Ramla Ali, the first Muslim woman to win an English boxing title, reveals the difficulties she’s overcome as a refugee and female boxer.
There are few people you come across with a backstory like Ramla Ali. Born in Somalia, Ali was still a baby when her family fled the civil war after her brother was killed by a bomb in the front yard of their home. Taking a dangerously crowded boat to Kenya – they were among the lucky ones who survived the traumatic nine-day journey – they made their way to a refugee camp.
Eventually the family settled in Whitechapel, east London, where Ali spent her formative years on a council estate. As a teenager she became “considerably overweight” and was bullied at school. “And that’s when I found boxing,” she says.
When Stylist catches up with Ali, the amateur featherweight is in Grand Cayman where she currently trains. With several international titles under her belt, Ali’s next goal is to make it to Tokyo, where she hopes to compete for Somalia’s first-ever medal. “If you’d have told me I might compete in the Olympics all those years ago I would never have believed you,” she laughs. “And yet, here I am.”
When she’s not in the ring, Ali is the face of brands such as Nike and Pantene and last year was picked as one of Meghan Markle’s ‘Forces for Change’.
In December, on behalf of Unicef, she undertook a trip to Jordan to visit Syrian refugee camps. “As a child refugee I was hopeful that in sharing my journey it might help others with theirs, but whatever I’ve achieved is nothing compared to the heroes I met,” she says. And yet here is a woman so determined and driven to meet her goals, ‘hero’ doesn’t seem inappropriate.
You faced adversity very early on in your life – how do you think it has shaped you as a person?
I was really young, not even a year old, when my family decided to leave Somalia, so I don’t remember all that much, although every now and then an image will pop into my head. My elder brother died in the war and sometimes I see images of what he looked like, what he was doing at the time. I remember moments like going to the market with my mum. My older siblings have told me things since then – about what it was like, and about the overcrowded boat trip we took from Somalia to Kenya, where so many people died.
You came very close to death on that journey yourself…
I got really ill. Lots of people were dying of starvation – there were more than double the numbers on the boat than there should have been, so people were sharing rations of sugar. I had contracted head lice and someone on the boat told my mum she should put rat poison in my hair to get rid of it. I was very, very ill after that – my mum was terrified she was going to lose another child.
You’ve spoken about the fact that you don’t know your birth date, so don’t have an official birthday. It must be the case for so many child refugees.
It’s a small thing but it’s how it is for so many. Obviously when you get a passport, you have to choose a date, so I do have a ‘birthday’ – well, actually, I have two passports and two different dates – don’t ask [laughs]. But growing up, we didn’t really do birthdays. My siblings would say, “Oh today’s your ‘birthday’” while doing air quotes – it was always with a slightly mocking tone. I don’t really do birthdays now, although I do accept presents.
Adjusting to life in the UK can’t have been easy – what were the challenges you faced when you arrived?
It was probably hardest for my older sisters. Kids can be quite cruel and my eldest sister was 14 or 15, she didn’t speak the language, she dressed differently. I didn’t really have those things to deal with, although I was bullied at secondary school, mainly for my size. I was judged a lot for my weight and that’s how I initially got into boxing. I started going to the gym and eating healthily and in two years, I went from 82kg to 60kg. I did my first Boxercise class and ended up boxing my way into the ring.
You kept your boxing a secret from your family initially. Was that because you didn’t feel they’d accept it?
Completely – I sort of knew they wouldn’t agree with it. I told my younger brother because he was one of the cool ones – I think I needed an ally. The rest of the family found out when my older brother saw me fighting on TV. It was quite annoying, because I had specifically asked for that fight not to be shown. When I got home, the whole family was gathered in the living room – I guess you could call it an intervention. Obviously they didn’t think a woman should be boxing, so they asked me to stop.
How did that make you feel?
It totally broke my heart. I’d studied law at university so I went to work at a law firm for a while and I didn’t enjoy it one bit. Eventually I started boxing again, then stopped. There was a lot of stopping and starting until I decided to pursue it full time.
You’ve already won several boxing titles and your next goal is the Olympics – what will it mean to you to go to Tokyo and represent Somalia?
The last four years of my sporting career have been really tough, because I’ve been working towards the Olympics without financial support from my country. There wasn’t even a boxing federation in Somalia, so my husband [boxing coach Richard Moore] and I set one up, and it’s been great because other Somali athletes have come forward wanting to join.
It’s tough because in boxing, only two women from Africa are allowed to qualify, whereas they will allow six from Europe – there’s an inequality there and it’s really frustrating.
Your mum has come round to the idea of you boxing and says she will watch you box in Tokyo if you qualify. Does that feel like an enormous pressure?
It feels like the opposite! My mum knows what a struggle it is to actually get to the Olympics, especially if you’re representing Somalia, so she’ll be proud of me regardless. In some ways I feel like going to the Olympics represents something bigger than just me – it’s showing people in Africa that they can do something when they’ve come from nothing, too.
