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MONIS MOUFLAHI interviewed by Rahim Ahmed, 9th December 2017

10 minutes

Background: Monis Muflahi, was born in Newport and is of Yemeni background. He worked as a youth worker in the early 90s based at Community House, Eton Road. Muflahi did not plan to become a youth worker, he seemed naturally able to do it and was invited to work at Community House by Brian Selby.

Eventually, he moved on, building on his local youth work and for a while in the 90s was a Global Youth Worker employed by Cyfanfyd, the global education body for Wales. Muflahi went on to a career in the Fire Service, but has now returned with his brother, Haikal, to run a weekly Sufi Meditation Group at Community House.

0 – 1 minute: RA: Where are you from, what is your family heritage?

MM: I was born in Newport, Pill(gwenlly) side of town and spent most of my life there. My background heritage is of Yemeni origin. Both my parents are from Yemen. My dad was a seafarer and worked in the merchant navy as a lot of Yemenis did. My parents came here in the 60s. My father’s father was also a seafarer and so was his father before him. We’ve had quite a few generations of seafarers. They were actually British before they entered the country - they left Yemen (or Aden, which was part of the British Protectorate) travelled the world and decided to settle in Newport, South Wales. A lot of Yemeni seafarers did that over the years in fact the community has probably been here in Wales for about 200 years - an established, sustained Yemeni community. Then after that, I worked in the steel works. So, yeah. I’m a Welsh Arab.

1 - 3 minutes: RA: Did you have any inspirational teachers?

MM: Brian (Selby) was, to a degree. I didn’t plan to go to Community House. I built a relationship with Brian. He started to put a bit more flesh on the bones. Here I was, a young man – very enthusiastic and full of energy. Brian sort of moulded me a bit. Brian and there were others on a spiritual level moulded me. Others influenced me, I highly respected at all levels Brian so did other people – whether or not they were directors of Newport City Council, up and coming youth workers…I had no plans to do youth work. There were a few issues in Pill. There weren’t any facilities in Pill. There was a friend – Hurby, a lovely guy, a Rastafarian – h e tried to get something going. A lot of us didn’t know how. How to fundraise etc. Just a willingness and sincerity to do something.

3 - 5 minutes: We went to the council chambers, it was an AGM or something. A lot of community representatives were there – people from all walks of life... People from minority communities. There was going to be a vote. There was a pot of money there that could have been used to set up a community facility or it could be used for some new roads in a valley’s community.
I went up and I took some young people with me. We didn’t really know how everything worked or anything. We just sat and listened. We tried to influence people but when they voted – they voted against the facility. It absolutely knocked me for six, it did. I couldn’t believe it. These people knew us. You represent us, I went to school with your children! How could they vote against the facility? I just couldn’t understand it. I didn’t understand the politics. It still annoys me to this day.
(despite the setback) I still felt enthusiastic even though I felt let down by community leaders.

5 – 7 minutes – I don’t really remember my first day coming to Community House. I just remember coming here to talk to young people. Maybe about how we were let down…we talked about many issues. Feeling let down our community leaders letting us down…that was a bugbear for me for many years…they were there, in the council chambers…they were supposed to be the ear… they were supposed to be listening to us, but they weren’t speaking on our behalf. So, we needed to speak and we needed to find our voice on lots of issues.

Then people were saying what about this issue…What about the crisis in Bosnia, this was a big thing at the time. People were saying, this is happening to Muslims in Europe and we live in Europe… the Bosnians and Serbs were the same people in terms of race but not religion. There were lots of debates about that, but not just that, the issues and pressures that young people face today, about being criminalised, substance mis-use and so on and other pressures they face within their own communities.

People don’t understand how the Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities work – the pressures that centres like these don’t necessarily see and don’t understand… (arranged marriages for example)

“You’re going back home. We’ve got a girl for you. There’s the photo…you see where I’m coming from. That was my kind of ‘in’. Brian and John (Porter, another youth worker and a Buddist) kind of cornered me and said, Why don’t you do youth work? - What’s youth work?
They said, ‘What you’re already doing’.

