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Bangla boy – separation

My mother and I – Bangladesh – February 2019

My mum tells me, ‘your father took you away from me, like a tiger grabs his prey’. I was aged six at the time and didn’t really appreciate that sentiment until I had a child of my own.  The thought of giving her up is incomprehensible to me for whatever reason….it was at that point that I realized the gravitas of the situation and the heartbreak that it would have caused my mum. She says she stopped eating the foods that I used to eat as it reminded her of me.

My father had two wives and I was the eldest son of his second wife, it was during the 1970’s that he applied for visas to bring his first family to the UK. It was not an uncommon thing for Bangladeshi men that migrated to the UK to have more than one wife….in some instances they had a British wife too, these men were referred to as ‘mo aloo’ (sweet potato – slang for men who had strayed from their heritage and did not visit Bangladesh).  I had an uncle like that and he was my favourite. 

He brought me for economic reasons, so that a child from his second wife will have the means to support his mother and siblings.  I was not an anomaly; this was happening with other families during the late 70’s and early 80’s when Bangladeshi men finally decided to bring their wives and children to the UK. Some of them brought their nephews and those that had two marriages often brought sons from their second marriage too. 

 Growing up in Lozells, I knew a handful of other boys in similar positions and some of them were actually treated like Cinderella, doing all the housework, shopping, cooking and cleaning. I was one of the luckier ones, I was made to do the shopping on a Saturday morning without fail with my step-mum. This was really embarrassing as we went to Soho Road and I had to pull one of those old lady’s shopping trolleys.  This was done to save a few pennies so we could buy more land in Bangladesh, whilst we lived in relative poverty in the UK.  I recall listening to a conversation that my father had with his friends about Idi Amin and how Asians were being thrown out of Uganda and the hatred of the Enoch Powell speeches.  There was a genuine fear for them that we would be made to leave and go back to Bangladesh at some point.

I came to the UK in 1976 at the age of six, I don’t recall the plane journey at all.  I remember being in a flat in London and being alone and my older sister (Mina) comforting me.  My father’s plan was for us to stay in London and have his children grow up to work in the textile industry to make him money so he could buy more land in Bangladesh.  It was not to be, the house that he had planned to rent fell through so he hired a van and brought us to Birmingham. At first we stayed at one of our cousin’s houses in Frederick Road, Aston for a couple of weeks then later we moved to a cold damp place in Smethwhick.  I recall eating sugar with a table spoon and seeing snow for the first time.  I was in hospital for a period of time with Bronchitis…I remember having one of those little dinky cars that I would push and it would speed along the corridor. That is the only time I can recall suffering from poor health. 

Six months later we moved to Johnstone Road, Lozells and I started school at Heathfield infant school.  We had a three-storey house and an English lodger.  He had served in the War and he would demonstrate how he used to crawl on the floor.  He used to eat boiled cabbage and my step mum used to feel sorry for him and she would give him a plate of rice and curry.  I have fond memories of going to the fish market in the Bull Ring with my dad, he used to buy all sorts of big fish heads.  Fish heads were sold at a pittance, however, in Bangladesh they are seen as a delicacy and would be sought after.  Once the family had settled into the new home, my father decided to go back to Bangladesh to be with my mum and siblings.

My father at our wedding – 2005

This would become a routine feature in years to come as he would spend a year or two in Bangladesh until his money ran out.  I remember there was some tension before he left, my step mum said that he should take me back with him.  My eldest sister (Mina) took me under her wing.  My step mother had her hands full with five children including Molik, my youngest brother who was born in the UK.  My father returned a year later and managed to secure a council house on Graham Street and this still remains the family home for my mum and Molik.  We also had our youngest sister, Full Mala and we call her Fullie.  I vaguely remember being in a children’s home for a very brief period as my step-mum struggled to look after us all.

I started attending Anglesey Junior School and just as I was learning to read and write my dad decided to take me to Bangladesh at the age of nine.  It was during the summer holidays when we went.  After landing in Sylhet, I recall being in a boat that took me to my Bari (village home), I jumped off the boat and ran towards our family home and I saw this woman running towards me.  I turned around and ran towards my dad and I recall saying ‘Dad, there is this woman chasing me’, he said that is your mum.  Imagine that, I managed to forget what my mother looked like within three years.  As it happens, I cannot recall her face at all from my visit.  I am told that your brain has a way of dealing with things.  It took me a few days to acclimatise, I recall walking around wearing flip flops with my cousins for a few days.  I soon took them off and I can recall the squishy mud between my toes.  I totally immersed myself and became a Bangla boy climbing trees, swimming endlessly during the monsoon season, eating mangoes and all manner of fruits that were in season, visiting the paddy fields etc.  I cannot recall any moments of tenderness from mum at all.  If my nine year child had returned from  three years of absence, I would have smothered her with love…that is exactly what happened I imagine.

My mum has her own tragic story, her mother died when she was a baby and her father died when she was an infant.  My mother was raised by her aunt which happened to be my father’s mum – my grandmother.  My mum grew into a beautiful and vivacious woman whom my father married at 15 years of age.  Her first born was named Sobi, sadly she passed away and then I came along when she was 18 years of age, I had a brother born after me, sadly he too passed away.  It was during the 1970’s when cholera was rife and Bangladesh had one of the highest infant mortality rates.  My step mother lost two of her first born and several relatives I know also passed away.  It was a common feature at the time, to lose infant children.  Luckily those days have gone and Bangladesh has drastically reduced its infant mortality rate. 

After a year in Bangladesh, I returned to the UK and started school again, I had forgotten most of my English and was given additional support to catch up.  I settled back into homelife and then my father returned to Bangladesh, this pattern followed throughout our childhood.  He was trying to be a father to children in two different countries and he was not succeeding.  I was a skinny, hyperactive and naughty child and my step mother had her hands full with me.  I would often get into trouble and was dealt with accordingly; sometimes it was a stick or a belt or whatever else she could put her hands on.  I do not begrudge those beatings at all, I fully deserved them.  This is very difficult for me to write because all I wanted was to be loved, appreciated and reassured.  It was a complex relationship; she was raising the child of her younger competitor and I was a constant reminder of that woman.  It can be wrapped up as ‘tough love’ but it was really hard for me at the time, I recall one incident crying myself to sleep at the age of 13 and vowing that I didn’t need her love or approval.  In many ways, it made me the man that I am today.  I did not grow up to be a bitter person, far from it, and this is played out in my career choice later in life as a Youth & Community Worker. 

