Tucked down the side of Finsbury Park station is an unassuming group of buildings known as Muslim Welfare House. This is the headquarters of a nationwide network of centres providing a dizzying range of services and support to a diverse and ever-growing Muslim community.
“It’s not easy to co-ordinate,” says Toufik Kacimi, CEO of the charity. “Last week we were approached by an Ethiopian group, who wanted to have an event every weekend,” but limited funding and lack of space meant he had to turn them away, which meant they were very upset.
With members hailing from all parts of the world, communication can also be an issue. Arabic and English serve as the lingua francas of the centre, and some activities are conducted in Bengali, Urdu and Somali. “We have a lot of people from abroad who, even if they live here, don’t speak English,” he says.
We’re sitting in a meeting room on the top floor of a converted house on the busy Seven Sisters Road. “The services provided here are much more than a mosque can offer,” he says.
Kacimi seems calm but exhausted. His centre looks after people of all ages and ethnicities, which amount to 13,000 a week. Many of them may be struggling to get by, and some are very vulnerable.
“Early in the morning we have 250 ladies coming to study different subjects, they start at 10am and finish at 3pm,” he says.
The centre provides a comprehensive curriculum to those who want it: “Every three months we have different courses, it’s ongoing – we had a mindfulness course for the ladies, when that finished we had parenting for life course.”
Parenting is a central focus of the adult education provided by the centre, and includes topics such as healthy eating and good behaviour. “We have a lot of people who don’t know how to educate their children, how to support them with their homework, ” he says.
Supporting children through high school and puberty is tough for most parents – problems which are only amplified when you’re living in a foreign capital and you don’t speak the same language as your child’s teacher.
It’s not just parents that benefit.
“We do a lot of work tackling youth employment, youth engagement, domestic violence, gun culture and substance misuse,” he says.
The centre’s services are made up of those requested by the community and those the staff have spotted a need for. Their free Arabic classes for non-speakers are open to all and were originally requested by a user.
Kacimi puts a lot of emphasis on the importance of providing consistent services. “The English classes we had before where on and off, now they’re stable,” he says. In other words, it’s not like the council’s offerings, which “stop when the funding stops”.
Relationship with the community
Despite the community’s efforts to overcome the language barrier, the culture clash between the community and other Londoners can sometimes erupt into hatred.
“There are a lot of ladies coming here, sometimes in large numbers and when they use public transport they are sometimes affected by hate crimes,” says Kacimi, adding: “It is definitely a growing issue affecting our community.”
Keen to address this, Muslim Welfare House has organised conferences bringing together the council, police and Transport for London. Kacimi says there is a problem of under-reporting hate crimes among BAME groups, and the problem is particularly evident among recent immigrants who may not be aware of their rights. “It is our job to educate these people and tell them ‘You’re not in Africa, you’re not in Saudi, you need to speak to the police, you need tell them what happened,’” he says.
Although many of these issues have always affected immigrants in London, the Syrian civil war and resulting refugee crisis has presented a new issue in itself. Kacimi is heartfelt in his praise of Islington Council, including members like Councillor Richard Watson: “They had the political will and they were extremely kind. The cause is very close to their heart.”
Unfortunately, the council cited a shortage of housing preventing them taking in Syrian families fleeing the war. Community centre members then approached the council through the charity Citizens UK, assuring them they were ready to provide six flats for the council to use. The council accepted and eight families were invited from Syria.
“Once the families came here they didn’t know how to speak English, they didn’t know how to get about, they didn’t know anything,” he says. The new families needed help navigating the government services available such as education, the NHS and Jobcentre. The centre provided a range of services that the council couldn’t provide.
Local churches have also joined in to support the refugees. “Most of them have been through torture, so we are helping them get through the difficult time they had,” Kacimi says.
“We had 300 users to begin with, but the community is growing and has growing needs. This building is no longer fulfilling those needs,” says Kacimi, when I ask about his plans for the future. “We’re trying to create a better place with better services that fulfils the needs of the community instead of a horrible, ugly-looking building as it is now.”
Kacimi seems confident in his role. “I introduced financial stability to the centre,” he explains, which was £1 million in debt when he arrived. “Now we’ve paid it all off.”
He seems pragmatic in his outlook, and has a strong drive to help as many of his community as possible: “You have to make sure the majority are happy and services are provided but you can’t please everybody. It’s always difficult.”
All photo credits: Ben Upton