Expressions of faith

Despite a decline of religion in the UK, research indicates that religion is more central to the lives of ethnic minority groups than to the white community. One survey – Changing Ethnic Identities – by the Policy Studies Institute concluded that Muslims “spoke most positively about the value and centrality of their religion. Most said that Islam was ‘very important’ to how they lived their lives.”

Such findings strike a particular resonance in Tower Hamlets in the East End of London, where 58 per cent of the population belongs to an ethnic group other than white British. One-third are Bangladeshi, as are more than half the children, and around 49 per cent of those are under 16.

According to Sukriti Sen, group manager, family support and protection, it is crucial to recognise the issues and challenges facing the Muslim community. She says: “Some families, for example, when they arrive in the UK retain some traditional practices and understandably find it difficult to adjust accordingly.”

In order to better engage the Muslim community the Working with Muslim Families steering group was set up in 2002. “Both Bangladeshi and the significant Somali communities in the borough are predominately Muslim,” says Ann Roach, service manager, child protection and reviewing service, and chair of the steering group. “We wanted to increase our knowledge and understanding of the way Muslim families operate in terms of their norms and values and parenting practices. We want to break down stereotypes and barriers, and to look for commonalities.”

However, work certainly pre-dated the steering group, as a conference held in 1984 testifies. “This was held in response to concerns from Muslim families,” says Nadira Huda, child protection co-ordinator and vice-chair of the steering group. “People from the Muslim community didn’t really know what social work was, so we began raising awareness of child protection, including a video made in Syhleti – main dialect of Bangladeshi community – looking at abuse, particularly child sex abuse. We still use it actually.”

She adds: “Another conference recommendation was to recruit unqualified social workers from the Muslim community. An ethnic minorities child protection team was created specifically to work with Bangladeshi and African families assisting social workers in carrying out assessments and child protection investigations.”

Naturally, when engaging with a community it is essential to do so with those with influence and standing. “We link up with the East London mosque in Whitechapel – and they have been extremely open and welcoming,” says Gill Malcolm, training officer, child protection. Indeed in 2003 a child protection conference. “They have been happy to talk about contentious issues such as divorce, abortion, contraception and teenage pregnancies.” Indeed, in 2003 a conference was held at the mosque and attracted over 50 Imams – scholars of the Q’uran who lead prayers and who are recognised as community leaders.

“We can raise issues and have open discussions with community representatives and professionals,” says Elaine Ryan, ACPC development co-ordinator. “We have achieved a lot. For example, we have published a safe parenting handbook looking at child protection and safeguarding children; safeguarding guides for mosques and Madressahs [religious schools]. “We have also held Islamic perspective seminars on various subjects including self-harm, mental health issues and fostering and adoption.” 

Interestingly, a new social work post has been created to act as a bridge between professionals working with children and families and the mosque. Although managed by social services the worker will be based at the mosque.

For Sen, the driving force behind this responsive service has been committed workers who reflect their community: 38 per cent of the borough’s workforce is black or Asian. “It is also about recognising that faith organisations are a huge untapped resource and are agents of change,” she adds.

The long-term experience of working with Muslim families has brought many lessons. “Mistakes and misunderstandings can occur and 20 years on we are still in the process of developing and learning from this work,” says Ryan.

LESSONS LEARNED

  • Consider practical matters – when organising events consider venues and timings. For example, Friday should be avoided as it is a key day for prayers.
  • Work at the pace of the community. “The safeguarding handbook for mosques and madressahs took two years to produce – and while we might become impatient about not meeting targets, in order to take community with us we had to work at their pace,” says Ryan.
  • Let go of stereotypes and be open and willing to listen: a man with a beard and a Q’uran in his hand is not insular and narrow-minded.

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