From Africa to Netherfields. This is Latifa’s story of helping and hope
Every Friday, something amazing happens in Netherfields.
It’s only a small thing – an act of kindness, an attempt to bring people together, to build community spirit.
Latifa Shomari talks about it as we wander around the Middlesbrough estate where she has lived for the past three years, the place she’s decided to raise her family.
The mum-of-three, in a bid to spread kindness near her home, waits for her neighbours’ wheelie bins to be emptied every week and then emerges, lavender-scented cleanser in hand, to clean every one.
The 37-year-old laughs as I ask her about it – to her, it’s not a big thing. She’s just helping out.
But it broke the ice with those who live nearby, made chats across the fence easier and happier.
“If you do good things, then it makes you feel good and it makes other people feel good, it makes us all happy,” she smiles.
And putting good into her community is just what Latifa does.
Originally from Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, she moved to England eight years ago with her husband Ansary Msangi, who now works at the James Cook University Hospital, and son Abdulmalik, now 11.
She originally lived in London, before moving to Middlesbrough town centre five years ago.
“It was difficult, at first,” she recalls. “I was used to London and Middlesbrough seemed very different. I didn’t know much about the town, but we met new people and I liked it.
“Then when we moved to Netherfields, I remember people telling me – ‘Why are you moving there? There are no Africans there’. People had judged the place before we’d even been here.
“I was a bit worried by what people were telling me, but I convinced my husband. I told him, you cannot judge before you know. You can be in a good place with bad people, or a bad place with good people.
“But I found things were very, very different to what people said and it is a very good area to live. I don’t have any problems and I have lots of good neighbours.”
Even in those situations where Latifa didn’t immediately get close to those living nearby, she persevered. One neighbour brought her newborn baby girl home to be greeted by flowers and a present from Latifa. They’re friends now.
“I feel welcomed. My neighbours are very happy and I like our community,” she continued.
But building bridges in her own street wasn’t enough for Latifa.
She organises the Creative Minds group, which brings together women from different cultures and backgrounds to try and tackle isolation and loneliness.
“I want to empower them, I want to let them know what opportunities they have to be part of their community,” said Latifa.
“A lot of women from different countries, they stay indoors a lot. Indoors is not for me. I need to be out, in the fresh air, talking to people. Being indoors is not healthy so I try to help the women live good lifestyles, with exercise and healthy eating. In some cultures, in Africa, there is a culture where a lot of women think their role is to stay at home and their husband does everything. No, it’s not like that here.”
Women from different religious and cultural backgrounds – many from African countries such as Sudan, Somalia, Gambia and Sierra Leone – now take part in park walks, and female-only fitness classes organised by Latifa.
Some have been encouraged to do things that might sound simple – like walk to pick up their children from school.
“A lot of people want to know where they can buy things to clean their house, so I tell them where the shops are, that they can get good things from B&M or Wilko for £1,” continues Latifa, as a beaming smile breaks out again on her face.
“It feels great for me to help.”
The Covid pandemic has made it more difficult for her to connect – but it hasn’t dimmed her enthusiasm.
“Some people stay inside and their mental health suffers. Sometimes it is something so simple – they have a headache so I can tell them where to get medicine.
“But headaches aren’t always treated with medicine. A lot of our women were very stressed. Maybe they need someone to talk to. They need fun!
“Those things have been made harder with the Covid rules. But I still tried to help.
“In our estate there were some old people, and disabled people, and they needed help with their cleaning. So I helped them. I go to college two days a week and I clean my own house, but my children are now in school so from 9am to 2.30pm, I am mostly free.”
When she moved to Middlesbrough, second son Mussa and baby daughter Mgeni, now eight and five-years-old, had also been added to the family.
All three of her children now attend Pennyman Primary: “They were nervous when they started too, because I think there were not many other black children in the school. But it’s such a beautiful school, the teachers are good and our family was made so welcome.”
As she walks down Fulbeck Road at the end of our chat, Latifa – who is speaking in her third language – repeatedly apologises for what she calls her broken English.
But she speaks fluently and passionately about her adopted hometown, about the kindness she has received and the beauty of Middlesbrough’s many communities.
When we part, Latifa – almost as if she was waiting to deliver a pitch perfect final line – beams again and says:
“Be the change you want to see. Helping each other is most important.”
We are words by Mike Brown.
We are photos by Dave Charnley.