By Akeela Ahmed
“Who can you turn to when no one else will hear? Like when you can’t tell your parents. Your siblings. And none of your friends will understand? I mean, I know Allah’s always there for us and yes He helps me, but who do you talk to?” (quote from a user of www.Muslimyouth.net).
Unfortunately, this is something I hear everyday – a stark reality for thousands of young people who have reached out to organisations like the one I work for, Muslim Youth Helpline, for help. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. If we look at the statistics on young Muslims in the UK, the outlook seems bleak. Young British Muslims are not doing well compared to their counterparts across the spectrum from underachieving at schools to higher rates of poor mental and physical health, unemployment, and over-representation in prisons.
Increasingly, young British Muslims are finding it difficult to negotiate their space in an ever changing world. The issues they face are the same that any young person in the UK may face.
“Life is so confusing. Im not quite sure what to do any more. Im empty within.” (quote from a user of www.Muslimyouth.net)
Young Muslims, face the same challenges as any other young person in the UK, in fact the top issues experienced by young British Muslims are relationships, mental health, faith and identity, offending and rehabilitation, and education and employment (MYH, 2007). The difference is in the way young Muslims experience these issues, due to the interplay of faith, culture and social exclusion. British Muslim youth face a worrying and growing trend of various social difficulties, ranging from depression to drug abuse, but have to deal with these challenges alone. Often they find nowhere to turn to and get the help they need. Despite some progress, mainstream services still struggle to understand what it means to be young and Muslim in the UK, and need to build their faith and cultural competency. Equally, community Mosques and elders are largely ill-equipped to deal with taboo issues – like teenage pregnancy, perceived to be not a Muslim problem.
This is a double whammy for young British Muslims: faced with a myriad of pressures, and often the most socially excluded, they are unable to enjoy the opportunities that promote good psychological well being; cannot get help from mainstream support services for fear of being misunderstood; and cannot turn to family, friends or community for fear of shame, embarrassment and ostracisation.
To address these issues I Muslim Youth Helpline was set up by the community to provide a solution to the problems its youth faced. We have found that the best model of practice is to embody the Islamic ethics of adopting a non-judgemental attitude, listening and speaking with compassion to provide a platform on which young British Muslim voices are heard meaningfully, whereby Muslim youth are the solution to the challenges they face rather than the ‘problem’.
The next 10 years holds major challenges. Already, half the UK Muslim population are under the age of 28, and this is set to increase, leading to a youth bulge in the near future. Without putting youth issues at the top of our agenda, this will magnify the problems of disaffection and disadvantage faced by young British Muslims. We need to address the issues of poverty, poor educational achievement, lack of opportunities, health inequalities, and identity issues. This requires infrastructure-building across communities to change the structural issues that are the root causes of the issues people present to us at MYH. It also requires bridging our communities with wider civil society through capacity building mainstream service providers to meet the needs of young British Muslims in a way that is faith, culturally and gender sensitive. We hope and pray that MYH is fully sustainable by the communities that it serves and that its services are replicated across the UK throughout the Muslim communities.
Akeela Ahmed is the Chief Executive for the Muslim Youth Helpline (MYH).
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