been accused of targeting British Somali men in terrorism investigations. Riazat told us it was because Somali men, being part of a relatively new and impoverished immigrant group, are being recruited in disproportionate numbers by Muslim extremist groups in the UK. Jim and I teamed up for the second time in the last week to look into it.

The two of us made our way down to the community centre, which was located in the heart of a housing project, only to find that it was closed. We decided we’d try again Monday. Jim took the opportunity to begin taking pictures of the dilapidated tenement buildings in the surrounding neighborhood. Thankfully, British housing projects seem to be nowhere near as dangerous as their American counterparts, but we ran into trouble any way.

As Jim was snapping photographs, a couple of Somali-British teenagers walked into a shot. The two covered their heads behind the blue hoodies they were wearing and approached us.

“What are you doing taking pictures of us?” asked the older-looking boy in a flawless British accent —none of the people we had spoken to that day had spoken fluent English. He spoke with that inflection the Brits use at the end of every sentence, whether they’re asking a question or not.

“We’re taking pictures of the building,” Jim mumbled as the two of us began walking past them.

“You can’t just be taking pictures of us,” he said, his voice again rising at the end of the sentence as if he were asking a question.

“Not of you, buddy. Of the building.”

We walked past them toward the other end of the neighborhood, figuring we had about 20 minutes before the boys began telling everyone — spreading the word that a couple of foreigners with cameras were taking pictures and some agitated, (understandably) suspicious British Somalis made us leave.

When we made our way back to the neighborhood’s main commercial drag, we asked a man in a kebab shop where we could find mosques. He pointed out two: the majestic, multi-story North Central London Mosque and its grittier counterpart, the Muslim Welfare Home, situated underneath a noisy traffic bridge.

Without going into boring detail, we shot craps. The mosques we visited either told us to scram or politely asked us to come back Monday. At this point, I’m so used to the feeling that I have learned to accept it. There are days when a story just doesn’t want to come together — you just have to look at what you could’ve done differently and chalk it up to bad luck. The mosques’ offices will be open Monday, leaving us one day to cover a very difficult, complex story.

If history is any indication (just look at my other blog posts), I can either look forward to an exhilarating, last-minute finish—or a dead end. Wish me luck.


One Response to Lost in Little Somalia

  1. Alexandra Flamini says:

    This is really cool, Derek. The fact that you and Jim went out on a whim to this neighborhood (sketchy at that) to find a story. Sometimes that’s how the best pieces come up. Even if you do hit a dead end with this one, you gained a new experience. And who knows? Maybe the next time you wander into a little Somalia, a crazy story may come your way.

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