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Community leaders come together to address needs of older BAME people

One year on from Sheffield’s race report, we speak to a number of key figures about community cohesion in Sheffield.

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Benjamin Elliott/Unsplash

One year on from the Sheffield Race Equality Commission report, events are being organised that reflect on what has been achieved so far. One such event, put together by Sheffield Churches Council for Community Care (SCCCC), looks at how older BAME (Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic) people have been impacted by the race report.

Dr Abdul Galil Shaif, CEO of Aspiring Communities Together (ACT), and Gulnaz Hussain, CEO of Fir Vale Community Hub, will both speak on the SCCCC panel about support for older BAME people. Both Abdul and Gulnaz were involved in giving evidence for the race report.

SCCCC Equality Diversity and Inclusion lead Loma Jones told me that this webinar is one of a series aimed at older BAME people.

SCCCC first started this webinar series, focusing on supporting older people from Black, Asian and minoritised ethnic communities when they were running their Inclusive Community Care Project in 2019-2021 to let more people from those communities know about the services available to them, and find out more about what individual communities needed from us.

Loma explained that her role at SCCCC has allowed her to spotlight different communities and use the webinars to “serve as an open forum to discuss what support older people need at this moment in time.

Gulnaz Hussain

Could you tell me a little bit about your organisation?

My name is Gulnaz Hussain and I'm the Chief Executive of Fir Vale Community Hub, which used to be the Pakistan Advice and Community Association. We're a voluntary organisation, a charity, and we have company status. We provide a whole range of services to the communities of Sheffield in that we provide older people services, health and wellbeing, we provide an advice and advocacy service, as well as cohesion projects.

What was your interaction with the race report?

I was a Race Equality Commissioner myself. I was selected to listen to witness statements and listen to the stories of those who have faced discrimination in the city. And it was very difficult to endure – the experience is something that I've experienced myself. I could relate to a lot of the points that came out in the process.

The findings, the recommendations, they are true and accurate, and we need to build on the recommendations. I'm hoping that the findings are taken really seriously and something does happen to support the infrastructure of BAME communities.

What do older BAME communities need?

Older people need to feel respected and safe, not being isolated, and not suffering alone.

In 2007, myself and the CEO of the Yemeni Community Association led an older people’s inequalities report. The findings of that report are the same as what we have now found in the race equality commission. With the Race Equality Commission report coming out 15 years later, it's apparent that nothing has happened since the original report came out.

There’s been a change of office in the Council and I've seen some improvements. We have to hope that older people are central to that sort of research that’s going on. I just hope that that research is turned into practice and our communities don’t get left behind. We’ve lost many of those who came in and worked in the steel industry, and unfortunately services probably didn’t meet their needs. We can’t afford to repeat that history.

Dr Abdul Galil Shaif

Could you tell me a little bit about your organisation?

My name is Dr Abdul Shaif. I work for an organisation called Aspiring Community Together, ACT, in Sheffield. We used to be called the Yemeni Community Association, and also the Yemeni Workers Union. There's a long history of struggle within the Yemeni community to establish a trade union because they felt the trade union movement wasn't serving them.

What’s your perspective on the race report? Do you think it’s something Sheffield needed?

The report and the race commission isn't new in itself – we had one in the 90s and it said the same things. Of course, I believe that things have improved – the situation is not as bad as it was for our parents.

I think the report is fair. I think its recommendations were fair. I don't think much has been done so far to actually tackle those recommendations, but they have initiated a legacy group that both me and Gulnaz are involved in. That group is going to monitor how the Council and the NHS and the universities and some of the other organisations are going to respond to the report.

How did you find the experience of giving evidence to the race commission?

Reports have been done in the past, and they've been shelved. We know that the local government is strangled with a lack of budgets from the central government. It's usually the central government that's talking about ‘levelling up’ and opportunities, but nothing ever trickles down.

Sheffield has been deprived. We still have to wait many years before the results actually get into deprived areas. We need better housing, we need a better NHS, we need to support community organisations, we need to create new job opportunities. If you want to do that, you need money. And I don't believe that anything is going to happen quickly. But I think it's worth having the report because it keeps reminding people about this problem.

I'm quite encouraged that we've got a new leadership now in Sheffield and they're young, they're energetic. I’m hoping that they will fight for these areas. Sheffield, as a city, is split. There's areas that are that wealthy and there's areas that are not wealthy and I think it needs to be balanced somewhere in the middle if we're going to have a thriving city.

Do you think that anti-racism is what the city and the Council need to be aiming for? Do you think that's where they're at?

I believe that there's a lot of good will, I believe that there is an intention to do something, because otherwise they wouldn't have done the race commission report. But like I said, it's been done before. And it's good that it's reminding people with recommendations and things that need to be done – I just don't believe that they have the resources to be able to deal with these issues.

