• Home
  • Latest
  • TV
  • In conversation with Hashi Mohamed – From child refugee to top barrister

In conversation with Hashi Mohamed – From child refugee to top barrister

Posted on 29 November 2021

Hashi Mohamed came to Britain aged nine, as an unaccompanied child refugee. He attended some of Britain’s worst schools and was raised exclusively on state benefits. Yet today he is a successful barrister, with an Oxford degree and a CV that includes numerous appearances on the BBC.

He joined us to discuss his book, People Like Us, which explores what his own experience can tell us about social mobility in Britain today. Far from showing that anything is possible, he concludes his story is far from typical: our country is still riven with deep divisions that block children from deprived backgrounds from accessing the advantages that are handed to others from birth.

This session was chaired by Tom Barton, Managing Associate at Mishcon de Reya.

The Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions. 
Tom Barton

We are joined this afternoon by Hashi Mohamed.  Hashi is a Barrister, Author, Broadcaster and a friend of the firm and on first impressions it is not immediately obvious what a remarkable case Hashi represents.  In certain respects he is precisely what you would expect from a leading Barrister, fiercely intelligent – you like that – eloquent, a storyteller and brimming with self-confidence.  However look a little closer and he should not be here, he a statistical outlie and sadly an anomaly.  It is a fact that only 3.3% of working class and under privileged children will end up in professions like law, finance or medicine.  This figure will be immeasurably smaller for those that entered the country as a child refugee, aged 9, speaking only basic English, attended some of London’s lowest performing schools but ultimately graduated with a Master’s Degree from Oxford.  Hashi is quoted in saying that the demographic that listens to Radio 4 documentaries about inequality are the last likely to be affected by it.  It is likely that he would say the same thing about a Mishcon Digital Session however Hashi it’s a pleasure to welcome you here.

Hashi Mohamed

Thank you very much, Tom I really appreciate that.  That’s probably one of the best introductions I have ever had.

Tom Barton

That’s exactly what I wanted to hear.

Hashi Mohamed

You’d better send me a copy of that because I am going to hand that over to everyone else.

Tom Barton

So it’s a theme running through your story that an individuals’ path is really guided well before their birth and you start your book talking about your grandfather, also a Hashi, rather evocatively 377 kilometres outside of Margadarsi?

Hashi Mohamed

Yes.  My grandfather was a you know, a goat herder working in the wilderness of Somalia some, close to you know, 100 years ago now and it is a mark of the journey that we have had in our lives that I find myself now in central London very, very far away from the world that he was familiar with and crucially in a very short space of time and that journey has been a… quite a difficult one and in many ways also a lucky one.  My grandfather being born in the wilderness of, of the sort of rural Somalia as it was then Italian Somali land, the Italian colony to then my father marrying and settling in Nairobi, Kenya he then passes away in a car crash in Kenya when I was only 9 years old, in the early 1990’s when sort of War broke out in, in that part of the world which then lead to us coming to this country in the early 1990’s without our mum having just helped to bury my father, my mother had given birth to twelve children, we were all scattered around the world, some of my siblings end up in America, some end up in Canada, we end up here and you know when, when people hear that it’s often obviously an incredibly shocking start to life and any child who is 9 years old sort of starting from scratch without your parents is difficult for any 9 year old but actually it’s really important and I say this a lot when I speak about my, my story is that that kind of starting point is remarkably unremarkable for people like me because when you look at the vast majority of the Somali community in this country, in Europe and elsewhere who fled War in the early 1990’s, the overwhelming majority of them have similarly harrowing stories, similar tragedies perhaps even worse than what I have experienced in some cases but I suppose what makes my story different, which I am sure we will get in to, is what then happened afterwards.

Tom Barton

I’ve got a… I’ve got one quote for you here from the book, I am not going to read…

Hashi Mohamed

Just one quote?

Tom Barton

…from it, just the, just the one.  So you say, ‘we might see ourselves as a brother, a fiancé, an uncle, a Liverpool fan, a bookworm, a graduate, a petrol head, a scouser, a Virgo, a Millennial – the list is potentially endless but over all of these infinite variations loom two great categories that shape our identities and our futures like no other in modern Britain; race and class’.  Tell me what you mean by class?

Hashi Mohamed

Yeah so, so that part of the… your reading is from the chapter on identity and how we see one another and what’s also particularly noteworthy about that chapter and that section that I have written about identity and I say, ‘what looms large is about race and class’ is we talk about race and class in a significant way today in the post sort of George Floyd and everything that happened in the past year but I wrote those words almost five years ago whilst I was writing this book and I was talking about it in a way that perhaps we are more accustomed to talking about today but it’s not necessarily in the way that people understand it to mean today so for example, when I talk about race and class looming large, what I argue for is that we need to understand what kind of combinations of relationships we are building when it comes to become a more equal society.

Tom Barton

Right.

Hashi Mohamed

So for example, I don’t have much in common really with a black Etonian who went to Eton and his family could afford for him to go to Eton and then he becomes a professional just because we are both black we have actually really very little in common.  I have more in common with my sort of white working class neighbours whose parents might have been bus drivers and plasterers with the Afghan refugee who came who didn’t speak a word of English in my neighbourhood because they are the ones with whom I am going to the same crap local schools, facing the same problems in our streets.