At the age of 14, my sister Mina, took me under her wing again.  She was now married and her husband worked in Bedford and only came home for one day a week.  She asked me to live with her whilst her husband was away.  This was such a blessing for me, as I was shown kindness and love.  She had two sons Jubial and Junel within a year and this was followed by a daughter named Ferdusi.  I have such fond memories of my nephews, I used to sit them on my lap during meal times and feed them.  I had nothing but love and affection for them and this continues to this day.  I am passionately known as ‘mysum mama’ (maternal middle uncle).  Mikael came some years later and I was unable to spend as much time with him as I was older then and had moved on. 

At the age of 15 I started to work in a restaurant on a part time basis, this was the norm for Bangladeshi boys growing up in the 90’s.  Having a job was like being emancipated, I was paid £16.00 for a 20-hour week.  I gave my step -mum £10.00 and I was able to keep £6.00 and it was the first time I had more than one pair of shoes and I bought Farah trousers, which I also wore when working in the restaurant as a waiter.  Giving my step-mum the £10.00 a week started to change things, suddenly I was shown affection and love.  Later on, when I started to work full time in restaurants and was paid £150.00 per week, I would give her £100.00 and I would keep £50.00.  I did this until I was 19 years of age and then I started to work in Curry’s Electrical Store. I also started to attend part time college and I began volunteering at my local youth club.

My world changed again when I was aged 20, my birth mother arrived from Bangladesh with my four siblings.  My father tried to do the same thing with his second family, he tried to keep them in London, however, my mother was not having any of it…she said, I want to be near my son and he was forced to come to Lozells.  I recall my first visit to my mums, it was a tense experience, ten years had passed since the last time I had seen her in Bangladesh.  During that period, I had grown into a man.  She came with her traditional views and I didn’t share them.  It took me several years before I fully established a proper relationship with my mum.  One of the things she told me was that I should now look after my younger siblings…I kicked against that initially saying ‘they are your children not mine’.  Eventually I came around to the notion of how a traditional Bangladeshi family operates, with the eldest son acting as a ‘proxy’ father figure.  After the passing of my father some years ago, I have reluctantly fully embraced the role of the father figure. 

My mum has taught me many things and one of her greatest virtues is compassion for those less fortunate than her.  Throughout my adult life, I have helped my poorer cousins and people in my village in Bangladesh by sending funds to support them.  Fast forward into my 40’s, I was in business and things started to go from bad to worse.  We had three bank overdrafts and all of them were maximised and we were broke.  There was one month I could not pay my mortgage and I told my mum, she said,’’ Take me to the bank” and at the counter she told me ‘take all you need’.  I borrowed £2,000.00 and more over a period of time.  I cannot forget that moment and never will.

 Things have changed now, as the debts have all been repaid and I am in a better financial position.  Mum went to Bangladesh in January 2020 and was due to return a few months later and then Covid came.  We wanted to bring her back, but she has decided to stay and still remains there now (Jan 2021) as she is happier there.  Every now and then, she mentions that she is short of money…I tell her don’t worry ‘every penny that I have is yours’ and I send her money.

Reflecting back to my childhood, it was tough but a period that defined my life for one of love and compassion.  Throughout my life, I have shown love and compassion to people around me and usually this is returned tenfold.  The periodic absence of my father made me want to be the best dad in the world and I have been blessed with two amazing daughters.  We raise them with love, compassion and tough love, I must admit my wife is better at the latter. 

I have come to terms with the separation from my birth mum and remain grateful to my step- mum for taking care of me.  My two mothers have made me the man I am today, and I will remain forever in their debt. 

My parents at our wedding – 2005

Coffee Houser sei addata – the Italian Bangladeshi’s have arrived.

Dipu Bhai – one of the owners

Those of you that have a Bangla heritage may know this famous Bangla song by Manna Dey called Coffee Houser sei addata. It’s a melancholy song of friends that used to meet up in a coffee house in their youth and now through the gaze of an older self, one of them reflects how some of his friends have sadly come to pass. Those of you familiar with Bollywood songs may know that Manna Dey and Kishor Kumar gave voice to Sholay’s iconic song, Yeh Dosti. I could continue about the role of Bengalis in Bollywood; however, the subject of my blog is closer to home.

I sit at Aroma Coffee Shop on the Lozells road and reflect on how the area has continued to change over the decades with each wave of migration a new flavour is added to the landscape. Memories of my father come flooding back when he used to take me to cafés in the 1980’s. One of the cafés I think was called Zindagi on Barker Street in Lozells, he gave me 10p to have a go at the fruit machines and I won £1.00. These places were often run by Bangladeshi men and their white girlfriends or wives in some instances. These places doubled as a place to play cards and sometimes gamble after hours. They also provided a vital place for people to socialise, share information and support each other with finding employment.

In the mid-eighties my friends and I used to go to a place on Lozells Road called the Plaza, the place was run by a Bangladeshi man known as ‘Blackie’. We used to play pool until our money ran out whilst older Bangladeshi and Pakistani men played cards and gambled. It was a smoke-filled affair and a cheap place for local neighbourhood kids to hang out. The area had several cafés back then and most of them were owned by Greek Cypriots and they had exotics names such as Acapulco, Riviera, Rendezvous etc. Some of them served food, whilst most didn’t and they made their money through pinball, games such as Pacman and phoenix were very popular, some had pool tables and fruit machines. They were often edgy places with young men hanging around smoking cigarettes and occasionally spliffs if they could get away with it. Such was my fascination with cafes, that I ended up owning one, then called the Riviera. The place was the main feature of my last blog, From Fighter to Writer.  Towards the mid-nineties these places were being phased out by the government as gambling licenses for them were restricted for pubs and clubs.

