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BAMER COVID-19 Action Group Intersectional collaboration builds collective response to support BAMER community

"We need to ensure that we are working in complete harmony with state and public institutions," says organiser.

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Volunteer for the BAMER COVID-19 Action Group.

"Reconstruction of relationships between the BAMER community and public institutions is a priority." This was the definitive response from both Dr Abdul Shaif of Sheffield BAMER COVID-19 Action Group and Dr Shahd Salha, Director of IELTC Centre, who is also leading on the group's strategy.

Several groups and communities in Sheffield have stepped up to support the most vulnerable, but I was particularly intrigued by the BAMER COVID-19 Action Group, established by Dr Abdul Shaif in March. Initially a BAMER community self-help team, the group has grown to meet the needs of the wider community in Sheffield.

When COVID-19 started spreading around the world, Abdul had conversations with various ethnic minority establishments about a collective response. Long-standing discontentment with what he describes as "the big problem of the state and institutions neglecting the BAME community" was what led him on this mission.

"I took the initiative to get the group together because I knew that there would be shortfalls in how the Council responded to the crisis in the BAMER community. I knew the state wouldn't be ready and that we would need to plug the gap, which I think we are collectively doing a good job of. Also, I knew the difficulties the Council and the government were having in trying to engage black people in the city."

They needed to come together as a self-help unit consisting of multiple businesses and community organisations after recognising that the people most vulnerable to COVID-19 would have specific needs that they already had expertise and skills for. The group comprises more than eight intersectional organisations.

It was important, Dr Salha said, to work as a collective and not in a fragmented way, for impact to be achieved. The next milestone is the production of 10,000 leaflets to effectively relay the social distancing message. These would be delivered to households, places of worship and areas of activity, informing people that the lockdown is ongoing and that they should help to save lives by staying at home.

Their food distribution operation had core users, but they now also deliver to wherever there's a call for help. The exercise has 12 young drivers volunteering. The resolve of these young people to help older and vulnerable people has been a highlight for Dr Shaif, who asserts that young people aren't always involved in gangs and crime, as is often depicted.

"[Young people] have exhibited the ability to rise to the occasion, as challenging as the coronavirus is. The community spirit is absolutely incredible. We are fighting COVID-19 together by looking out for and supporting each other, while tackling the situation head-on."

Israac Somali Community and Cultural Association Chair, Adam Yusuf, whose charity is a member of the action group, noted, "While no one knows how long the lockdown will continue, we have all witnessed the heroic acts of kindness from communities and individuals. By getting together we are able to share and make services available to people who are vulnerable and self-isolating in their homes. We think it's working really well so far."

Mums United, another group member organisation, is leading on the production of 10,000 masks for key workers in the care industry and NHS. The group is appealing to people with sewing machines to help.

"We need sewing machinists and donations as we are struggling financially as needs are growing. Anything to help us in producing these masks so that we can get them to the key workers will be highly appreciated," Abdul appealed.

Their call on public institutions was not just about community-led initiatives serving ethnic minorities, but about the Council and charities serving the whole Sheffield community. Despite them being late to the scene, Abdul says, Sheffield City Council is now backing the group's efforts.

"They are supporting us with finances [and] advice, and I salute them for that. We are working with our local councillors and I hope that the Council now really gets into gear and does the major work."

Abdul hoped that the work of the BAMER COVID-19 Action Group and similar operations around the city had helped the police to recognise the importance of engaging with community leaders. We can deal with issues in our communities where it is less effective for the police.

"We were all caught unprepared, including the Council, but the kindness, volunteer activity and people's initiative to get together has made a significant impact. We would have been in a worse off position.

"In future, we need to ensure that we are working in complete harmony with state and public institutions to dig deep into our common resources and actually respond to crises like this urgently. We stepped into gaps that the state should be resourcing."

Everyone I spoke to reiterated the importance of reconstructing relationships between BAMER communities and public institutions to prevent similar service gaps in future crises.

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