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Another light has been dimmed – Jan Bhai RIP

December 12, 2012

I set myself a goal at the age of 19, it was a simple goal ‘to help’.  I was like the many people of my era who had arrived to the UK in the mid seventies at the age of six with my parents.  I lived in Lozells and my life was similar to my Bangladeshi peers, simply getting through school with no real expectations from my family or the school to do well.  Like most of my peers, my career path was mapped out for me, it was simple ‘if you spoke English, you would be a waiter and if didn’t you would become a chef’.  With that in mind, I started to work in a restaurant at the age of 15 on a part time basis.  As expected I left school with no qualifications and after a year of college trying to be a mechanic – which I didn’t really enjoy.  Destiny called out to me and I was working full time along with my peers in restaurants throughout the UK, I got as far as Jersey.  This was a great experience and a real transition to adult hood, where I was able to contribute to the family financially.  But, there was a drawback, I didn’t like the way that I was treated, so I left the industry and gained a job working for Curry’s Electrical store.

It was at this point that I commenced voluntary work at the Lozells Recreation Centre and chose my life goal ‘to help’.  I wanted to help other young people in my position to better themselves as I realised that there was gulf between our parent’s expectations and our reality – they grew up in a different time and place and we were growing up in modern Britain.  Whilst, we faced issues of racism and inequality, we were also trying develop our own unique culture that straddled being Bangladeshi and British at the same time.  Whilst this was a new phenomenon for us, on a relatively small scale, this was played out on a much larger scale in East London with Bangladeshi people being terrorised by racists’ thugs.  This defined and united the community as they fought back physically and politically.  It was during that period that Jan Alam emerged as young activists who later become the Deputy Leader of Tower Hamlets.

For my part, I continued to work in the community and became a reputable youth worker in the city.  I was drawn to the many political meetings hosted by our self nominated ‘community leaders’ and whilst I applause their efforts, I was also embarrassed at the same time, as many of them were unable to string a sentence together in English.  I felt misrepresented by them, in particular when it came to youth issues.  I decided that we needed to do something to address this issue as young people ourselves.  So, in early 1994, I gathered a group of friends of and went about establishing the Bangladeshi Youth Forum (BYF).  It was during this period that I met Johur Uddin and we shared our frustrations about the poor leadership of our community.  He said that I should meet Jan Alam, who is an amazing public speaker and campaigner.  We went to a meeting that he addressed, and I was blown away – he delivered his speech with passion, emotion and was uncompromising. 

He delivered speeches in a fashion that I would only dream of.  After the meeting, we met him and spoke with him.  To my surprise I found him to be really down to earth and very supportive.  We asked if he would help us to develop BYF and he agreed without any hesitation.  We used to meet bi-weekly when he would attend and offer advice, support and guidance in a manner that was empowering – he gave us courage and helped to develop strategies to take on the local authorities.  He soon became a mentor to me, taking me under his wings, teaching me little tricks along the way.  I credit my public speaking to him, for he was there when I was practising my speech at the Council House, he said to me ‘Aftab – haven’t you eaten today, speak louder’.  Two weeks, later I delivered my maiden speech to 200 people, with style and passion thanks to Jan.  I have gone on to deliver a great many speeches with much larger audiences – I have not forgotten what he has taught me. 

I knew that Jan was in hospital during the summer months and had planned to visit him, but never managed to find the time.  Johur called me and told me that he had passed away.  I was very upset to hear the news – another shining light has been dimmed.

I went to his funeral with a very heavy heart, but my mood was lightened when I heard so many people speak so highly of him.  For me Jan was a fighter, he fought against the odds and punched above his weight.  He believed in equality and would fight against injustice to his own detriment.  Jan was selfless in his acts and didn’t ask for anything in return.  I remain indebted to him for taking me under his wings and teaching me a trick or two – I am one of his many legacies – I hope I can make him proud.  Rest in peace ‘Jan Bhai’ you will not be forgotten.

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