Chana Daal & Meat

We witnessed a new wave of coffee shops with the arrival of the Somalians in the early 2000’s as they revived parts of Stratford road which had been derelict for decades. In the next decade we saw a growth in coffee shops on the Villa Road from the Eritrean community, another area that was in need of revival. One of the first places to open was Champions Coffee Shop run by Beruke and we have aptly named it Rasta Coffee. The place started with an internet café as well, but that has been phased out as demand no longer exists, it is a popular cafe now serving the best coffee in the city. Beruke takes pride in roasting his organic Ethiopian beans on site. He does a take away ground coffee service and my office and home never goes without. His place is like stepping into Africa with African cable channels playing music on a large screen TV. There are growing numbers of cafés nearby and he complains that the trade is being saturated.

I was with Idrish last week and I told him about Aroma Cafe and how much I liked the place. With Idrish, there’s always a story; he tells me they are all from Shariat Pur near Forid Pur, where he is from in Bangladesh. He adds there was a very active student leader that became an ambassador in Italy and leading up to the world cup hosted in Italy 1990, he asked the Italian officials for Visas for his fellow countrymen. He was given 20,000 Visas and he went back to Shariat Pur and spoke to many of the young men and encouraged them to travel to Italy. Many of them took up the offer and went to Rome and settled in the Vittoria Emanuel area. As it happened, some years ago we booked an Air B ‘n B in that area and it was like from home from home, we went to the local fresh food markets and half the stalls were run by Bangladeshi people selling various vegetables from Bangladesh as well as Italian fresh veg, fruit and fish. Idrish tells me that the area is the headquarters, similar to our Brick Lane in London, that’s where they go to on arrival and they support each other with accommodation and employment.

Chicken Curry & Rice

Over the last five years we have seen the settlement of Italian Bangladeshi migrants settling in Lozells and nearby areas. When you ask why they have arrived? they always say because of the education and being able to raise their children in an Islamic custom. They are also a lifeline to the many Bangladeshi restaurants that continually face staff shortages, as the established Bangladeshi community are opting for a professional career.

The patterns of migration appear to be similar for new arrivals across the world settling into the poorest neighbourhoods and creating a new flavour to an area. We are so much richer for it as a community, to be able to sample a glimpse of a new culture adds something to a place, making it like new, without adjusting the built environment. Places like Lozells, Handsworth, Aston, Smallheath and other similar areas have the ability to absorb new arrivals and allow them to flourish and prosper. So, if you’re looking for authentic Bangladeshi street food and proper coffee that is reasonably priced then look no further than Aroma Cafe on Lozells Road.  My favourite is the Bangla Nasta and Deshi tea.  Maybe I’ll see you there!

Desi Chai

From fighter to writer?

Outside the Riviera Amusement on Lozells Road – 1991

I’ve probably lost more fights than I won, but along the way I’ve broken a couple of noses and in return I’ve got a fractured skull for it….but the important thing is that “I stood and fought”.

I was born in May 1970 in Bangladesh and I was one years’ old during the Liberation War. It would appear that the fighting spirit of the Mukti Bahini (freedom fighter) has been imbued up on me…I’ve had fights and arguments in Bangladesh and the UK.  I came to the UK at the age of six in 1976 and lived in Lozells in Birmingham through some of its most violent periods.

Violence was never far away, on reflection it started at home when corporal punishment was meted out on a regular basis. Raising seven children in one household had its challenges.  Being a naughty child meant that I was often punished, my mum use to instruct me to get a singla (branch) from the garden, which was used as a weapon of choice. My father was more brutal, a belt or his knuckles would do the trick. I recall one beating over the head with a belt buckle, which left me bleeding.

Growing up in the eighties meant regular racist abuse and violence. It was a period when ‘Paki bashing’ was a pastime for racist thugs and I had my fair share. I was aged 11 years old when a group of us went blackberry picking in Burberry Park after school. We were chased by four adult skin heads. We all ran for our lives and I hid in a bush to escape. I was found and a skin head smashed an egg on my head and he said, ‘I’m saving this for the other one’ and ran off. These were usual occurrences and we lived in fear. Nursery road divided Lozells and Newtown. If you crossed Nursery road and went into Newtown, there was a good chance that you would be chased and beaten. So we avoided it as much as we could. I had a cousin who lived in Newtown and whenever we visited, it was with trepidation. My cousin had a lot of fights for simply trying to get home.

In our early teens, during the eighties, the threat came from African Caribbean boys. They would stop us and ‘tax’ us. In the nineties the threat came from Pakistani boys. 

Being of Bangladeshi heritage means that we are the smaller of the south Asian communities and viewed as the poor cousins. The family unit joined our fathers in the seventies and eighties, which placed us at a disadvantage from the Indian and Pakistani community who joined them almost immediately after post war Britain. This meant we were slower to integrate and learn the language. My older brother was inspired by Bruce Lee, I would see him practice his moves in the living room. He wasn’t the only one, many Bangladeshi young men joined Kung Fu clubs to learn to defend themselves. My cousin was a regular at Laugar Kung Fu and I joined him for a couple of weeks. But the weekly fees of £3.50 was far too much to spend on one child, so I had to drop out.

However, this did not deter me from learning to fight. I was part of a group of Bangla boys that played football and sports on the streets and the local parks. We also took part in ‘kusthi’ (wrestling), we were the teenage equivalent of young bulls testing our strength and techniques. I wasn’t the strongest, but I was tenacious and I learned a few techniques that allowed me to beat bigger and stronger opponents. At the age of 19, I joined a gym and did weight training and buffed up a bit, I realised that I was considerably strong for my size. We still took part in Kusthi and it was a good way to develop my skills further. I was considered to be amongst one of the toughest by my peers.

