By Caroline Le Marechal
BBC News, Bristol
A polling day taskforce has been set up by a group of activists keen to “make British Somali votes matter” in Bristol.
Mohamed Mohamoud has been promoting political engagement in Bristol’s Somali community since co-founding grassroots community group Act for Somalia five years ago.
Last month Mr Mohamoud held a drop-in session at a cafe, setting up his laptop and offering guidance to help constituents to register to vote online.
The group say they have helped more than 4,000 Somalis in Bristol to join the electoral roll ahead of the general election.
Since then, advice has included showing people how to fill in a ballot paper to avoid accidentally spoiling a vote and explaining how things work at the polling station.
Mr Mohamoud said the polling day taskforce, made up of a core team of 12, would be out on the streets on 7 May, encouraging British Somalis to exercise their voting rights.
He said: “We know who’s registered. On polling day, we will go to cafes and to shops. We will knock on doors and offer lifts.
“We will mobilise the community that day, and if they say ‘I’m going to vote later’, we will say ‘no let me take you now’.”
Many of Bristol’s Somali population, which is estimated to be more than 10,000, live in the city’s Bristol West constituency, with most concentrated in the Easton and Lawrence Hill areas.
Bristol West is considered to be one of the city’s most diverse constituencies. Clifton and Redland are home to wealthy professionals but the neighbouring inner city areas of Easton and St Pauls are less affluent.
The constituency, currently held by the Liberal Democrats, also has a large young population, with a fifth being aged between 16 and 24. Students make up 17.3% of constituents.
Some of the issues concerning Bristol West’s residents, raised at a recent BBC Radio Bristol debate, included housing, university tuition fees and local government.
Mr Mohamoud said the main issues concerning Bristol Somalis were education, unemployment and institutionalised racism.
He said: “Bristol West is a very interesting constituency – it’s the tale of two cities. I recently read an article which said it’s the cleverest place in the UK, with more people having doctorates than anywhere else.
“But at the same time it is one of the most deprived, and the question is how we balance it.”
Mr Mohamoud set up the polling day taskforce because he believes Bristol Somalis were not seen as politically active but he emphasised that it was “impartial” and volunteers would not be “telling people who to vote for”.
Mr Mohamoud moved to the UK from Mogadishu in 2001 as a teenager. Now married with three young children, he is studying for an MSc in public health at the University of South Wales and works in the health sector.
He said he was not “superhuman” and that the campaign was made possible by the “great team and colleagues” at Act for Somalia, who all give their time voluntarily.
“It’s paid off for me, all the hard work, when I see the community voting in large numbers and not only voting but seeking election.
“This is a community that was in total isolation five or six years ago and is now politically active,” he said.
Bristol has one British Somali Labour councillor and this year two British Somalis are standing in Bristol’s local council elections representing the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives.
Former social worker Abdi Barud, who now heads up the international organisation Global Somali Diaspora, said: “We are seen as invisible, irrelevant, not a noise-making community, because we are not registered and we don’t vote.
“Therefore it’s our responsibility to become a visible community, we want to be seen so we need to register, we need to be relevant and ensure politicians take us seriously.
“The challenge we face is that many in our community don’t appreciate the significance of their vote and how their vote can alter their lives, but we need to overcome such challenges and we are making significant progress.”
The candidates for the constituency are:
Thangam Debbonaire, Labour
Darren Hall, Green
Claire Hiscott, Conservative
Dawn Parry, Independent
Paul Turner, UKIP
Stewart Weston, Left Unity
Stephen Williams, Liberal Democrat