Walking on Ice


In Cool Running, the popular Walt Disney movie, John Candy, the coach, struggles to bring together four inexperienced men to develop the first Jamaican’ s Bobsledding team to train for the Winter Olympic Games in Calgary. One of the most memorable scenes in the film is the reaction of the crew when they realise that Bobsledding is a winter sport played on ice. Since Jamaica ‘s average annual temperature is 80°F / 27°C it is no wonder that the team find hard to digest the idea of walking on ice let alone run on it

Jamaica ’s annual temperature is almost similar to Somali’s temperature, although in summer the northeast coast of Somalia is much hotter, with average temperatures of 35 to 38C. Somalis, particularly older people, who fled to Britain after the civil war had broken out in Somalia are finding hard to cope with the miserable winter weather. In the film, if younger and fitter actors struggle to walk on an ice track, in real life it is not pleasant experience for the elderly to walk on snow-covered streets of Birmingham or Leicester during the wintertime.

The civil war in Somalia removed these elderly people from a familiar environment and tossed into an entirely new and unlike environment. When winter sets in they feel physical and emotional uneasiness as they miss the hot-climate that they were accustomed to. E veryman has an ethnocentric tendency to feel that his own land is better than others, however, Somalia enjoys relatively better climate and weatherthan Britain. And this is not just an impression.

Winter is harsh for older people in general and particularly cruel to newcomers. Aged Somalis remain mostly indoors throughout the winter. When they are forced to go out, they make mindful walking and it is easy to notice how the cold weather affects their skins and scales it leaves on their wrinkled forehead and cheeks. Another element that attracts attention is their distinct dress and number of clothes they put on to remain warm.

Britain faces a national scandal every winter because of the number of older people dying of preventable, cold-related illnesses. A press release from Age Concern includes “ Eight pensioners in Britain will die of a cold-related illness every hour this winter. And it is estimated that more than 20,000 older people will die as a result of the cold.” Unfortunately, it is impossible to quantify how many of these are going to be elderly Somalis.

When winter forces aged Somalis to stay behind indoors they do not take advantage of the many welfare provisions available to older people in general because of language barrier, which leads to lack of information about what services is available or getting services to respond to their needs . Gordon Lishman, Director General of Age Concern England said “Many older people from ethnic communities have a high need for health care, yet report even worse services than others. This can be because of language and cultural barriers.”

As a result of that Somali older persons rely on informal help from their social network. This informal help varies in terms of scale and areas. It may include cooking, cleaning, washing and interpreting. This informal help neither presents a long-term solution nor excuses the responsibilities of statutory authorities. If this casual help becomes unavailable, whatever the reason, quality of life of frail older people will deteriorate unimaginably. The report, “LET’S MOVE ON” by Jabeer Butt and Alex O’Neil, says, “The idea that the extended family will look after their ‘elders’ may be a myth and certainly masks the level of true need.”

Abdi is an 80-year old man and relies on the support of his younger sister. He spent the first 75 years of his life in Somalia. The first question he often asks when someone enters his house even if the person comes back from a local shop is: “ How did you find the weather on your vacation?”. But how do you explain the winter weather to a person the words iceberg, floe, frost, glacier, hail, hoarfrost, iceball, rime, slush, sleet and snowcap do not constitute his vocublary. Given his age, he is a healthy person but does not go outside during the winter unless it is must. And when he ventures to the outside world, he goes out looking like an astraunt because of the number of clothes he puts on. The winter gives him much time for mental playback of his first seven decades of hot climates memories.

Abdi and the likes of him wish that winter would never come back, wish they could go back to their country, and wish things were different. But reality dictates differently. Tiptoeing on ice covered streets or an ice-cold bathroom floors is something they are finding hard to deal with. And it seems British weather is having the final laugh.