Fights were a common feature growing up in the eighties. My cousin had a fierce reputation as he was able to continue his Kung Fu training and used it to good effect if he was messed with. I recall him knocking guys out with one punch. By this time, we were able to hold our own with the skin heads, especially as the area that we lived in had ‘white flight’ from the mid 80’s as there were less of them. We had a few skirmishes with African Caribbean boys. 

BYF trip to Spain – 1998

From an early age I realised one of the ways to avoid fights was by making as many friends as possible…your friends don’t usually beat you up. That continues to play out. The real threat came from the Pakistani boys, they would seek you out and beat and mug you. The situation in Lozells wasn’t as bad as neighbouring Aston. Lozells is a much smaller neighbourhood and has a tighter knit community with friendship from all racial backgrounds built up from going to the same schools. The Bangladeshi boys were often beaten and mugged in Aston.

By the age of 21, I owned an amusement arcade called Riviera in Lozells in partnership with a friend.  This proved to be the most violent period of my life.  It was also when I realised that I could do anything that I put my mind to. I recall sitting in Burberry Park and visualising that I would own the Riviera. And I made it happen.

When I finally took it on, I employed my childhood friend to help me run the place. He was an old hand at this, as he had worked in several amusement arcades and he was there to lend his experience. The funny thing is, by the end of the week he would regularly gamble his wages away on fruit machines….as they say, ‘the house always wins’.

I had some dangerous skirmishes with African Caribbean men, one of them named Mad Doc who was a tormentor of mine. He said he wanted protection money from me and would come and collect it on Saturday. I made sure my friends were around that day and he walked away. He caught me on my own once and asked for protection money again, this time I pressed a panic alarm button and he left. On another occasion he was with his friend and when he asked for money, I told him ‘he  would have to walk over my dead body to take my money’…..his response was “nah man’s being cheeky” and he pulled out a knife from his back pocket and waved it at me.  As it happened I had a bigger knife under the counter from the famous ‘suree’ factory (crocodile works) and waved it at him. He ran out and from across the road through glass milk bottles at us. A year later, I learned that he was stabbed to death by a Rasta…I guess if you live by the sword, you die by the sword.

The fight of my life was at Riviera. A group of Bangladeshi boys from Aston came in and said that one of them had beaten up Spade’s brother. Spade was a Pakistani gangster from Aston and had seven brothers who were as bad as he was. Spade was one of the gang leaders from Aston and they used to operate out of Moonlight video shop. The rumour was that they were into all sorts of illegal activities. I got a call from one them and they said ‘we are coming to get you’, I asked two of my friends who lived in Aston with some standing in the community to go and speak to them to see if they could calm them down.

Tensions had been simmering for a while between Bangladeshi and Pakistani men. On that day, we had 30-40 Bangladeshi boys and men in the Riviera all tooled up and ready to fight. One of the guys said, “the Mukti Bahini gave their lives, I will do the same”. The two friends returned, whilst I was outside Riviera and I asked ‘what did they say?’ One of them replied ‘they are not listening’. I was wondering what that meant….before long I saw a dozen or so Pakistani boys and men tooled up with sticks and metal bars running towards us. One of my friends advised us to get inside. Whilst inside they were breaking the windows, I went out with a hockey stick and hit someone, but it broke. I came back in and found a cricket bat and went out again…shouting ‘agou be’ (let’s go), I thought people would follow me out to fight.  I faced Spade and he attacked me with a bar, I blocked it with my elbow and pinned him against the window and hit him in the face with the cricket bat twice and broke his nose in two places. I didn’t realize that I had left my back exposed and I was being hit over the head; when I was being hit over the head, only one of my friends actually came out to fight. By this time, they had almost beaten me to the ground and I had blood pouring all over my head. They left me to bleed and ran off…I was very angry with everyone, because they didn’t come out to fight. Some people are better talkers than fighters.

I was taken to the hospital in an ambulance and when I got there, they did an x-ray and realised that my skull was fractured and I needed three and four stitches. The doctor that was doing the stitching said, I’ve never done this before’ – that didn’t fill me with confidence.  After being stitched up, I was taken to a bed to rest. Every now and then I was waken up by a  nurse to take my blood pressure. I lay there the next morning, thinking ‘this is not worth my life’. I sold the Riviera and never went back to it. Instead I went to College and studied…I guess you could say that the hit to the head knocked some sense into me. Sadly that was not my last fight, there were a few more along the way but that’s for another day.

I continued into University and qualified as a youth worker. I loved being a youth worker and did my job with love and passion. At the age of 24, I set up the Bangladeshi Youth Forum (BYF) to campaign for resources for our community. For the first four years I was the Chair and I worked around the clock. This was my transition from fighter to activist. Some people described me as an ‘angry young man’, I would correct them and say ‘I am a passionate young man’. Fast forward 25 years and I remain passionate and continue to fight using different tactics.  Sometimes, I am unable to master my emotions and I take people on in public spaces and I feel angry with myself for it.  However, if I said nothing, the moment would have been missed.  I often contemplate for long periods about my action and if it was the right thing to do? The fighter in me will not allow me to say nothing ‘speaking truth to power’ has become one of my trademarks. 

During the last three decades I have learned to build organisations and write bids to sustain them.  Ten years ago, I set up Legacy WM and have developed it into a leading charity in the West Midlands.  The charity was started really to document the heritage of Bangladeshi pioneers that have settled in Birmingham. I wrote ‘Bangla Food Journeys’….it was at that point that the fighter became a writer…but I have only managed to acknowledge it a decade later. Having left school with no qualifications leaves a scar on you regardless of what you accomplish. I have set myself a goal to undertake a PhD before the day is done…maybe at that point I will truly believe the ‘fighter became a writer’. 

Ten years on…..

Launch of Bangla Food Journeys with Maya – Jan 2012 @ Drum

Ten years ago I started Legacy WM with a desire to collect stories of Bangladeshi heritage to shape our own narrative; it has grown into a reputable organisation in Birmingham and beyond. 

