Amina Ali: “When you’re ambitious and you haven’t reached your goal yet, there’s a burning hunger inside you, it drives you insane, it makes you unhappy and depressed unless you’re doing something about it.”
Meeting Amina Ali, 38, a leading Somali community activist and aspiring politician, is like meeting a complete stranger – in the old sense of the word. Google doesn’t know her very well, and a mere 15 Tweets over 15 months is not much to go on. But as soon as we take a seat in the corner of the empty Docklands Museum café, chosen because of its links to her father’s seafaring past, it is clear that Ali is determined and probably destined to achieve a much higher public profile in the future.
“I’ve lived on a council estate, I’ve been through poverty, I know everything that everyday people have been through. I’m not some rich kid who went to Eton who has never experienced how cuts affect you in real life. I want to be a voice for the little man,” Ali says forcefully.
Her goal is to become an MP. This year she co-founded Somali Friends of Labour in Tower Hamlets, the place where she grew up and now lives, to empower local people and get them involved in politics. She has chosen the Labour Party because she thinks their policies are best for people like her, and she says she wants to be an MP because she believes she can represent ordinary people in a way that most politicians can’t.
She is a British born Somali, a single mother of two children (a girl aged 9 and a boy aged 11) and a Muslim who believes that religion doesn’t need to be expressed externally, hence her western clothes and lack of a headscarf.
Currently Ali is working in a law centre as a welfare advisor, to earn the “bread and butter” for her children. She says that with age her politics have shifted from the far left, towards the centre. Paradoxically her experience of working and growing up in Tower Hamlets, has caused her to dislike the extent to which the government has made it easy for immigrants to live in this country without participating in life beyond their close knit communities. She says: “The UK wants to make it easier for people culturally, but sometimes that keeps people in their ghettos”.
Ali has witnessed local Somali people struggle because they can’t speak English. She believes they are insular because they are fearful of the unknown and think that they can get by without adapting to the wider society.
Although she says that “gangs and drugs” are two devastatingly real aspects of the life of Somalis in the East End today, her own upbringing was a far cry from the tabloids’ negative portrayal of Somali communities. She was born in Middlesbrough, and moved to London in the eighties so her father could work on the docks. Her mother wore mini skirts and flares and was one of just seven Somali woman living in London at the time.
Ali believes that newer refugee communities, who have escaped their own war torn country, do not have the same ‘wonderful’ perception of Somalia that previous generations wanted to uphold, which is one of the reasons why they are facing problems such as family break ups, children skipping school and the formation of gangs. This, she stresses, has led to the increasing Islamification of Somalis in East London, which has intensified their struggle to adapt.
Although Ali’s upbringing differed culturally to Somalis in Tower Hamlets today, her experience of poverty was equally real. It was only after a Nigerian friend lured her into the library for the first time at the age of 11 that Ali found hope. “It felt to me like education was a way out of poverty. There were teachers who thought you wouldn’t amount to anything, the usual stuff you find within the inner cities, but I always had a strong idea that I could do it if I worked hard.”
She now has a degree in politics from the London School of Economics, an MA in African politics from University of London School of Oriental and African Studies, and an MA in journalism from the University of Westminster, funded by a London Weekend Television and ITN scholarship. She worked as a journalist for BBC News and the Today Show before getting married. “I think I made the mistake of marrying a Somali,” she says, half joking.
Just as her career in journalism started to kick off, Ali moved to Canada in 1997 to be with her husband. “I was the woman, suddenly there was this pressure, you’re the woman, your career’s not that important, give it up.” Ali worked at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and then City Pulse News, but found it difficult to advance in her career without the contacts she had acquired in the UK. After her divorce she and her two children moved back to the East End. She then made her first entry into politics as a researcher for the late Labour MP for West Ham, Tony Banks, in 2004. Banks, she says, was witty, sharp, charming and admirable. Ali worked for Banks for three years up until his death.
Ali’s experience of politics so far suggests that becoming an MP will be even more of a challenge because of her ethnicity and background. On her first day she was walking through the corridors of Westminster when Tony Benn, former Labour MP and cabinet minister, stopped her. Ali’s eyes widen, she sits up tall and she points at me as if she were Benn, “Are you Somali?” he said, “Wow, that’s amazing,” he said. Others were not so welcoming. “You had Tory MPs who would think anyone of colour has got to be the cleaner, or someone who works in the canteen or behind the bar. You can’t be a researcher and you sure as hell can’t be an MP. People would do a double take, they would take a look at your badge, things like that,” she says.
“One of the things I noticed was that a lot of the researchers were typical public school boys and girls, they had Mummy and Daddy and could get in that way, even in the Labour party. It was very clear that money helped and class was still there, but you just have to bang down the door.” Ali chuckles and shakes her head: “There are some thick MPs who shouldn’t be here, but for people like me it is not that difficult if you’ve got the guts and you go for it.”
As the sun brightens through the window behind her, the outline of her big hair softens and her facial features become more prominent. Her round eyes, which are accentuated by a shimmering powder on their lids, glaze over whenever she mentions her failed marriage or failure in her career, but Ali’s optimism seems to prevail over her negative experiences. “When your marriage breaks down and you’re on your own with two kids you think that your life is over and you can’t achieve anything, but no, you can.”
Ali is an intelligent, fierce, and proud woman with an undeniable edge. It’s the type of edge that she may one day owe her success to and that will inspire others. She cares greatly about her community, understands the issues its members face and wants to encourage people, particularly women, to be critical of the world around them.
As Ali takes one last sip of her coffee she leaves behind a glossy pink mouth mark on the rim of her cup. It underlines her femininity and boldness. She ends our conversation with some advice for the underdog: “I want to make people realise that they do have choices and that they shouldn’t limit them. Don’t stop trying, you can do it.”
Want to find out about the GLA elections? Come to the EastLondonlines Tower Hamlets hustings and talk to your candidates: 6.30, Oxford House, Derbyshire St, Bethnal Green E26HJ