Tom Barton

Yeah.

Hashi Mohamed

Being harassed by you know Police in the streets in the way that we were when we were young and naïve and, and quite stupid and so one of the things I talk about there is I say look race is important don’t get me wrong, a black guy with a Muslim name growing up in the sort of post-911 world, trust me wasn’t easy but, but equally there is a lot more to how we identify these, these connections and that’s what I think I was trying to get in the book, in that chapter.

Tom Barton

So how do you feel the, the conversation has moved on then in that post…?

Hashi Mohamed

It’s interesting because I think the conversation has moved on to a place that I personally don’t think is healthy in that, and I have been attacked for this in the newspapers for sort of looking at things this way, but I feel like whilst race and class, gender, disability and all these other aspects do play a significant role as to whether or not you will become successful in this country or whether or not you will go far in this country, whether you will have the right opportunities, I do feel though that we are in a place now where we are all engaged in what I call the grievance Olympics in that, in that if you are you know, a black woman who’s disabled and gay then you tick all the boxes that somebody wants to be with you and know you and help you and so on.

Tom Barton

Yeah.

Hashi Mohamed

And somehow if you’re you know, somebody who is not any of those things, somehow you are less worthy of help and less worthy of attention and I just feel like we are losing the focus and attention of what it means to be a more equal society.  What it means to be a more equal society in my judgment is to attack the kind of things that mean that for example, black women are disproportionally almost four times more likely to die in childbirth because of the way the NHS treats them than any other community or that if you are a kid on free school meals no matter what race you belong to, you are much more likely to sort of be left behind by the time you are 10/12 and I can give you a number of those statistics but…

Tom Barton
 
Yep.

Hashi Mohamed

…they are not as simple or simplistic as just saying you know, black, white, Muslim, Jewish whatever it is, it’s far more complicated but I feel like the conversations that we are having in the public space today are just simplified in a way that is much more headline grabbing, attention seeking and ultimately actually damaging to the way we relate to one another as a society.

Tom Barton

So how should we be talking about it?

Hashi Mohamed

Well we just need to be more nuanced about it and more intelligent.

Tom Barton

But it doesn’t sell papers though unfortunately.

Hashi Mohamed

No a nuance doesn’t sell papers you are absolutely right and intelligence even less so, so it’s a question of just asking yourself, if you are an organisation, I don’t know, like Mishcon de Reya for example and you are trying to become a more diverse workforce it’s too simplistic to just be like we need to recruit more black people.

Tom Barton

Mmm.

Hashi Mohamed

We need to recruit more gay people, we need to recruit more women.  No.  You need to ask yourself what is it about our recruitment processes and the way that we work, the culture that we have within, how people see us that means that a small kid growing up in Tyneside or Teesside or in the North West or in the North East or in Tower Hamlets, does not think actually that’s the place I want to be.  The reason why I call the book People Like Us is…

Tom Barton

Yeah.

Hashi Mohamed

…that term means different things to different people right.  People like us don’t go there or darling we don’t mix with people like them you know, and it can be meaning different things to different people and so for me I just think we need to have those more serious conversations because actually the kind of conversations we are having now are neither helpful but more and more importantly are going to be more damaging in the future in my judgement.

Tom Barton

And how do you think we open those channels up?  Is that something which rests with firms like Mishcon or the employers or whoever that might be or is it for the individuals to find the path?

Hashi Mohamed

It’s a, it’s a bit of both.  I don’t think it rests with the Government certainly because we don’t have a serious Government for serious times but that’s my view, not, not… other political views are available.  I do think a huge amount rests with the individual.  I often say to people you know, if you think that the bar, a place that has been going on for almost a thousand years…

Tom Barton

Yep.

Hashi Mohamed

…is going to change its ways overnight to accommodate you then I am afraid you are as delusional as you will be waiting a long, long time.

Tom Barton

That’s something that really comes through in your book actually and is in a lot of the other you know, articles etcetera that you’ve written.  You are very much a realist however much you’ve got great ideals about what you want and you think we should strive for better, you are firmly anchored in reality.

Hashi Mohamed

I am very much anchored in reality because I always say to people you have to deal with the world as it is…

Tom Barton

Yep.

Hashi Mohamed

…rather than as you would like to find it and the way the world is as it is is, that you are disproportionately more likely to have your CV go straight in the bin if your name is Mohamed than if its Smith.  Fact.  So a lot of people make decisions, personal decisions – I was talking to a law firm a couple of weeks’ ago and a lady put her hand up and she said, ‘oh my name’s Jessica and I wanted to ask you this question, I was born in China and I grew up in Hong Kong and here I am sitting in this amazing law firm’.  I was like, ‘oh okay, can I just ask a personal question?’  I said, ‘do you also have a Chinese name?  Is Jessica actually your real…’ and she’s like, ‘oh yeah I have a Chinese name but I’d never put that on a CV’.  Why do you think she’s made that decision because somehow at some point in her life she realised that she was, she was hampered.  Now that’s a persona choice but that is somebody who is dealing with the world as it is rather than as they would like them.  Now I am not suggesting to everyone that they need to change their name or change how they speak or how they work to get on but what I will say to everyone is, that’s the world as you find it.  If you decide to then plough on and ignore those facts, that’s a matter for you.