Bangla Food Journeys was the first project that we developed, with funding from the National Heritage Fund (NHLF) to capture the stories of first- and second-generation pioneers using food as the common theme. A publication was completed, and the stories collected shared within the wider community, giving an in-depth narrative of Bangladeshi settlement in Birmingham.  One of the findings from our research realised that the health of first-generation migrants was better than what young people have today. In light of these findings we developed a project called cultural food journeys, teaching young people how to cook and the dangers of eating fast food on a regular basis.

Lozells and Handsworth is a place that I am very passionate about. I arrived from Bangladesh at the age of 6 and have lived and worked in the area for the last four and half decades. I have seen the area torn apart by the devastating riots, which made the area look like a war zone. I am pleased to say that the area is now thriving and that Lozells Road does not have one empty unit. This is what inspired our second project; ‘Lozells & Handsworth Heritage Trail’ celebrating the areas’ rich architectural and social heritage. With the aim to combat the negative stereotype that the area is associated with. We have had several thousand people visit our trail and the feedback is always very positive.

Men are often credited with rebuilding Britain, hence why we developed ‘Old Wives Tales’. A project collecting stories of first-generation Bangladeshi women who settled in Birmingham. Again, we produced a publication for this that was launched at the Houses of Parliament. We also held an exhibition at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. This project captured the imagination of European groups and led onto a project called ‘Grandmas Story’, which collected stories of migrant grandmother’s from across Europe.

In 2015, we successfully applied for National Lottery funding to develop wellbeing activities with families. We worked with several hundred families, in particular women, to improve their well-being. As a result of our success, meant a renewal of funding in 2018. This project is not simply about delivering health projects, but to create community champions that can continue the work beyond the life of the funding. This is integral to our work ensuring that the community has capacity to sustain themselves.

Building on the success of our work we have set ourselves ambitious targets to double our income over the next three years and to become a housing association.  Our aspiration is to generate core income from the housing lettings, so we can continue our work without solely relying on external grant funding.

I have had the honour of being at the helm over the last ten years and there have been some challenges ….however, the challenges out way the impact we’ve had in the community. I am fortunate to have a staff team and board that are passionate about serving the community. We have developed our governance infrastructure to enable us to continue to build and flourish in years to come.

Good bye Bangladesh…for now

Ushonpur – Sunamgonj

My thirst for my motherland has been quenched for a while at least.  This has been pleasant, as I have been on a photography project and visited places and spaces that I have never been too.  I read about the economic development and women’s empowerment compared to its neighbours; to witness it for myself, was great.  In addition, if you can assess the development of a country by the state of their toilets at the airport…I can say that we have a come along way. In earlier visits, I used to be greeted by mosquito infested squat toilets.  I recall one visit, when I went three days without using one.

Staying on the theme of airports, I was really impressed by Sylhet Airport. I recall earlier visits when it was absolute chaos with passengers and people saying good bye and curt officials. These days, only passengers are allowed in the airport and the immigration process is really smooth. I came to Dhaka airport and looked up to realise that it’s now called Hazrat Shahjalal Airport; the Sufi Saint who came from Yemen with his 360 followers in the 15th century to spread Islam. The airport’s name used to be Zia International Airport; Zia was a former Prime Minister with the BNP, the main opposition party….the ruling Awami League could not allow the capital’s airport being named after the former leader of the opposition.  I wonder if they will change the name if they ever make it back to power?

Another sign of progress is the level of structural development work being undertaken. Dhaka has had highways developed to manage the traffic and I am told we are soon to have a metro system. Now that would be awesome…maybe they could also reduce the number of rickshaws that clog up the roads…or is that too much to ask?  How about having specific lanes for different types of transport? Progress has its price, and the crazy traffic jams in Dhaka make it impossible to get to anywhere soon.  However, I am impressed by the innovation as we have Pathao, a motorbike service that cuts through the traffic.  It works the same as Uber, but it can be hairy at times, if you’re not used to being on a motorbike going at break neck speed. 

I am a city dweller in the UK and what I most yearn for in Bangladesh is the Bari in my village. I love its tranquillity….if you can escape the countless relatives that have no concept of personal space that is.  I always try and find hiding places, usually on the roof top, however, it’s never too long before I am joined by a cousin or two one at a time. I guess that’s part of the charm.

This year has been even more special as my mother was in the Bari with me and she followed me around with food…like I was five year old, I guess I am still her baby. I shall miss her and all the other relatives that live and visit whilst I’m there.  I will not miss the all-night Quran recitals played out on loud speakers throughout the night. I will not miss travelling around in Bangladesh….I recall my travel on a coach from Dhaka to Sylhet on a first class seat. I told the coach driver that I may have a first class seat but the roads are third class.  I will miss the fresh food, the savoury and sour snacks and not to mention the ‘five taka’ road side tea’s with condensed milk.

Until the next time!

Sarees and suits

The British Bangladeshi Power Inspiration (BBPI) have been established for ten years.  On an annual basis they create a list of 100 inspirational people from the Bangladeshi community from various disciplines.  They have an annual celebration event where people come dressed in their finest sarees and suit’s.

Last year I made the BBPI list along with a number of colleagues from Birmingham.  My little sister, Shapali Khatun was featured as a member of the Armed Forces.  I was a little over whelmed and humbled by the honour of making of being added.  I was invited to the event and was excited at the prospect of meeting so many inspirational people.

So when the night arrived, I donned my three peice suit with my best shirt and tie.  I set myself a target to connect with at least one person.  I met a few people on the night and I was really impressed by the calibre of people…and I was wondering why am I here?  I met Dr Moe Rahman who is a Criminologist and he was in the process of launching his book. As it happened, he was from Birmingham and only 27 years of age at the time…he immediately became my role model and I told him ‘when I grow up, I want to be like you’. On a serious note, we have become friends and he is supporting me with my aspirations to pursue a PHD. So he was the one contact that I made…mission accomplished.

