Mohammed Ali: Vital work of bridging cultural divide

21 March 2012.....   Manningham Mills dominates the skyline of Bradford

21 March 2012..... Manningham Mills dominates the skyline of Bradford

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CAN anything be done to combat the cultural apartheid that still blights West Yorkshire’s towns and cities?

A new report paints a bleak picture of community relations in Bradford, Batley, Halifax and Keighley. According to Policy Exchange, these are among the 10 urban areas in England and Wales where people from different ethnic backgrounds are least likely to mix.

It’s not all bad news. The report shows that Muslims tend to cluster together in deprived neighbourhoods but these close-knit communities do share a strong sense of belonging. The problem is that they do not tend to mix with other ethnic groups.

People from similar backgrounds will always want to live in close proximity but it is when we work together that we really get to know each other. However, that is easier said than done when entry to certain jobs or professions seems to be dependent on racial identity or religious affiliation.

To make things worse, ethnic minority communities have always tended to focus on a narrow range of career options. Sometimes this involves encouraging gifted young people into a few favoured professions like medicine and law. But all too many Pakistani and Bangladeshi youngsters in West Yorkshire’s towns and cities follow in their relatives’ footsteps into low-paid jobs in businesses such as taxi firms and take-aways.

In order to broaden young people’s horizons, QED Foundation pioneered community job “melas” or fairs, giving face-to-face access to a wide range of employers but we need to raise people’s aspirations still further.

The odds are still stacked against someone of Pakistani or Bangladeshi heritage running a department, let alone making it to the boardroom – yet things could be very different. We have trained 800 senior managers and directors from the private, public and voluntary sectors on equality issues but now we want Yorkshire’s employers to do their bit to identify and remove barriers to progress.

I would also like to see more people from Pakistani and Bangladeshi backgrounds serving as school, college or university governors or sitting on the boards of public sector organisations such as health authorities.

And what about those who are new to the UK? Our experience is that the ability to speak English fluently is crucial.

I was delighted to hear that £20m had recently been made available for English language classes for Pakistani and Bangladeshi women – but this does not go far enough. QED Foundation has supported 30,000 people from ethnic minority backgrounds through education and training. Our classes have made a real difference to men and women from Pakistan and Bangladesh – but also from India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, China, Brazil, Russia, Hong Kong and eastern Europe.

Nor do we concentrate on language training alone. We have been funded by the EU to run courses for women in Yorkshire and London, which also include support with confidence building, personal finance, accessing health and educational services, visits to employers to see the world of work at first hand and opportunities to explore British heritage and culture.

And what about our young people? Perhaps madrassahs – or Islamic supplementary schools – could be encouraged to do more to support other aspects of children’s education, particularly through teaching English language and literacy skills.

We also need to recognise how vulnerable many Muslims feel as global events have serious ramifications across Yorkshire’s towns and cities. While the vast majority are law-abiding citizens, the rise of Daesh – the so-called Islamic State – can easily be exploited by far Right political activists to create mistrust and suspicion. Far from being breeding grounds of extremism or radicalisation, our Muslim communities are important allies in the fight against terrorism.

Much has already been done to bring people from different religious and ethnic backgrounds together in recent years and some of the most valuable work has been carried out by small charities and community organisations working at grass-roots level. Yet all too often the success of these initiatives is limited by short-term funding streams. If we are really serious about uniting Yorkshire’s diverse communities, we must be prepared to pay for it.

Dr Mohammed Ali OBE is the founder and chief executive of QED Foundation, a Bradford-based national charity set up in 1990 that supports the social and economic advancement of disadvantaged ethnic minority communities.

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