Tom Barton

Yeah.

Hashi Mohamed

But there is one other thing that I would add to that, it’s the kind of thing that often people say, ‘be yourself, you are going to be just fine’.  That is one of the most poisonous, unhelpful stupid pieces of advice anyone can give anyone who is trying to make it in this current world and that’s because it’s meaningless.  The reality is that we are shifting and changing the way we are depending on who you are talking to, where you are.  You, Tom don’t talk to your spouse the way that you talk to your parents.

Tom Barton

I’m much, I’m much kinder to her than anybody else.

Hashi Mohamed

Yeah for your own safety and, and you don’t talk to your boss the way you might talk to a child. 

Tom Barton

Yeah.

Hashi Mohamed

We are constantly changing as human beings and that for me is the kind of lack of understanding because the reality is that if you try and be yourself and not understand about the world that you are dealing with, what’s going to happen is you are going to get knocked back all the time and what’s the conclusion that that young person is going to reach?  The conclusion that young person is going to reach is that nobody wants, respects or has a place for me as I am.

Tom Barton

You talk about the idea of educational apartheid in the UK.  Obviously there is a huge difference in the quality and the type of education that we receive in this country so tell us about that?

Hashi Mohamed

Yeah, I mean I think that the often cited statistic is the fact that 7% of the British population go to private schools, fee paying schools and they dominate 93 to 94% of the top professions.

Tom Barton

And there is a lot more to attending those kind of institutions than just what you are taught in the lessons.

Hashi Mohamed

Absolutely, there’s everything, there’s the, there’s the ability to just pick up the language, there’s the cultural and social capital, there is that inculcation of believing that you are destined for big things, that you are going to do well, that you don’t have to worry about what your kind of future will look like, it’s self-selecting because a lot of these kids either pass exams or their parents can afford to, to pay for their fees, they end up in a you know, an environment where you know, even when you think about if you are in Oxford or Cambridge and you have a supervisor who is supervising you and a co-supervisee as pupils and teaching you in that Oxbridge College, you come to the bar as a Barrister where I am now and you are a pupil who has a supervisor and there’s usually two of you being supervised.  It’s like, it’s almost like perfectly designed to mirror wherever it is that you’ve come from and it fits and it makes sense and so this idea that somehow we are in this elite profession where if only you were willing to work hard enough, if only you wanted it badly enough…

Tom Barton

Yep.

Hashi Mohamed

…you would succeed.  It’s nonsense.  Yes if you are not… if you don’t have the quality and if you are not talented enough and you are not willing to be hard working it’s going to be you know, not really possible but this notion that it is just simply about hard work and determination and everyone else who doesn’t do it is just being lazy, that’s the bit that I find particularly galling.

Tom Barton

When was the moment when you thought that you might become a Barrister?  Or when did that become an option?

Hashi Mohamed

I remember when we were homeless and I used to go to the Homeless place called Mahatma Gandhi House it used to be called in Wembley and I remember, I remember going there with my mum who could barely communicate in English, trying to explain we had rats and all sorts of problems where we were living and we were trying to get moved on from this hostel to a proper house and I remember being quite short and you know, and seeing my mum trying to communicate to this woman and it was like a raised platform and the woman was there and you would be waiting the whole day trying to get your ticket and then when your ticket gets called you go up to the desk and you are trying… and my mum is literally just trying to explain there are rats, there are this, we need help, we are having breathing problems because of the walls and I remember the woman, I still have this woman’s face in my head, I remember her looking at my mum like she was the scum of the earth and just going, ‘go and sit back down, go sit down, somebody will come and get you, go sit down’, like waved her away like that and I remember thinking I don’t ever want to experience that.

Tom Barton

Yeah.

Hashi Mohamed

I don’t ever want to have anything like that done to me.  Now did I think I think I was going to be a lawyer, an author you know, a broadcaster, Barrister whatever like, no but what I did know is I wanted to understand my rights and then when I was in that year I was living sort of homeless and, and trying to think about whether I wanted to go to University, it was a natural progression to then start doing law.  Then I started doing a Law in French Degree, I wanted to learn another language and it was only really when I was in my third year of law that I thought okay this is it, I want to go down the Barrister route but it was only like you know, in my mid-20s that that really dawned on me and then 26/27 was when I got my pupillage.

Tom Barton

Well all it remains to say is Hashi thank you ever so much and if everyone can thank him in the usual way.

Hashi Mohamed

Thank you very much.

 

 

The Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions.  To access advice for businesses that is regularly updated, please visit mishcon.com.


Visit the Mishcon Academy for more learning, events, videos, podcasts and reports.

How can we help you?
Help

How can we help you?

Subscribe: I'd like to keep in touch

If your enquiry is urgent please call +44 20 3321 7000

I'm a client

I'm looking for advice

Something else