Shah, me, Shezan, Sotez and Shale

Fast forward to this year’s garden party. I chose a more relaxed attire on this occasion…but more importantly, I was traveling to London with Shale, Shezan and Shah. All of them are inspiring young people (well, they are younger than me…). Shale runs Aspire & Succeed and his family own Shazanz Kebab House on Lozells road. They are famous for adding a twist to traditional fast food, more importantly they support lots of community events. Shezan is a leading lawyer and with his wife owns four Nurseries, they are self-made couple. Shah owns Skytech, a computer recycling business that he has developed into a market leader and is attracting business from across Europe.

The connection I have with Shale and Shezan are deep as they both used to come to my youth club…I am hoping I’ve inspired them along the way. My link with Shah is, as a football coach nearly three decades ago.  I hope I’ve inspired him as we are both still playing football.

We had planned to leave at 2:30pm but in good fashion Bangla timing we left an hour later and then Shale managed to miss the M1. So we had a lovely scenic route through Northampton and London traffic. We hoped to have arrived for 630pm at the start, however, we managed to get there for 8pm. When we got there, it was lovely to see some familiar faces and meet new people. The women were dressed in beautiful sarees and the men in suits. Ayesha had the best saree in my opinion and looked absolutely beautiful.

Ayesha and Bably

Sohini Alam sang at last year’s event and I was blown away. I have been trying to bring her to Birmingham to perform and I am still working on that. I had a nice chat with Sohini. She told me her training is in Nozrul Gheeti and we are exploring the possibility of bringing an artist from Bangladesh for a collaborative performance.

Sohini & me…

I met Auropa AKA Bably, her Bangla dhak naam. She impressed me with her style and what she does. She is design and branding specialised. We discussed our shared interests in branding and talked about our families. As it happens, we both have two daughters of similar age. We have since been in touch and are arranging a meet up.

 Towards the end of the event there was obligatory photo shoots, where everyone looked awesome. After the event, we were invited to a post event bite and sheesha. I sat by Ayesha and I discussed the frustrations that I have with the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham and the lack of diversity. She said they had similar issues in the London Olympics.  She said the Olympic team showed her a photo of black staff, however, they were all catering staff. She said they campaigned against the injustice and in the end they set up a diversity and inclusion board. The board met every two weeks to review progress. That sounds like a good idea for Birmingham.  The gentleman next to Ayesha happened to work for the Foreign Commonwealth Office and part of his remit was reporting to the DCMS Minister. I asked him, what the best way to raise my concerns would be? He said the best option would be via my local MP…so, I will be writing a letter to Jess Philips. 

Reflecting on the evening, it appears that amidst the sarees and suits and everyone’s desire to look good. There was some serious work being done. The power of networks is not to be underestimated. The recent BBC documentary by Amal Rajan on How To Break Into The Elite, discussed the power of networks and how poorer people don’t have the same networks or opportunities. In Birmingham, I play a role of bringing likeminded people together and creating opportunities for young people. I get comments like, ‘my daughter wants to be a Dentist, but she is unable to find work experience’. As it happens, the football team that I manage has two brothers that are Dentists, so I’ve managed to arrange the work experience. One of the girls I have arranged work experience for, has now enrolled to University to pursue her dreams of becoming a Dentist.

There are serious issues around under employment for people in the Bangladeshi community. One of my friend’s son has a first class degree from London LSE in Mathematics and he has struggled to find suitable employment, last time I checked he was volunteering with a local accounts firm. All his white counterparts managed to get graduate jobs before they even left University. So the work of BBPI is crucial in creating connections that often lead to opportunities and friendship. I am grateful to the inspirational work that is being done by Ayesha and Abdal….and they do it in style wearing sarees and suits.

Last day in the village

I am sitting on top of my cousin’s extension under the shade of the mango tree in the mid-day sun with a gentle breeze.  The mango tree is in full blossom and in a couple of months they will be ready.  The boroi tree has taken over half our roof and is bearing so much fruit, some of which has been harvested and set out to dry. I can see the blossoms of the grapefruit. The coconut and beetle-nut trees are surrounding the building. There are Jackfruits trees with their fruits on their way.  I look up to see the eagle’s still roam supreme. They soar over our Baari making their ‘thee, thee’ sound as they are true guardians. I see one of them attack a crow….a natural pecking order is resumed.


This takes me back to the last time I sat on this roof and wrote some of my thoughts. Much has changed since then, I sat here over a decade ago, and my cousin has managed to build a further floor to his extension. My plan is to develop our house in the next few years with my brothers. The focus has been on our residence in Birmingham. I hope in the next few years the financial pressure will ease so we can improve our section of the building.

People from the village often comment on the fact that we don’t have a suitable home – they add ‘you need to leave something for people to remember your brothers by’….I reply by saying that we can be remembered by our words and deeds.  I should add that books will outlive most buildings. As one day, I plan to write an account of my time here.  Within my life time, I have seen so much change.  The mud huts with thatched roofs have all disappeared. They have been replaced by houses constructed with tin and bamboo for the poor. People with money have built ostentatious houses out of concrete with various designs. Many of them with more rooms then they need and some instances houses are locked up until the householders return for fleeting moments.

I visited the local chairman’s house and he tells me he has 19 bedrooms with an en-suite.  Whilst there, his house is being tidied up. He tells me that his son will visit with his father in law for three hours and they will arrive by helicopter from Dhaka.  I guess they won’t be needing a room then?  His son’s father in law is a millionaire, thanks to the garments industry.  My brother tells me that the chairman’s fortunes changed 20 years ago or so when he had a stroke and his house in London was made mortgage free.  Still, it’s impressive to see that in three generations a local villager has become the local chairman and his son has married into the top echelons of Bangladeshi society.

All of this is to show that they have done well out of being in the UK and abroad.  I think we should do more to preserve the heritage of our land and its people…will there be funding to do that type of work in Bangladesh as they have in the UK?

I have simpler plans to build on top of my dad’s property adding a further floor with four rooms with mod cons. I spoke to my daughter yesterday on what’s app and told her that we now have electricity, she excitedly asks if we have a flush? I reply “not yet baba, we will soon though, that’s the next project”. 

