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Social services still struggling to break through to UK Muslim youth

Young British Muslims are still reluctant to get the help they need from mainstream counseling services for fear of being misunderstood, says the Muslim Youth Helpline, which helps young Muslims cope with their issues.

A Muslim boy and girl sit in a classroom

The groups aim to help Muslim boys and girls

An organization in Britain has set out to offer a support service to young Muslims who are without a shoulder to lean on. But some wonder if such government-funded Muslim-targeted support services ultimately reinforce ethnic divisions instead of breaking down barriers.

The Muslim Youth Helpline is a free and confidential service that young Muslims across the United Kingdom can utilize to talk about any issues they happen to be dealing with. The organization, which was set up 10 years ago by four young Muslim men who had noticed their friends, families and peers did not have anyone to go to for help, relies heavily on trained volunteers.

Chief Executive Akeela Ahmed says mainstream counseling services often overlook faith and cultural sensitivities when tackling issues such as forced marriage and sexual abuse, but that seeking advice from relatives or community leaders can be equally problematic for young Muslims.

"If they tried to go for help at a community level, on issues like depression or drug abuse, they were either met with a lack of understanding, or an attitude that 'these things we don't talk about, and you sweep it under the carpet,'" she says.

"And then they also noticed that if they tried to go to mainstream or statutory support, say to a GP, they were met with a response that didn't really understand their needs."

Non-faith-specific

A shadow fist is raised to a child

The hotline helps the victims of abuse

The Muslim Youth Helpline mainly hears from young adults and teenagers, but has received calls from children as young as five, or even parents concerned about their children.

Ahmed insists the problems they encounter are not just linked to being a Muslim, but are often universal.

"It [can involve] concerns about boy-girl relationships, concerns about parents, about education," she says. "And there are the more difficult and severe problems around mental illness, eating disorders, self-harm and suicide."

And callers know they will receive a service in which they are not judged or chastised, says Ahmed, who cites a frequent scenario of a teenage girl who thinks she might be pregnant to a boyfriend her parents have never met.

While the helpline often refers callers to mainstream support services, it says young British Muslims still fear they will be misunderstood.

Empowerment the key

But some social service experts challenge the value of front-line organizations that flag themselves up as being Muslim, arguing that this approach speaks to a small minority of young British Muslims who identify themselves by faith alone.

Parvin Ali, chief executive and founder of the Forum for Advocacy Training in the Multicultural Arena (FATIMA), wonders whether some Muslims turn to services branded "Muslim" hoping to hear an Islamic message.

Muslim women excercise

FATIMA aims to empower Muslim women

FATIMA works to economically and socially empower women across all ethnic minorities, specifically targeting individuals and their families to help them access education and jobs. Ali says the forum's message is based on the belief that social integration comes through political and economic empowerment.

She argues that government-funded Muslim organizations that only listen to Muslims run the risk of working against integration into mainstream society.

"Muslims are very quick to say what they want from non-Muslims, but very, very slow to actually reciprocate," Ali says. "It's never been a two-way integration process, it's always been, 'you have to let us integrate.' But they never accept that they have to understand the culture they are actually living in, and see what accommodation they have to make also."

Ali also says that some communities display a low level of trust in their own ethnic services for fear their confidentiality might be breached, which could put them off raising concerns about a radicalized family member.

"People are actually afraid that if they go to a Muslim organization and say they have concerns about members of their family, who are radicalized or in danger of being radicalized, the support that they are going to get or the response they are going to get will immediately be out there, and open and that many other people in the community will know about it," she says. "No one can get real assurance that if they go to an organization that is from an ethnic minority community that they will feel as safe."

Trust integral

But Akeela Ahmed from the Muslim Youth Helpline insists confidentiality is a fundamental principle underpinning her organization, which she says would intervene if a caller posed a threat to human life.

Muslims pray at a Mosque in London

Muslims are said to be among the most marginalized minorities in Britain

"I'm sure that any citizen would agree that if someone was posing a threat to another human life, you would have to contact the authorities," she says. "On radicalization, we have not had any issue to date in which we've had to do that."

Ahmed says evidence shows British Muslims are more likely to be marginalized than other minorities, showing poorer outcomes in education and mental and physical health. She says the Muslim Youth Helpline provides proper access to mainstream services, and that this can lead to more opportunities.

"If someone feels more included in society, if they feel they have the same options as other people, I guess they would feel more integrated," she says.

Parvin Ali's FATIMA network is also working towards that very goal. While both sides agree that front-line services are essential to integrating Muslims, the question is whether their work would be more effective if they were not just for Muslims and run by Muslims alone.

Author: Nina-Maria Potts (dfm)
Editor: Chuck Penfold

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