London, England – Fadhiya, who runs a Somali community center, prepares a weekly lunch for 10 women.

It’s a gloomy morning in central London’s Hackney area, and the smell of lamb stew billowing up warms the room.

After parking their babies’ strollers in different corners, the women converse in Somali, catching up on politics in the mother country and the latest Somali soap operas while their children play.

When she is not in the center, Fadhiya, 53, works as an office cleaner.

Her hub was envisioned as a quintessential community center for Somali women, but in 2020 it quickly turned into an essential resource to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Taking a break from cooking, she remembers the hard-fought journey to secure this particular space, which is open every Tuesday and Thursday.

“There was a Somali store in Hackney that is now closed where we were supposed to meet. It would fill up so much that people even had to stand. So we kept looking for one [larger] place for us,” Fadhiya told Al Jazeera.

The Hackney Community Centre
The Somali women meet twice a week at the Charterhouse Road Club in Hackney [Rachel Man/Al Jazeera]

She contacted 38-year-old Abdirahim Hassan, who together with his sister founded a non-governmental organization led by people of color in Hackney in 2018 that focuses on social injustice: Coffee Afrik.

In 2021, he found a suitable space for Fadhiya’s network – the Charterhouse Road Club.

Now that they are just settling in, inflation in the UK is soaring and a new problem threatens to turn their lives upside down: the cost of living crisis.

As lunch approaches, more women arrive and some sit together and learn to read the Qur’an. Others later practice their sewing skills in the club.

Fofia, the session’s 52-year-old teacher, first came to the center in May with a friend.

She teaches weekly classes and says the atmosphere is “great”.

“I make new friends, they are very welcoming. I enjoy it, to be honest,” she told Al Jazeera.

After she finishes her class, which is attended by up to 20 people, she continues to drink tea and chat.

“I can’t wait to teach my two days. I’m counting down the week. Socializing, seeing each other and chatting, that’s very nice,” she added.

The Hackney hub feels like a trusted place for members

Somalis are not a new migrant group in the UK, with some arriving in the port cities of Cardiff, Liverpool and London in the early 19th century.

The population then boomed in the 1990s, when many fled the civil war; among the members of the center are several refugees.

Although the 2021 census has yet to be published, the Somali community in the UK is estimated at 500,000 people. There are approximately 1,500 Somalis in Hackney.

In June 2021, Healthwatch Hackney, which advocates for equal access to social services, found that of 32 Somalis surveyed, housing issues were the most raised issue at 25 percent, followed by language issues at 18 percent and mental health at 14 percent.

Hassan, who is visiting, tells Al Jazeera that almost everyone is preoccupied with rising energy costs.

“How do we make sure our communities don’t fall to the bottom of the ladder again?” he says.

“During the pandemic, what we were fighting was invisible…but this to me is a manufactured problem. So to me it feels worse.

With inflation in the UK reaching its highest level in 40 years, the prices of food, gas, electricity, fuel, rent and mortgages have all risen sharply.

Abdirahim Hassan
Abdirahim Hassan, a former accountant at a top firm, switched careers to help marginalized people navigate societal challenges [Rachel Man/ Al Jazeera]

According to the Office of National Statistics, gas prices have increased by 98.5 percent in one year.

Although temperatures are not quite below freezing in November, the weather is getting cooler and Fadhiya is worried about how her community will cope this winter.

“You see the situation in this country – bills and everything is sky-high. The money I used to pay is now double. God knows what will happen, but everyone is worried,” she said. “That is what the conversations that we mainly have in the center are about.”

Of the state housing company, she said, “Every year they added two pounds [$2.37] weekly to my rent, but in April they added 10 pounds 50 weekly [$12.44]. When you add it up, it adds up to an extra 42 pounds [$49.78] per month, and the council tax is the same.

“You sometimes think, how are we going to survive this if the world continues like this?”

The focus is on women cooking together.
Women at the center cook together every Tuesday and Thursday as they discuss ways to survive Britain’s economic crisis [Rachel Man/Al Jazeera]

Hassan, a former consultant at PricewaterhouseCoopers, said that in the five community centers that Coffee Afrik manages, debt relief is provided through the Nawal Fund, a Muslim-run charity. Financial literacy counseling is also being offered to help people cope with rising costs.

A £5,300 ($6,281) fund was awarded to Fadhiya center in August to be distributed to members who need to buy food or fuel.

Still, “it’s going to be a really tough year because none of these steps is enough,” he says.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Fadhiya said, “We would get food from the Felix project [which provides food to those in need] twice a month and post it in the store where we hang out.

“From there we would take our food, and that’s how COVID-19 was for us until the community center opened and the food moved there.”

Community garden
A community food garden brings a sense of peace and opportunity to the center [Rachel Man/Al Jazeera]

Hassan remembers the pandemic with a sense of horror.

“The first month [of the pandemic] was just panic, pure panic,” he says. “What shocked us was the deaths of customers who died very quickly and very, very suddenly. We had already seen four or five in that first wave.

“After almost three weeks of sheer madness. We had to go on. We had to do something.

“At first we thought about food; let’s get food. So we immediately started delivering to all homes for free and at a fair price every day.”

Sewing machines in the Hackney hub.
Members learn useful skills such as sewing at the Hackney hub [Rachel Man/ Al Jazeera]

But as COVID-19 spread rapidly, worrying patterns emerged.

Black and Asian ethnic groups were found to be between 10 and 50 percent more likely to die from COVID-19 than white ethnic groups.

“Some people in the community have got COVID-19, but Alhamdulillah [praise be to God] they got better, but I know a lot of people who have died from COVID-19,” said Fadhiya.

“My neighbor and one of my friends who was part of the community center and lived in Hackney died of the disease because COVID-19 was everywhere.”

Fadhiya now runs the community center with Sirat, a woman in her sixties who works for the same office cleaning company.

Although the cost of living threatens, the hub continues to bring joy.

“We miss being there when it’s closed on our five days off,” says Fadhiya with a laugh.



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