I saved the last day to visit my father’s graveside to pray. I am fortunate to be joined by my only surviving uncle. Every time I visit, I give my dad an account of myself and ask for his approval. It’s always emotional. I am joined by mum and she heads back to the house. I ask everyone else to leave so I can grieve in peace.  Whilst I take in the air I can smell some flowers, I tell myself that my father has acknowledged my presence….

It is nearly 13 years since his passing and I still grieve for him every now and then. I return home to find my mum in floods of tears. I don’t console her as I should, as I will become emotional as well and I want to hold myself up in front of a room filled with people. My uncle heads out and says his goodbye, I walk him to the road and he becomes sad and says, “all my brothers and sisters have left me, I am here alone and the only thing that I can do is pray for them”.  My uncle in his eighties now and is in relatively good health.  He looks like a shifu master from one of those kungfu films.

My uncle Mostapha

I will leave my mum behind for a couple of weeks in Bangladesh, I know the good bye will also be an emotional affair. Whilst here with her, she has followed me around like a lost puppy offering me food. I shall miss her more than she knows. I recall one afternoon when I laid on the bed suffering from a head-ache.  She covered me with a blanket – I am still her little boy after all these years.  I am really fortunate to be able to spend this much time with her in one stretch. Life takes over when I am in the UK and I don’t visit often enough…maybe that will be the change that I make.

Sunrise in my village

Sunrise in my village

Third day in the village and I managed to wake up before six to capture the sunrise. The previous day, I had planned to wake up before the sunrise. However, the local mosque had an all night Quran recitation played out on a loud speaker. In England this would be considered noise pollution and you would have been able to call the Police.  In Bangladesh you simply have to endure the inconvenience. I speak to my cousin, expressing my disapproval and that he should complain. He tells me that there is no use as they will not listen, he adds that there are two schools of thought on this matter, one that approved and one that doesn’t. He says that things are different in Sylhet city, as they are not allowed to play it over loud speakers after 11pm.

As I amble out of bed just before six, and head out into the February morning. I am met with dew or is it fog?  There have been years when I’ve been in February when the sun failed to show at all.  As I head out of my Bari onto the road I see scenes with mist rising from the river. I take photos of due drops glistening on leafs. I count my blessings when I see a kingfisher perched on a branch. I reach for my camera, however, I was just to slow as it dives in for a catch and flies off. I wait for a few moments with the hope that it may return…no sign of it.

Dew drop

I continue down the road and suddenly I catch a glimpse of the sun rising. I feel rewarded for my efforts. The sun slowly appears and the rising mists adds to the beauty of the landscape. I step down into the isles of the paddy fields and I am met with greenery. Sunrises in Bangladesh are spectacular especially as the land is flat and when you include water in the scenery, it adds to the beauty as the sun gilstens off the water. Sunsets are equally spectacular, especially if you can see it over a river with golden colours and siluettes.

Sunset in Thelikhuna

I am content with the photos that I have taken and head back to the Bari. I am surprised to find Thufa (my cousin) on her morning walk towards the bridge. She says that she has neglected her exercise because of the cold weather…. and adds that she has high blood pressure and the doctor has ordered exercise. We head back to the Bari together and idly talk about the beauty of the country.

Tarmac and fizzy drinks

Bamboo being transported on a warn out road…in need of tarmac

It seems a far cry from the idyllic childhood that I had in my village in the 1970’s. The last few years have seen tarmac laid with local transportation become part of this rural landscape. The last six months have finally seen ‘carrant’ as the locals describe electricity, arrive in my village.  Over the years I have been the laughing stock of my fellow British Bangladeshi friends that live in different regions that have had electricity and tarmacked roads for years.

In reflection, was my childhood really idyllic? My first memories are of when I was six and left the village for England.  I recall a very painful memory…my circumcision, waiting in dreaded anticipation for my older brother to have his done, before it was my turn.  My departure to the UK was slightly unusual as my father has two wives and I happen to be the eldest from his second wife.  He wanted to take me to the UK so that at least one of his sons from his second wife would have a ‘Londoni’ son.

I lived in Birmingham for the next three years with my half brothers and sisters.  I was a naughty child and was often scorned by my stepmother. I don’t be begrudge her, it would have been really difficult raising a child from your competition.  At the age of nine, my father decided to take me back to Bangladesh.

It must’ve been after the monsoon season when I arrived, as I recall my father hiring a boat from Sylhet to take us all the way to our Bari (family home).  As the boat moored outside my Bari, I jumped off with excitement and ran towards our house.  As I approached the house, I saw a women run towards me and I ran as fast as I could in the opposite direction to my dad and said, ‘dad a women is chasing me’, my dad replied “that’s your mum”. The three years apart, I had buried what my mother looked like deep. To this day, I cannot place my mother’s face in any of my childhood memories. Only now as a father, I can start to comprehend what it must have been like to give up your six year old child for someone else to raise.  My mother often talks about her sadness of letting me go and how much she cried.  Mum would often say, ‘your father stole you from me like a tiger takes a child’. She stopped eating certain foods that I liked, as it brought back too many painful memories.

It was a matter of a few days before I acquainted myself with my mother and my younger siblings. I recall the first few days running around with my many cousins in sandals, trying to keep up with them. I soon shed my sandals and ran barefoot with them.  I can still recall the first time walking without my sandals, feelings of the squishy mud between my toes seem so moist and unusual to start with. I spent the next year running around the village like a traditional Bangladeshi boy. 

Village live at the time was very basic.  We had no running water or electricity. We still have no running water, but we have a tube well in our Bari.  The nights where lit up with hurricanes and lems (lanterns).  Drinking water was collected from the local Hospital as that was the only tube-well for miles. We were lucky to have the adjoining Bari next to the hospital, which meant we did not have far to walk.  Many villagers resorted to drinking pond and river water.  Deaths from cholera in the 70s was common, I lost three cousins in one night.  The sanitation was open sewers, there was two bamboo sticks over a small pond with some lose coverings to provide a screen.  You would sit on your haunches and relieve yourself…the smell was sickening and it took some getting used too.  As a child it was easy to become accustomed to anything I guess.  Those were some of the unpleasant things.