You said your mum is a “greater fighter than I’ll ever be”. How does she inspire you?
My mum’s been through so much in life, just knockdown after knockdown, and she still does it with a smile on her face. She’s illiterate and yet she’s raised six kids and made sure they all went to university and got an education. But my god, she’s fierce [laughs]. You don’t want to get on the wrong side of my mum – she’s really scary.
You recently visited Jordan with Unicef UK and met young women who have lived in conflict in Syria. Why was making that trip so important?
I wanted to bring hope to the girls out there. Before I went to Jordan I worried I might feel out of place in the camp, but once I got there I could see myself in so many of the young women I met. They were all very curious and wanted to hear what it was like to leave conflict and survive and make a life somewhere.
You teach a weekly women-only self-defence class in London. How did that come about?
I started doing the class in partnership with a charity – I thought I’d do it for a month, maybe two, but it’s been going for two years now. It’s a really private class where I teach women from all cultures and walks of life how to box and protect themselves and it’s been amazing – before they started coming, some of the women had never been to the gym in their life. They love it and they’re getting really good at it. Although I still don’t understand why there are hardly any women-only gyms, it’s bizarre.
Last year, you were on the cover of British Vogue as one of Meghan Markle’s ‘Forces for Change’. Was that a proud moment?
Oh definitely, getting that phone call from Meghan was something I’ll probably remember for the rest of my life. I had absolutely no idea she was going to call – the phone rang and it was a private number so I ignored it three times, then when I did pick up I was so rude [laughs]. And she was so nice… She thanked me for agreeing to feature and the whole time I was thinking, ‘As if I’d say no…’
There’s currently a film about your life in the works. Were you surprised when filmmakers got in touch?
I really wasn’t into the idea at first because it just felt so exposing – I didn’t want my life put out there for everyone to see. But I’ll hand it to the producer, Lee Magiday [who produced The Favourite], she was persistent! She came to watch me compete, she took me for dinner, she met my family – over a period of two years she didn’t let it go and now she feels like family. So, I thought, ‘You know what, if my story’s going to be made by anyone, I want it to be her.’
Do you know who will play you?
They’re in the process of casting – I don’t know who it will be. Although I’d love Idris [Elba] to be in it in some form. He’s probably too old to play one of my brothers, but he could be someone, right? I might have to start inventing roles for him…
Ramla Ali is a high profile supporter for Unicef UK, helping vulnerable girls around the world. To donate to Unicef UK’s Children’s Emergency Fund, visit unicef.org.uk/donate
“I WAS INSPIRED BY STORIES OF HOPE”
Ramla Ali shares an exclusive diary extract from her trip to Jordan with Unicef UK.
13 December 2019. The biting cold desert winds of winter have begun as I approach Za’atari Refugee Camp in Jordan, just twelve kilometres from the border of Syria.
When first asked by Unicef UK to travel to Jordan to better understand the incredible work they do on the ground, I was taken back. A Somali war refugee who grew up on a council estate in Whitechapel to becoming an official Supporter of UNICEF was not something I had ever dreamed of. It’s not that I thought I wasn’t worthy of such an esteemed title but what a lot of people don’t understand is growing up this way in London you aren’t given the privilege of dreaming. We watch as youth centres and after-school spaces across the country are being shut down. And we question why crime rates are on the rise and discuss the need for equal pay and ethnic minority inclusion in employment.
I do understand though why the British media has been so interested in telling my story and why Unicef UK approached me to be a force for change. Loss of family life through war, childhood obesity, bullying, and everything that comes with being an immigrant in London are all part of what has shaped me. So I do believe I have a unique perspective when talking about a lot of topics that UNICEF so brilliantly supports, but for me my own accomplishments, whether in the sport of boxing or modelling, are dwarfed by what I believe real heroes are made of and who I met on this trip.
I’ve faced many adversities in my life, but because so much time has passed, I asked myself whether I could even relate to these struggles anymore. I was so young when I fled Somalia and fortunately for me it was my older siblings who had to bear the brunt of the hardships. The new beginnings in a foreign land. The difficulties of learning a new culture, language and way of life. But there’s nothing like seeing the sight of tens of thousands of families in a camp who wear their war torn stories across their faces like scars, that floods you with a wave of fragmented memories, to a time and place that you know you’ve been before.
To truly describe the conditions of these camps and settlements is extremely complex. There’s an expectation when writing about the refugee crisis that a sad story of a destroyed family is the best way to resonate with the general public. For me though it’s not that simple. Yes, these tragic stories are in abundance and anyone who chooses to volunteer, support or visit will hear first-hand about the pain people have had to endure, but what I found most inspiring were the countless stories of superheroes and hope.
We live in a society that positions reality TV stars and social media influencers as modern day heroes, which doesn’t always set the best example for children growing up who deserve to be inspired. I know I’m personally talked about in some forums as a role model and influencer of some kind myself, but I won’t tell my children the story of Ramla Ali, I will teach them about the real heroes I met in Jordan. They don’t fly or have invisible powers, they don’t have a million followers on Instagram but they do save lives and ask for nothing in return. I’m talking about the doctors and nurses inside these camps that work twenty-four hour shifts. The teachers that help these children who are so desperate to learn, and the volunteers and dedicated Syrian refugees that run the UNICEF Makani centres which offer after-school spaces for sport, learning, protection and innovation for youth to exist.
