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Fighting Fit: Taher Ali Qassim 

Chris Arnot 

The following article by Chris Arnot appeared in ‘The Guardian’on 22 November 2008. It is reprinted here by kind permission of Guardian News & Media Ltd. 

Taher Ali Qassim was seven or eight when responsibility for the family farm in the Yemeni village of Karaba landed on his slim shoulders as the only surviving male. His two younger brothers never survived infancy and his father and older brother had long since set off for Aden in search of work. The boy farmer would never see his father again. He died soon after arriving in that bustling port, a strategic staging point for the British navy in the 1950s. 

‘Malaria probably killed him, ’ Qassim speculates. ‘It was rife.’ Smallpox, too. One of his earliest memories is of charity workers coming to the village to vaccinate all the children against it. It was an early introduction to an aspect of his eventual career in public health management. Not that he could have imagined such a dramatic change of fortune when his small hands were struggling to grip the plough handles. ‘I hated ploughing, ’ he says, emphatically. But not quite so much as he hated the goats that became his responsibility when his sister left home to get married. 

‘Every time I drove them to the top of the mountain, I’d look towards the horizon and say to myself: “I want to get away from here, ” ’ he recalls. Within a year or so he was off. First he followed in father’s tyre tracks as far as Aden. Many years later, he made it to another port that still had some strategic importance to the British economy in the 50s. 

Taher Ali Qassim, pictured with HE Mohamed Taha Mustafa, Ambassador of Yemen, after receiving his award of the MBE in 2008.Taher Ali holds the warrant signed by HM Queen Elizabeth,while the Ambassador displays the medal.

By the time Qassim arrived in Liverpool in 1995, however, the city’s economy was struggling to get off its knees. Still, it must have seemed a place of comparative wealth for someone from his background, I suggest. 

He nods and admits that at first he couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. He still feels frustration when ‘lack of resources’ is trotted out as a reason for not taking up one of many campaigns and initiatives that he pushes for in his role as public health manager for two of Liverpool’s five healthcare neighbourhoods. ‘Where I came from, people were dying of malaria or malnutrition. In the developing world, obesity is a sign of wealth. Here it’s more usually associated with poverty. Eventually you come to realise that health inequalities are relative to where you are. People in the north of this city are likely to die seven years earlier than those in the south. ’ 

The neighbourhoods that Qassim is responsible for are Liverpool East (‘huge problems with alcohol and drugs’) and South Central. ‘There are pockets of deprivation in the south and this is one of them, ’ he says. Well, we are in inner cityToxteth – in theArabic Centre, to be precise, next door to the Somali Women’s Centre and opposite a Caribbean take-away. This is one of the boltholes that he evidently uses in those brief periods between meetings. He has a meeting this afternoon with the Alcohol Action Group (AAG) and another this evening in a community centre in Anfield. Residents near the home of Liverpool FC are worried about the air pollution caused by the cars revving up outside their homes at the end of every home match. 

He’ll listen to their concerns in a few hours’ time. For now he has put aside an hour to chat about his extraordinary life in a warm, windowless room. The public health manager removes first his jacket and then his jumper to reveal a natty yellow shirt. The frame beneath it looks lean. He cycles regularly and likes to eat healthily. With the occasional glass of wine? ‘Of course, ’ he beams. ‘We share the cooking as we share everything, ’ he says of his Irish wife Ann, who is deputy director of public health in the north west. Does that make her his employer as well as his spouse? ‘Theoretically, yes. She looks after management and performance of primary care trusts, and I work for the Liverpool PCT. But she has nothing directly to do with my work. ’ 

Qassim is 56. Or at least he thinks he is. Birth certificates were hardly commonplace in Yemeni villages in the early 1950s. His elder brother, Ismail, told him that he was nine when he finally escaped to Aden in a Land Rover taxi that arrived in the village once a month. Ismail was 16 or 17, married and earning what was considered a good wage for a Yemeni as a naval clerk. He paid for the taxi that would bring a new life to a little brother torn between mounting excitement at his liberation and sadness for his weeping mother. ‘She must have been in a terrible dilemma, ’ Qassim reflects. ‘Another son would eventually be able to send her money. But her husband had gone to Aden and died. ’ I ask whether his mother survived long after his departure. ‘She only died last year, ’ he reveals. ‘She was a fighter, an amazing woman. ’ For a moment his eyes mist over. But soon they’re gleaming again as he recalls the excitement of arriving in Aden, turning on a tap and seeing running water. When he went to school for the first time, he was 11. The other pupils sneered at the ‘mountain boy’ from the north. But he confounded everyone by coming out with top grades. ‘Ismail had educated himself at night school and he gave me extra tuition at the little house that we shared, ’ he explains. 

Qassim’s education continued in fits and starts, set against the turbulent background of revolution and civil war. He had a spell as a soldier before joining a nursing school run by Americans. His English came on in leaps and bounds, but his next move was to a Swedish hospital where there were two attractions. One was the chance to work on public health schemes, including vaccination programmes and hygiene promotion. The other was the Swedish woman who eventually became his second wife and the mother of his third child. Later he would have two daughters with Ann, whom he met while working for a Norwegian version of Save the Children. 

Eventually, they headed for the UK where Ann had a place at the University of Liverpool to do her master’s degree. Qassim went to the University of London to upgrade his own qualifications, but found the great metropolis too big and impersonal. One of the aspects that he most enjoys about his current job is the opportunity to interact with a wide range of Liverpudlians, including police, teachers, councillors and housing officials. Improving health depends on improving housing and education, he points out. ‘When I came here, I soon discovered that Yemenis, Somalis and Liverpool-born black children had the lowest educational achievements. ’ 

His MBE was awarded for his work on founding the Black and Racial Minorities Network to mediate between parents and schools as well as to set up housing and health improvement projects. ‘It started on a voluntary basis, ’he explains. ‘But eventually came under the wing of the PCT as part of my job. ’ Another part of that job might find him as the only ethnic minority representative addressing a meeting on a predominantly white estate. ‘I’ve always found Liverpool people friendly, ’ he maintains. So does he feel like an honorary Scouser? 

‘I don’t think I’ll ever speak the dialect, ’ he grins. Perhaps his mastery of English is enough to be going on with. It was good enough for him to complete his own master’s in community health at the city’s School of Tropical Medicine. Now he’s working through the AAG to try to persuade students throughout the city that getting regularly legless is not necessarily an undergraduate right of passage. ‘We’re trying to involve the Students’ Union to get across more effective information, ’ he says. ‘Just telling them not to do something doesn’t work. People in this country have a choice about how they want their lifestyles to be. ’ 

Where he came from, there was no such thing as lifestyle. There were just lives or, more accurately, existences. Trying to persuade Liverpudlians to consume less and exercise more may have its frustrations, but for one public health manager it’s infinitely preferable to ploughing and herding goats. 

Copyright: Guardian News & Media Ltd, 2008 

Vol 17. 2009