The layout of the building was different to how it is now (pre- 1997) (Muflahi explains the differences in terms of layout). There was a room where he could talk to young people. It was at that time that he started to run a youth club at Community House.

Rahim Ahmed asked, what other work did you do apart from youth work?

Muflahi explains that he studied in Sheffield, went to Uni and liked it up there. It was the summer holidays. He wasn’t planning on coming back (to Newport), can’t remember why exactly. He was bored and remembers coming back. He landed the youth work at Community House by chance. Brian put in a bid for a Community Link worker, funded by BBC Children in Need. Muflahi was in the right place at the right time. He was engaging with young people on other issues here…he was already doing the work. It started with just 5 hours of youth work, Quickly, it went up to 15.

9 minutes – 10 minutes: There was various spin-off work – in Maindee School, work with councillors…it was still grass-roots level and he could not see what else could be achieved on a bigger scale. So, it went on from there. He did that for a while. A job came up at Newport Council – Community Development work, it was what he was already doing but just on a bigger scale – it was more focussed. Initially his office was next door. When they re-vamped the building, he was based in Pump Street in Baneswell, then was moved here. Then he moved to another area in Newport.

10 minutes – 11 minutes: RA: Why did you chose to come to Community House and not somewhere else in Newport?

Mouflahi explains that when he came to Community House, he just felt

“…part of the family”

He felt involved. He explains the differences in the way that communities operate – the communities in Pillgwenlly – opposite side to Maindee do things differently even though they are still in Newport. He said that the community over there was larger and more diverse whereas in Maindee, there are more Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. The Bangladeshi community in particular is tightly knit. “They look after themselves.”

11 – 14 minutes: Mouflahi reflects on working with Sue Bidmead and the early days of the Maindee Festival. He remembers that they had complementary skills. They had a good working relationship and got on well. Bidmead was, “very immersed in the Bangladeshi community” Mouflahi has much respect for Bidmead and her approach to her work with the community – she was invited to Bangladesh and to Mouflahi’s surprise, she went.

They had just started a new project. Mouflahi had an idea and was thinking aloud in the office, having been inspired by a community that he’d seen happening in Bradford with the Asian community. In Bradford they had celebratory events called ‘Mela’ – where they,

“put a lot of culture together to celebrate music, culture, food…”

Mouflahi thought that this would be a great idea to have something like this,

“in the community but from the community.”

The festival started from this idea. Bidmead became heavily involved in it and it became ‘her baby.’

14 - 15 minutes: Mouflahi reflects on the ‘sunflower project*’. By this time, he had moved to Somerton and he was covering other areas in Newport. He was involved in ‘innovative approaches to engage community’. One aspect of this was developing a ‘community profile’ to document the Victoria Ward. They mapped the different facilities that were available – it was useful to know what was out there and what wasn’t. We could realise the needs of the community.

15 – 17 minutes: Community House was seen as a Church but 70 -80% of its users were Muslim! There were lots of different things going on, especially on a youth level. There is still more to be done today. Issues pulled people together – people became more aware – even Brian, to greater understanding of what Asian people go through.

17 - 18 minutes: Outdoor pursuits. At that time, no-one including some new youth workers thought it would be possible to take a group of youths on an outdoor activity, but they did. They went to Hilston Park for 4 or 5 days. It had a huge impact on the young people many of which had never even left their hometown. They were out in the open in green spaces, quite cut off from everyone. They had an amazing experience that changed many lives for the better.

18 - 20 minutes: What does Community Development mean to you?
Mouflahi explains that it means “knowing your community, engaging with people and realising their potential. People can ‘do it for themselves’ Communities tend to underestimate their capabilities. It’s about having the opportunity to engage with a small or large project – and having a platform to voice what is important…and what they can achieve for the good of the whole community…on many levels. There were certain projects, Jubilee Gardens, mother and toddler clubs etc. that brought people together. It’s about understanding people’s issues.

