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Urban diasporas: the case of Somalis

Vivian Gerrand describes the diaspora of Somali migrants to different cities across the world.
Well, diasporas are comprised of people who move around. The world diaspora comes from the idea of being scattered, of being spread around. And for example, looking at the Somali diaspora, the Somali diaspora lives all over the world and has a presence in cities from Melbourne in Australia to Toronto in Canada to Helsinki in Finland, Birmingham in the United Kingdom. And when diasporas locate themselves in spread-out ways, they keep in touch because they all have a homeland in common. And so through that keeping in touch, that connectivity, they actually create a different kind of web of connectivity that links cities in a way that they previously weren’t linked, links local realities in a global way that previously didn’t happen.
So the diasporas really do change the way that cities work. They change the kind of culture that you can find in cities, and they also make cities much more cosmopolitan at a local level.
Given that Somalis are a diaspora of people living in different parts of the world and they all share a homeland that is outside their country of residence often, so they have a sense of belonging to more than one place. And that in itself means they are not simply belonging to one nation. And Somalis tend to be in touch with each other through many media, but they connect cities in a way that they weren’t previously connected. They also are probably valuing more connections with people in another city somewhere far away. For example, Somalis living in Melbourne are more likely to be in touch with Somali family members living in Toronto than they are with perhaps fellow Australian citizens living in Sydney.
So, in a way, the diaspora itself calls into question this idea that the primary affiliation is a national one. It doesn’t mean that Somalis are not part of a nation state, but it does mean that the local belonging and the transnational belonging are just as important as national belonging.
Somalis have represented themselves in a variety of ways, and it can be hard for people who don’t have multiple affiliations globally to understand what it means to live in between contexts, to be at home in one place and also at home in another place. So it’s useful to turn to the works of filmmakers, writers, any kind of creative actors who are actually representing their multiple affiliations. And one such example is Italian Somali author Cristina Ali Farah who wrote a book called Il Comandante del Fiume, which highlights the ways in which Somalis inhabit cities.
And for example, one of the characters in her novel Il Comandante del Fiume, or The Boss of the River in English, visits London and finds that the city is– he doesn’t actually visit any other part of the city except where his family lives, and he feels he could be anywhere in the world because there’s nothing that clearly marks out that part of the city as being of London. It could have just as easily be of Minnesota or of Toronto or of Melbourne. And this is because the kinds of cultural capital that we see in the city are prevalent in all these different locations. So they’re not limited just to this one geographical location.
And the quote that you will read highlights this aspect so that the local belonging to place is just as vivid as– so the local belonging to the actual particular suburb of the city or the quarter of the city is just as important for them as perhaps the belonging to country. Home is not London. Home is this particular suburb of London.

Interview with Vivian Gerrand (European University Institute, Florence, Italy)

We asked Vivian the following questions:

1) To what extent do diasporas change our understanding of European cities?

2) In what ways does the local and global presence of the Somali diaspora in European cities challenge nationalism?

3) Can you give some examples of how the Somali presence in European cities has been represented culturally?

In her answer to the third question, Vivian refers to a passage in the novel Il Comandante del Fiume (The Boss of the River) by Italian Somali author Cristina Ali Farah. In it, a young Italian Somali man from Rome called Yabar reflects on his arrival in London:

“I’d been in London for a week, and I still hadn’t seen anything of the city. I could have been anywhere—England, Australia, Minnesota—but I had the impression that I was in Somalia: all the shop owners are Sikhs or Benghali but there were also call centres, Money Transfer outlets and Somali-owned restaurants, and locals too. Veiled women, children of all ages pulled along by hand or in their strollers, youngsters, elderly folk, and everyone saying hello to each other as though they were in a small town.”
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Migration and Cities

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