On the more pleasant side, there was an adventure to have every day. There were many trees to climb and feast on mangoes, boroi, guava and others.  Different fruits came into season throughout the year, so there was something always to look forward to. 

One of my favourite activities was swimming.  To start with I could not swim, but that did not stop me from running around with my cousins. I stayed in the shallow end where my feet could touch the ground.  However, one day I stepped out of my depth literally… as I could not reach the ground anymore.  I thank my lucky stars that I did not panic, instead when my feet touched the ground I slowly walked out of the water.  I recall my father tying a banana tree to me and throwing me into the water to encourage me to swim. My cousins encouraged me to eat mangoes with insects in, as that allegedly helped you to swim, ‘old wives tales’. I recall practicing under water in the family pond and that’s when I learned to swim. I have many happy memories during the monsoon season in the pond and nearby river’s swimming with my cousins.

Fast forward to 2019, we have tarmac and fizzy drink at our disposal if you can afford it.  The cows that used to plough the land have been replaced by tractors and many of the men and women have become displaced of their daily chores.  A handful have managed to leave the country seeking their fortune and have added to a growing middle class in my village returning every now and then to reacquaint themselves with their home land.  Those that are having to work for a living seem to be skin and bone and many of them have lost their cheeks it seems through a lack of some vitamins. Those that don’t have to work, there waist line has started to increase along with diabetes and other ailments.  I guess that’s that price you have to pay for fizzy drinks and tarmacked roads.

First day back in my Baari

Mum and me – Feb 2019

I was funded by Transforming Narratives to undertake a research and development project in Bangladesh in February 2019.  The aim was to work with Tanvir Murad a.k.a Topu a renowned photographer, for a project called ‘waterways’.  I had the opportunity to travel to Dhaka, Bhola and Chandpur to conclude, I spent six days in my village.  I have since returned and held an exhibition in Birmingham and all the photos were sold for a water filtration project in the Bangladesh region of Khulna through Human Appeal (  Whilst there, something profound happened; I recall having dinner with Sophina Jagot and explaining that I wanted to be a writer…she, said ‘you are a writer – keep writing’… appears that I have been given license to write.  As part of my new found confidence, I have written four blogs of my time in Bangladesh and this is the first one. 

After seven days of non-stop travel I was looking forward to spending some quality time in my baari (family home).  I took an overnight first class coach from Dhaka to Sylhet.  The coach had wi-fi, and executive seats, but I was sat near an auntie who was vomiting throughout the journey.  So, I didn’t get much sleep, not to mention the excitement of heading home – yes, still home even after leaving at the age of six.  I recall speaking to the driver and saying, ‘the coach maybe first class, but the road is third class’, he agreed with me.  Bangladesh has much more to do to improve its infrastructure.  I arrived at 5:30am in Sylhet and spent most of the day with my cousin who now resides there. He is part of a growing middle class that has left the village to educate his children in the city. 

We set off for our village in mid-afternoon and arrived just after six. For the first time, I have seen the place lit up by new found electricity, which arrived in our village a few months ago. The government’s promise of bringing light to the whole country is finally bearing fruit. The government has set ambitious target to ensure that the whole country has electricity by the end 2019. Time will tell…but for a country bursting with development and recently outstripping India and Pakistan in growth, it all seems possible.

Whilst in Dhaka and surrounding regions, I saw caterpillar digging machines busy at work. I was surprised to see them on route to my village. Bridges are being built and ponds being extended to become small fisheries.  It seems that the country is in constant phase of development.  Discussions with everyone seems to be optimistic with a new found confidence in the growth of the country.  People are able to earn a half decent living without having to leave the country for the first time in decades.  A baby taxi driver can earn in the region of £300.00 per month.  In the past, you would have to go to the Middle East to take your chances for that amount of earning potential. 

All visits to my village are filled with emotion as I return to my childhood playground. I remain rooted to this place no matter how far I move away.  I yearn for a time when I can spend longer stretches in my village.  Each visit seems more fleeting from the last one.  As I drove into the village with my cousin I was met by my mum and several relatives. They’ve been eagerly waiting for my arrival all day. I asked my mum, have you been looking forward to seeing me, her response almost curt….’what mother doesn’t eagerly wait for her son’.  It’s always a joy to come here.  For the first time we have electricity, wiring and trunking that looks semi decent. I comment to my nephew about it, he said ‘it could have been better, they didn’t stick to my instructions, and he adds that theory is one thing but doing it in practice is another thing’.

After dinner and lively banter, I head to bed being over tired. The next morning I sleep in for the first time in days as I feel slightly under the weather. My nephew woke me up for breakfasts. I amble down to the dining table and enjoy chappatis and baazi.  The vegetable was grown in the baari. Thufa my cousin who looks after our baari, complains we have three rogue monkeys that have come to the village and they have been eating all the small pumpkins and papayas – they have been terrorising the whole village. She has been trying to capture them with a cage to no avail.  She said that she covered the pumpkins with a net, but the monkey remove the net like a human does…she adds ‘this is a monkey after all and I have been defeated by him’.

After breakfast I sit outside by my mum to take in the sun.  This is where my father would have sat. Memories of him come flooding back…I recall when they would both sit together and take in the morning sun. Those days have sadly come to pass. I am fearful that the days when I sit with my mum will come to pass.  I am overwhelmed with emotions and can longer hold back the tears.  I move back into the house and shed some tears and console myself.  I tell myself that we have to cherish the moments that we have. Soon enough I will visit my father’s graveyard to pay my respects…each time I return, it is like a ritual and I give him an account of myself.  I give him an update on my daughters….and imagine how proud he would have been of them.  Even in death, it seems, I seek his approval.  He sadly passed away in 2006 and I recall returning back to the village with him and my brothers on a boat in a star filled night, and thinking that ‘I will leave the stars to gaze upon you, whilst you nourish the land you loved’.  Rest in peace, until the next account…..