I think with the new leadership that we've got in the Council, who seems to be quite progressive, yeah, I'm hoping that they'll be able to drive something forward, but not in the short term. I think we'll continue to suffer from the policies, maybe for a while now.

Organisations like ACT are there to relieve some of those pressures on members of the community. We have a lot of people that should be dealt with by the system. Parents whose kids are excluded come to us, people with mental health issues come to us, people who want to learn languages come to us. We’ve got kids that we teach Arabic to every week to keep them off the streets. Most of this is done on a voluntary basis.

The community acts as a catalyst to try and relieve pressures. But we've been taken for granted for too long. And I think it's time that we were funded and it's time that the mainstream is funding this type of work that we're doing in the community. Yes, we're a trusted partner. Yes, we know our community better. Yes, we're much more connected than they are. But that's not enough. Unless we have resources, we cannot work on partnering with them.

It’s been well documented that Black and Brown communities were particularly impacted by inequalities brought forward during Covid lockdown. Do you think that there's a difference between how older communities felt connected or disconnected during lockdown?

I think it's first worth saying that when we were hit by Covid that the BAME communities of Sheffield responded fantastically to the crisis. They didn't wait for the system. We knew that the system wasn't going to be able to respond to our communities in the speed in which it had to because of the acuteness of the crisis. So we in Sheffield established the BAME COVID-19 Group.

The idea was that we were going to connect the system with the NHS and the Council to make sure that we respond as quickly and as effectively as possible. Food parcels were given out, prescriptions were picked up, vaccination was increased.

As far as the pandemic itself, it caught everybody by surprise, and I think that it exposed the health inequalities in our society. It showed that people in deprived areas like Burngreave, Fir Vale, Firth Park, were more likely to be at high risk. We had to address that. We didn't meet because we planned to meet – we met because we had to meet. There was no planning. There was no NHS manager that said, ‘We've got to do this.’ It was the community saying, ‘We need to do this’. I think what we've learned from it is that the NHS and the Council need to learn from our experience to build relationships for the future.

What do you think older BAME communities in Sheffield need? What are the gaps that are being missed here?

In the Yemeni community, 90% are in rented housing. My father was a steel worker. I watched him during my lifetime. I watched how he worked 70 hours a week. I watched how he never communicated with us because he was always working. I watched how it drove him to drinking, it drove him to gambling, it drove him to all sorts of things. I watched his life being destroyed because of the steel works.

I think a lot of people in this country don't understand the suffering that our elders have gone through, whether they're Afro-Caribbeans, Yemenis, Pakistanis, Indians. Whether they work in the NHS, in the steelworks, in the transport system.

My dad was never treated as equal. There are thousands of Yemenis who go back to Yemen because they’ve been stripped from their families for 30, 40 years. How much do white people or white society understand these difficulties?

This is common for many, many Yemenis. This is the kind of knowledge that we can bring to the table that people need to understand, the psychological effect of something like that. I mean, my dad was psychologically killed, I believe, and there are others just like him. Now they are older, they have difficulty with their mobility, they have difficulty with their disabilities, they have difficulty with their housing, they have difficulty with speaking English.

I remember when I was doing some work with one guy here, in the Yemeni centre, and asked, did he learn English? He said there was no opportunity to learn English! He said all he knew was bang, bang, bang – the sound of the hammer and the crane. Most of them can’t speak English, not because they didn’t want to learn but because there was no opportunity. And not only that, they were building the economy – for us. That contribution was huge.

These elders were setting up the Yemeni Workers Union in 1971. There must have been a lot of suffering for them to set up a trade union, when there were other trade unions at work.

Yes, but those trade unions won’t have them!

Exactly, they won’t have them. If you look at the history of trade unions, there were hardly any BAME people in the big unions. Now things have improved and there are councillors and leaders.

Like you say, then, if you have white people who have a different generational history sitting around a table, and they don't know the suffering that older people have gone through, it's completely alien to them. But they're still deciding where the funding goes.

Absolutely. You've hit the nail on the head. Of course, people have got good intentions, and they do have empathy. But unless you’ve had the experience, you’re not going to be able to deal with the problems.

How do you feel when you think about the future of anti-racism and community cohesion?

I think, probably for the first time in a very, very long time, it reminds me of the 80s, when we were a bit organised against the fascists. I think that BAME communities are better organised now, better able to hammer home the message that's come out of this commission report and the recommendations, to say, hang on, our people have suffered enough. It's time that we bridge the gap in terms of these inequalities.

I think we can do it. [I] believe that we've got a young generation of BAME people like yourself that are more determined. It's not about one person or two people; it's about a team working collectively in all the cities in England to make sure that ‘levelling up’ is about actually levelling up the people at the bottom.

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