After tragedy, communities find ‘there is more in common than divides us’

After tragedy, communities find ‘there is more in common than divides us’

After the Somali Bravanese Welfare Association in Muswell Hill was set on fire, local Jewish communities came to its aid. Six years later, SBWA looks to the future with a new site

Stephen is the Jewish News' Foreign Editor

Rabbi Miriam Berger shows young members of the Somali Bravanese community a Torah
Rabbi Miriam Berger shows young members of the Somali Bravanese community a Torah

In the early hours of Wednesday 5 June, at around 3am, Abubakar Ali was woken up by shouts and dread. Someone was at his Muswell Hill home, banging on his door, screaming his name.

This is the kind of description all-too familiar to law enforcers who deal with hate crime, but the person banging on the door had not come to harm Abubaker, or to threaten him, but to tell him that the Muslim community centre he ran was on fire. They were words the chairman of the Somali Bravanese Welfare Association (SBWA) had always hoped never to hear.

His charity was set up to support Somali Bravanese refugees. Many came to London in the 1990s, and its members are among London’s poorest. The community hails from Brava, a city in Somalia on the Indian Ocean, whose people have been persecuted for reasons all too familiar to Jews: high aspiration and high achievement.

Abubakar ran to the SBWA’s Old Barn Community Centre on Coppetts Road, just in time to see the last of the flames engulf the building. It had been arson and obviously so – racist graffiti referencing the English Defence League (EDL) had been scrawled nearby.

“We sat and wept,” Abubakar told his friend Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg of New North London Synagogue the next day. Indeed, “it wasn’t just the centre that fire destroyed,” recalled Wittenberg, Masorti Judaism’s senior rabbi. “It was their second home. It was where their children went to study after school, where they felt safe, supported and cared for. That place was everything one would call a true community: a centre of solidarity, celebration, learning, culture, care and prayer. There was a sense of shock as we spoke, as of the loss of part of the very heart of a family.”

Wittenberg was an ally. “I had a pre-existing friendship with the community and its leaders,” he explained. “We shared a ‘Walk of Lights,’ from the synagogue, to their community centre and finishing at a church, in each place reflecting on the meaning of light in our faiths, so when the fire happened, I already felt I had a warm relationship with the community.”

Aftermath of the mosque attack

Allies were needed. “For the next two days my head wasn’t really working,” Abubakar told Jewish News. “I thought we couldn’t rebuild because whoever did this would come again, would attack us again. I felt like it might be over.”

Amid the smoke and ruins, Abubaker was approached by Rabbi David Mason of Muswell Hill United Synagogue, whose home was close by.  “He told me that he was sorry for what happened and asked me what we needed,” recalls Abubaker. “I didn’t know. All I knew was that we needed legal assistance and a new temporary base for activities and prayers. It was approaching Ramadan and the kids were doing GCSEs, so would soon break for the summer.”

Together with Rabbi Rebecca Birk of Finchley Progressive (Liberal) Synagogue and Rabbi Miriam Berger of Finchley Reform Synagogue (FRS), Wittenberg and Mason would set about helping Abubakar rebuild. Calls were already being made.

Charlotte Fischer, then 25, had just been appointed a senior community organiser for Citizens UK three months earlier, and became involved. An active member of Reform Judaism who learnt Arabic while in Damascus, she set up an emergency meeting at Wittenberg’s house.

Abubakar explains how Jewish help was crucial. “Rabbi Jonathan offered to help get me legal assistance, Rabbi David offered to be the police liaison, and Rabbis Rebecca and Miriam offered us the use of their synagogues,” he recalls.

“The following day, on the Friday, there was another meeting, hosted by Rabbi David at Muswell Hill Synagogue. He had got all the local leaders of churches and mosques together. They pledged their solidarity and pledged to help. It was incredible.”

Soon, rooms for after-school Bravanese clubs were made available at Finchley United Synagogue, while Wittenberg had already contacted James Libson, a senior partner at City law firm Mishcon de Reya, who hosted meetings immediately after the fire to clarify legal issues.

Most of the legal running was soon taken up by Simon Chadowitz, one of Mishcon’s property partners, who described the “Herculean effort from Abubakar and those closest to him to get to this point”.

Chadowitz said Abubakar was getting help from “an ever-growing list of local friends and professionals who rallied to give their time and skillsets”, as Mishcon’s lawyers worked on plans to get a new community centre up and running.

Meanwhile, FRS had agreed to host the Bravanese community’s Ramadan prayers, as well as a joint Jewish-Bravanese iftar, a fast-breaking meal at the end of the day. FRS maintained its commitment to doing so for years, while Abubakar and friends attended the annual Seder at Wittenberg’s home.

“On one unforgettable occasion he stood up and said ‘your story is my story’, describing how they had had to flee their home, how the eldest had said they couldn’t leave but the youngest had said they had to go,” said Wittenberg. “Such discussions are sadly all too familiar to families like my parents, who fled Nazi Germany.”

Alongside the efforts of Abubakar have been those of Asma Ali, an SBWA educator who forged ties with local Jewish and Muslim communities to help keep SBWA’s youth and women’s programmes going. Six months pregnant at the time of the fire, she was instrumental in securing £1.1 million in rebuilding funds from Barnet Council in the following months.

Berger and Ali have since become good friends. “Whenever we sit down and have a cup of tea, we’re like ‘Oh, yeah, we do the same, we greet the same, we hug the same’,” said Ali. The pair have taken their own learning into schools to explain to children that “there is more that religions have in common than divides us”.

Now the community’s new centre, on Tarling Road in East Finchley, is close to opening. “We are close to finalising a lease of part of the new and quite phenomenal shared community facility, which will allow the Bravanese community to continue to grow and thrive in Barnet,” says Chadowitz. “It hasn’t been the easiest ride but it will be worth it in the end.”

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