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Cost of living crisis takes its toll on Bristol’s Somali community

Over the winter, there was a spike in people from Bristol’s Somali community seeking help with living costs, with families finding it increasingly difficult to get by while also providing financial support for relatives back home in Somalia.

Single mum Khadra is one of many Somali people seeking support with the cost of living

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Khadra is struggling with the rising cost of living. And as a single mother from Somalia, she says language and cultural barriers have only made it more difficult to seek advice and support with the financial problems she’s experiencing. 

“I know there are a lot of people in our community who are silent in their homes and not talking about this but experiencing similar problems to myself,” says the 42-year-old, who lives in Barton Hill.

She is one of many members of the city’s Somali community who has sought help from the Bristol Somali Resource Centre (BSRC) at the Wellspring Settlement, which offers free advice on issues including welfare, housing, education and employment.

BSRC’s workers say the centre saw a spike over the winter of people using its services due to the cost of living crisis, with families finding it increasingly difficult to get by while also providing financial support for relatives in Somalia.

Zahra Kosar, the BSRC’s wellbeing advisor.

“Our clients often come from large families where not everyone is in the UK and often they have been separated by war,” says Zahra Kosar, the centre’s wellbeing advisor. “Often those people want to help their relatives financially back home but cannot.” 

Matters have been made worse by the fact that The Horn of Africa is currently facing one of its worst droughts on record.

The basic necessities

For Khadra (pictured), the biggest worry is the rising cost of food and essentials. “I was spending about £400 every two weeks a few months ago, but now it is costing more like £600.” 

On top of this, Kahdra says her electricity bill has more than doubled since the autumn. “The cost of my electricity has gone up from £45 to £117 per month. My heating bill has gone up by £10 a week to £15 a week.”

She has tried various ways of saving money to cut down her costs, including switching off all electricity in her home for three hours a day, and not putting the heating on until her children come home from school in the evening.

Khadra’s housing situation is also a factor that contributes to her anxiety. She shares a two-bedroom council flat with her eight children, aged between five and 19. 

“I am on a waiting list to find somewhere more suitable but I am yet to hear [if and when I will get access to a suitable home]… The combination of my housing situation and the cost of living is increasing my stress,” she tells the Cable.

Khadra is one of 19,000 people on Bristol City Council’s housing waiting list. Tom Renhard, the local authority’s cabinet member for housing, acknowledges the options are slim for those who need a change of property amid the city’s housing crisis.

Khadra says language and cultural barriers have made it harder for her to seek help and advice on her housing needs and with managing her utility bills, for which she has sought the help of BSRC. 

“Sometimes I don’t know who to ask for help with these problems,” she tells the Cable. “BSRC has helped me when I have had problems understanding how to fill in forms or reading correspondence.”

The BSRC, which offers free advice on issues including welfare, housing, education and employment, is located at at the Wellspring Settlement in Barton Hill.

Rob Colborn, an advisor at BSRC, says the group does a lot of work helping people like Khadra with housing needs to communicate better with Bristol City Council, such as reporting on maintenance issues, raising concerns about housing such as overcrowding, while also referring people to expert housing advice services.

The local authority does have a designated interpreting service to help people for whom English isn’t their first language, although it is not available face-to-face.

Stressful communication

Rob also says it can be stressful for members of the Somali community when trying to communicate with energy providers.

“We see people come here with a bag full of paperwork – bills, bank statements,” he tells the Cable. “A lot of them need face to face support.”

“I find it difficult knowing how to find the best tariff, and I speak good English and am used to the system. But if you don’t have the language or familiarity skills to work out a good deal when you’re offered it you’re going to get a rubbish deal.”

Noura, who lives in Barton Hill with her 14-year-old daughter, is among those struggling with the rising energy bills. She has asked for help from BSRC to communicate on her behalf with the government’s Energy Bills Support Scheme because she was anxious that she wasn’t being paid the right amount.

Under the scheme, households in the UK have all been given £400 to help pay for energy costs over the winter. Every household is entitled to a monthly payment of £66 between October 2022 and March 2023.

“I used to spend £40 a month [on energy before the scheme was introduced],” the 37-year-old tells the Cable. “I don’t understand what happens because every month I get the grant but now this only lasts one and a half weeks.” 

Rob says that BSRC helps those like Noura by speaking to energy providers to make sure they can get the best possible agreement and also find them better employment to ease their financial situation.

Lack of job security

A lot of Somalis are working in jobs with little or no job security, says Rob, and that many of those he has come across who work on zero hours contracts. This means they have no guarantee of work and they can lose their employment “at the drop of a hat,” he says.

He adds: “There are also those who have no contract at all or they’ve never seen the contract.” This means there are few of the perks that those in other types of employment are entitled to such as holiday allowance or sick pay.

Abdullahi Farah, the director of BSRC, says financial struggles for many Somali workers are exacerbated by this. “A lot of them are working in precarious jobs such as cleaners or care workers,” he says. “If they are ill or they can’t go to work they won’t get paid. It’s really difficult.”

Kosar, BSRC’s wellbeing advisor, has conducted a survey of people in Bristol’s Somali community to try to assess the impact of the recent crisis. Over 70 Somalis responded to the survey, with the data being used to empower the community to help each other resolve some of the problems they are faced with.

The survey found that parents are skipping meals so that they can ensure that they can provide for their children, while many are struggling with poor physical and mental health as a result of rising costs. 

Many in the survey admitted to feeling “anxious and worried” while a few said “they feel angry” Zahra says. Several people also pointed out the low wages they were earning and how raising wages relative to rising costs would help their situation.

Zahra says that many clients of BSRC have additional anxieties about their families in Somalia. In the survey, one person said they were sending less money back to their family in Somalia. It’s hard to tell if this means people are still prioritising sending remittance payments to loved ones or they are unwilling to talk about it.

A model for social care in the community

BSRC is coming up with initiatives to help the community, offering support and advice such as meet-ups for older members of the community on Friday afternoons where they are invited to socialise, enjoy a meal and hear a talk on a subject they have chosen. A recent speaker was a Somali doctor who spoke individually to the users about their prescriptions.

Rob is keen to highlight the value of the work that BSRC does and what makes their service different from the other services available.

“We help people to learn to do these tricky life tasks for themselves,” he says. “Without the face-to-face support we offer, people would only have their neighbours to rely on.”

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Perhaps more alarmingly, Rob also hints at the helplessness many feel in the community.

One of the questions in the survey said “Who can you reach out to further support?” Two people said ‘the government’ and two said ‘other advice centres’ while fourteen people said ‘nobody.’ Rob says “people assume there is no help for them.”

“I think what we do is a real model of how social care could work in this country. We offer local support with almost everything they need help with at a local level. Without the BSRC’s services a lot of people would have nowhere to turn.”

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