Séverine Chavanne
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16 September, 2011

Unique insights into the life of a Somali woman’s struggle in Britain to make a difference are shown in the new film Zahrachange begins at home, produced by FLTfilms. It was publically screened for the first time on 13 September at a Greencoat Forum in the London centre of Initiatives of Change. A large audience attended the preview screening.

Zahra Hassan (Photo: Owen Lean)
Zahra Hassan (Photo: Owen Lean)
The 24-minute documentary tells the story of the passion and commitment of Zahra Hassan, a Somali woman and single mother who has been living as a refugee in London with her four children since 1989. She overcomes obstacles to transform her life and tackle crucial issues that affect social harmony, breaking down communication barriers between the old and the young, resolving conflicts between groups and clans, and campaigning on the global issue of female genital mutilation.

Introducing the film, Don de Silva, head of Programmes at Initiatives of Change UK, said that the film has come at a time when people were facing a tough economic situation and various political scandals, and didn’t know what to do at the community level.

The director of the film, Dr Imad Karam, thanked Zahra for welcoming his team into her home and hoped that the film will inspire others to take action.

'What action is being taken by the Somali diaspora in the UK to deal with the humanitarian crisis?' (Photo: Owen Lean)
'What action is being taken by the Somali diaspora in the UK to deal with the humanitarian crisis?' (Photo: Owen Lean)
Commenting on the film, Esther Ridsdale, from the Civil Society Forum, raised the question: ‘How do we build a society that pursues our collective interests?’ She said the film addressed this question at different levels: ‘It gives clues to what needs to happen to bring people together and how we can give from our own pain. How do we change the conversations that we have to things that matter? How do we start conversations in our own group, close to home? This film illustrates it.’

During the ‘questions and comments’ afterwards a participant asked Zahra how she had started her initiative. She told how she had come to England to study Development at Reading University. She noticed the difficulties her community had to integrate. Without any specific training, she decided to help as she could. ‘The language barrier is there always and is the most difficult. If you don’t know the [English] language properly, you cannot communicate. That’s why I set up this centre. I was trying to help the community make the bridge between the hosting community and ours. I learned through experience.’

A Somali woman in the audience stood up to say: ‘We came with all our problems and for many years thought that we would go back home.’ This was what had kept them behind for many years, she said. ‘English is one of the easiest languages; it’s not really a problem of language, it’s just because we are a big community not ready to integrate.’

Esther Ridsdale explained that the UK is about to lose 50 per cent of its state-funded capacity in advice for newcomers. Therefore, experiences like Zahra’s show how someone who cares and is articulate can offer answers and help others. ‘The standard ways of getting advice these days are disappearing. This role of finding information for others is going to be more and more needed.’

A participant working for a local government in a London borough said they had difficulty in communicating with the Somali community. ‘This film would be very useful in training for staff in local government.”

'We are a big community not ready to integrate' (Photo: Owen Lean)
'We are a big community not ready to integrate' (Photo: Owen Lean)
Another issue Zahra decided to tackle was the lack of intergenerational dialogue within the Somali community. She explained that younger generations who have grown up in England had different expectations than younger generations in Somalia and there was a need for adjustment. The movie shows how she used workshops for that purpose. ‘Younger generations need explanations. They like to know everything. We never used to ask questions to our parents in our country. No was no.’

A participant raised the question of inter-gender dialogue and asked whether Zahra’s organization was running workshops for that as well. Zahra explained that the women didn’t come as single parents but as mothers sent away with their children by fathers because of the war in Somalia. ‘They found a gap had appeared between the men and the women in so many years. If you lose the family tie, you lose everything. This is why we set up these dialogues.’

A packed audience viewed the screening of the film (Photo: Owen Lean)
A packed audience viewed the screening of the film (Photo: Owen Lean)
As for female genital mutilation (FGM), participants heard how widespread this old-fashioned practise was although the law prohibits it in England. Someone asked whether there should be more prosecutions against parents practising FGM, in order to set an example. Zahra explained: ‘The government is trying to take action against FGM but unfortunately, it never happened. I realized no one knew it was a crime and that you could get a sentence of 14 years in prison on top of risking losing the child.’

An Australian participant brought a lighter note when he asked what positive thing Zahra would like to see the Somali community to be known for, rather than negative stereotypes. She had no answer to the question but a few people in the audience did: ‘You are the answer, Zahra!’

Another participant said he had worked with people from the Somali community and had found warmth and courage: ‘Those who have suffered the most have the most to give. They have touched a rock of understanding of human nature. They have a humanity in them.’

Don de Silva insisted it was important for other communities to find the positive as well, and for the media to highlight the positive, such as Zahra’s initiative, in order to build a more caring and trustworthy multi-ethnic community.

The discussion ended on a presentation of the humanitarian relief project, created by, Zahra, together with other organizations, to help Somalia through the current famine and drought: The aid project has emphasized the remarkable synergy between Somali and other charities, allowing food to be brought to where it is needed. In the wake of this project, Zahra will soon be going back to her country for the first time in more than 20 years.

Watch trailer of the film on YouTube:

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