20 - 23 minutes: Mouflahi held legendary BBQs within the community which are still remembered today. Omar Ali suggested it, they started with just burgers. Then a local kebab house became involved. They sold the food cheaply, not to make a big profit. Just wanted to cover their costs. “Before you knew it, everyone wanted to come in!”
Mouflahi used to work as a doorman in the city centre, many years after his youth worker days. He ran into one of the young lads that used to come to the youth club. He was a grown man now and he still remembered those barbeque days. Mouflahi was astounded that it had made such an impression on him. The man said that if he ran it again, he would definitely go to it.

23 – 25 minutes: Ahmed asks what happened to the youth work. Why did Mouflahi not get involved anymore. Mouflahi explains that despite his close relationships with youths and parents, “everything knitted together nicely” – other people had new approaches and mission statements, but he felt that they did not seem to understand the essence of youth work. “We understood the communities and the pressures and challenges – we immersed ourselves in it. We didn’t swim against the tide. You can try a new approach but you have to understand their barriers, their culture…and be respectful of it and gain their respect.

25 - 29 minutes: Whilst a new project was under development, he was also working in another job for Caerphilly Council, so could not commit fully to the youth work as time went on. Overnight, things started to fall apart. It was a shame because there was a lot of potential. Mouflahi reflects on some missed opportunities for instance, there were some very talented Pakistani cricket players who attended the Roshni group which Mouflahi helped run (with John Porter) who were pitched against the Glamorgan B-team Players – a semi-professional team and they gave them “a run for their money!”
This opportunity should have been galvanised to take them to the next level. Its’ potential was not fully understood nor realised. This demonstrated that simply playing table tennis and pool upstairs at Community House was not the full story – there were talented people going there and their talents could have been developed. Mouflahi cites modern day pressures for young Asian men – pressures that they didn’t face then like social media, issues of employment, perceptions of others, discrimination and prejudice to name a few.

29 – 34 minutes: What could we (as people in the community) do as a community to build caring community?
What could we be doing in the future?
Mouflahi suggests considering the following:

• Understand each other better
• We need to listen to each other
• Parents must listen to their children and vice versa
• Communities are transient and the dynamics change –
there are more Eastern Europeans coming into the area.
• We must have mutual respect for each other, our backgrounds
and where we’re from
• We need to carry on the conversation – talk about who we are and what we’re about

He concluded that people do come and go. They get involved in other projects, it doesn’t mean that we have to do everything together…

“…but it would be nice to feel that sense of community. It’s not all negative…”
It needs someone “to pull those strings.”

An Eid celebration took place recently – this celebration was an opportunity to open to the wider community. There was music and food. People were interested in finding out more. People come together through food. It is a good way of getting people to meet one another and talk. It should not be thought of as a religious celebration for only those that celebrate Eid. Mouflahi thinks it is important to simply walk the streets and talk to people. The celebrations that go on, make a start in the right direction, for people to start talking to each other over food.

He thinks that there is a lack of green open space in Maindee. A lot of people know each other, it is a well-established community and we ought to capitalise on it.

34 -36 minutes: Mouflahi recalls some anti-social behaviour in the streets outside the terraced houses. Kicking a ball about against car doors, breaking car wing-mirrors. The Elders from the Church decided to engage with them:

“Listen, this is how we do things around here. This is how we work. This is how we live. This is how we co-exist…”

Mouflahi was surprised that the Elders wanted to engage with them and not just call call the Police. People then just started to talk to each other,

… “having an understanding…creating a dialogue – that really goes a long way to whatever it is that you want to achieve for your community. I think that people are afraid to talk to one another, they might feel a bit embarrassed, worried they might offend someone. Go on. Ask the question. Just talk”.

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