VOICES OF LEWISHAM
“We are all closer than we think, despite our backgrounds and cultures. It’s important to remember that when we pull together we are stronger.”
Shakeel Begg grew up in Lewisham and has been Imam at Lewisham Islamic Centre for 22 years. Having to close the mosque during lockdown has brought challenge and upset, for example preventing him from running or attending the funerals of some long-known community members.
While he fears for people’s mental and financial wellbeing, Shakeel has been comforted by the way his community and the wider Lewisham community have pulled together to support each other.
“Our regular mosque function involves five daily prayers, and we are open morning until evening, so the mosque being shut has been a challenge in itself. When the mosque is open, we have the young people and the elderly coming in every day and we can engage regularly with them and know their needs. When the mosque is closed it is so difficult to have this connection.
“We can use Zoom and Google classrooms for things like educational classes but it just doesn’t work for our daily or Friday prayers. There are certain things within the Muslim faith and theology that have to be done onsite in a specific way, and it is those things that are the essence of a mosque.
“Another challenge has been not being able to see the elderly and vulnerable during lockdown. A number of our elderly members passed away during the first lockdown, and we only realised this when the mosque reopened. I grew up and went to school here in Lewisham and have been Imam here for 22 years so I am very ingrained in the local Muslim community. It’s been very upsetting for me that I haven’t been able to run or even attend the funerals of some people I have known for a very long time.
“As Imam, I am supposed to provide the pastoral care, and because I have been here so long, I have had people coming up to me on a regular basis and asking ‘are you OK Imam, do you need anything? Please talk to us if you need to’. It has been a real comfort to receive that care from others.
“I am worried about Ramadan – we missed Ramadan and our Eid celebrations once already, and there is a big fear within the community that we will miss it again. I worry about the mental health of our community here in Lewisham, and particularly our young people. It is such a tough time for them with a real lack of job opportunities at the moment.
“One of our community members is a solicitor who works in employment law, and he tells me a lot of people are coming to him who have been made redundant. There are so many redundancies, and with so many people looking for work and so many shops and businesses closing, there is a real worry that people are not going to find anything else. We are generally a working class community and with so many jobs being lost this is going to cause great financial hardship for lots of people.
“Another worry I have had is that there have been tabloid reports and images shared on the internet that appear to show Muslims spreading the coronavirus. This is so damaging for our community and this sort of subtle ‘fake news’ targeting Muslims can be dangerous for us.
“That said, there have been a lot of positive things to come out of this time. I think the pace of life has got slower, less rushed, and people have become calmer, more respectful, and more supportive – especially in the early days. Another positive thing is that we have been able to support and provide food to around 120 families – not just our direct community here at the mosque but also non-Muslims. We ran a soup kitchen outside the mosque during Ramadan in the evenings, and I think that show of community support for all and helping each other was such a positive thing.
“We also started a food bank with a local charity called The Point, where we were helping NHS staff together.
“I think if we can learn from this it will be a great thing – the pandemic has taught us all a lesson of how vulnerable we are as human beings, and how important it is to support one another. We are all closer than we think, despite our backgrounds and cultures. It’s important to remember that when we pull together we are stronger.”
We spoke to Shakeel in November 2020.