I found myself drawn to this twelve-year old girl, Shaah, a ball of energy and enthusiasm in a makeshift wrestling gym. She adored her teacher, Faiza, the woman that has been coaching her in a variety of combat sports, dancing and other disciplines despite the challenging environment they find themselves in. Now all she wants to be is a coach like Faiza. You can only dream of what you can become with what you can see. Fortunately for Shaah she can see another inspiring woman in front of her which is incredible.
I later sat surrounded by Syrian teenagers in a classroom, who with support from their parents had been able to continue their education, and I found myself being inspired by their resilience and excitement for their future. I asked what’s next for them. A prayer, that is only answered to less than ten percent that apply for a full scholarship to a university in Jordan due to funding shortages. “And after University?” I asked. Every girl had an answer. ‘I want to be an international lawyer’, ‘a journalist’, ‘an accountant’, ‘a surgeon’. When most of us would have given up on the idea of a normal life let alone a university degree and a career, these sisters had nothing but hope.
You could see in their eyes that they truly believed they would go on to become what they had been dreaming of after so many years in Za’atari. I couldn’t help but also be sad. Would these dreams come true? I prayed they did.
I personally don’t agree in anyway with the concept of early marriage, but I do understand how and why it exists. I believe more than anything it’s the result of a desperate family’s need to ensure that their daughter is financially secure and will not starve. To judge these parents on this decision is not that simple when you haven’t experienced their journey or lived beside them in a camp with eighty thousand others whilst you share rationed water, food and medicine. Most mothers would never choose to give their daughters away if they thought they had an alternative, but sadly it’s something that’s on the rise because of worsening economic conditions. I do believe though the solution to prevent early marriage is very much being implemented by UNICEF through their educational programmes and scholarship opportunities across both refugee camps, worldwide and youth centres.
An opportunity to join the workforce, and gain equal gender pay, empowers young women – meaning they don’t have to marry early or rely on husbands to earn – and can make their own decisions that affect their lives, and that of their children. Equal gender pay means not relying on possible husbands to be the financial provider, this then eliminates the culture of early marriage. Equal pay will only come though if we can help these women secure scholarships, university degrees, technical and vocational training so they can work.
It’s been eight years since the birth of Za’atari Refugee Camp when the war first began and Syrian refugee children and their families travelled to Jordan in their hundreds of thousands. I contemplate how long we will wait until they welcome the birth of babies whose mothers were also born in the camp. Six more years? Seven? It’s incomprehensible to imagine a nine-year-old who has not seen life outside of Za’atari or Azraq Refugee Camp, but this is the case for tens of thousands of newly born Syrians.
What kind of childhood is this and what message are we sending to the world as a human race to not continue to support humanitarian organisations like UNICEF in the hope that this will cease to exist? I believe we have to accept culturally in the UK and other western countries that these kinds of disasters, wars and atrocities - which for the most part can be blamed to some degree on other countries foreign policy decisions - are not short lived, with the average number of years of displacement at over 20 years. The answer is not just resettlement to third countries (less than 2% are resettled). Instead, we have to systematically build the foundations of these countries which host millions of refugees, including our own, to ensure we have the adequate infrastructure and programmes to welcome and improve the lives of displaced people.
What I personally learnt on this trip was the importance your voice can have as a role model and to use that power for change. It’s unacceptable to be given a platform and a career as an entertainer, a musician or sports person and to only think about yourself and what’s best for your needs, your bank balance and your fame.
You can’t argue that society listens to our world leaders and politicians and your job is merely to entertain because culture as we know it, is dictated by our artists, poets, singers and sports people and it’s our responsibility to educate ourselves on where we perform, what we say and the repercussion this may have on others.
As I left both camps and headed back to the centre of Amman with nothing but my thoughts to occupy my mind, I watched the sun slowly fall and the dust begin to rise as it blew across the city like a cloud of smog from something out of a Dickens novel. I was hit with the realisation of how lucky I am. How blessed my siblings and I are, to have had the mother we did. A greater fighter than I will ever be. That never stopped after all her knockdowns and ensured that everyone one of us was fed, clothed and graduated university with a degree. I owe her everything. The solution in my eyes is obvious. We must educate our sisters and daughters of tomorrow, they are the key to change and the answer to a more positive society. One that I believe we all want to live in.
Opening image originally photographed for Puss Puss magazine; Fashion: Grace Joel; Hair: Sarah Jo Palmer at D&V using Mr Smith; Make-up: Amy Wright using Fenty Beauty; Ramla wears: blazer, Acne studios (acnestudios.com); earrings, Misho (mishodesigns.com) additional photography: Getty Images, Unicef.