How Bradford riots turned businessman into tireless campaigner to improve community relations

Zulfi Karim has been named as a Deputy Lieutenant of West Yorkshire.
Zulfi Karim has been named as a Deputy Lieutenant of West Yorkshire.
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The Bradford riots of 2001 set Zulfi Karim on a ‘personal crusade’ to improve community relations. Now he has been made a Deputy Lieutenant of West Yorkshire. Chris Burn reports.

As a child, a controversial education policy meant that he was bussed out of Bradford to go to school purely because he was the son of immigrants. Now four decades later, Zulfi Karim has been appointed as a Deputy Lieutenant of West Yorkshire, acting as a representative of the Queen in his beloved home city and county.

“It is a great opportunity for me to be an example of what multicultural Britain is today,” says Karim, as he reflects on the honour in a coffee shop in Leeds close to the offices of The Yorkshire Post. “The title is great but as the days and weeks have gone by, I have been realising the responsibility that comes with it. I’m going to do whatever I can to make sure I’m the best I can be for Team Bradford and Team Yorkshire.”

He will juggle his new responsibilities with a raft of other commitments - Zulfi is General Secretary of Bradford Council for Mosques and owner of Curryosity restaurant in Saltaire. His past achievements include launching the first World Curry Festival in Bradford, while the founding director of Bradford UNESCO City of Film has worked with Bradford Urban Regeneration, Yorkshire Forward and the Yorkshire Tourist Board as part of his tireless efforts to promote the best of West Yorkshire.

Karim may not have left the region where he was born, but he has come a long way on his journey to becoming a new deputy to Dame Ingrid Roscoe, the Lord Lieutenant of West Yorkshire.

The 51-year-old was raised in inner-city Manningham, the first generation of his family to be born in England. Karim grew up opposite Drummond Mill, the textile factory where his father worked and close to his grandfather’s grocery shop. At the time, Bradford was among the areas which operated the policy of “bussing”; based on the idea there should be no more than 30 per cent of immigrants at any one school and children would have to be taken elsewhere by bus once the quota was reached. The policy was officially designed to help young people learn English more quickly and integrate into British society in but in practice often resulted in segregation and isolation.

Despite being born in Bradford, Karim was affected by the policy at both primary and secondary school - with the latter taking 90 minutes to get to each day. “It seemed like I was the only non-white kid in primary school,” Zulfi says. “It was challenging. I think probably it has been one of the reasons for my working across communities, particularly around bridging the gap between communities. Even though luckily I never got bullied and there was never violence involved, you always felt everything was rather difficult.”

But he says working with his family from a young age gave him a different perspective of life in Yorkshire. “Around the same time, my grandfather, who was a wholesale butcher, was going to the cattle markets in North Yorkshire. I went with him and my granddad had a lot of friends who always made him feel very welcome. That was my first encounter with how people that are different can still respect you and still have relationships.

“It was always very clear that you had to give respect to gain respect. At the time, Manningham was very diverse, we had people of Italian, Afro-Caribbean and Polish origin. School was very different from my homelife.

““Most of my learning came from practical things which I got from the business and the community and the family. I got through my schooling. I scraped a few CSEs and went to technical college.”

He went on to pursue a career in retail management and marketing, doing evening courses while working full-time in an electrical shop. A major turning point in his life came in 2001 following the Bradford riots, which centred around Manningham. White and Asian youths clashed on the city’s streets, with a BMW dealership burnt to the ground, shops looted and around £10m damage caused. Almost 300 people were arrested.

Trying to improve the situation inspired Karim to become more involved in community work. “There was a lot of community tension in the early 2000s and that is really what drove me to give my time and my efforts into building community relations,” he says. “Even though we had moved away from Manningham, it was still very much the centre of my life growing up. It was personal.

“When you see global media parked up with satellite vans and your city is being portrayed in a very negative light around the world, initially it was one of those moments where you wanted to bury your head in the sand. For a moment I did because you felt helpless and felt the world was against you. Really, it was only after a few weeks and months when you really started to see the impact of this and what the causes were. I felt something needed to be done.”

Zulfi was among a group of people from across the city invited by Bradford Council to be part of efforts to improve community relations in the aftermath of the riots. “Really it was just about putting on positive events and getting out positive messages. It became a personal crusade really. There were a lot of selfless people involved.”

He says while things appeared to be turning a corner, thanks to a bid to become European Capital of Culture and plans to regenerate the city with a new shopping centre, the 2008 financial crash put things back with funding for the city drying up from both private developers and Government agencies.

“The 2008 financial crash has had a lasting impact,” he says. “I don’t think Bradford has recovered from it 10 years later and it is still picking itself back up.

“Places like Leeds, Manchester, Sheffield and Newcastle have all kind of achieved that and Bradford was slow out of the starting blocks.

“Inward investment dried up. We had a masterplan for the city centre, a blueprint for the shopping centre was ready to go. Then the cash dried up. We lost a few very significant agencies like were really heavily involved in trying to kickstart Bradford like the Regional Development Agency. Developers went overnight, the world became a different place.”

The mothballed £260m Bradford Broadway shopping centre scheme became a symbol of the fallout of the financial crisis as it left undeveloped land in the city centre for years before it was finally completed in 2015.

Earlier this year, the Government announced plans to make Bradford a pilot area for schemes designed to tackle racial segregation after it was cited as one of the worst places in the country for ethnic divisions.

But Karim says despite the city’s challenges, things are improving. “The majority of Bradford’s perceived issues come from people outside, who come and tell us what is wrong with us. We have got to tell our own story. But now it is not just Bradford but a regional story. That is significant, we don’t just fight for ourselves. The world is becoming a smaller place.”

However, Karim says he is deeply concerned about the ongoing fallout from the 2016 EU referendum campaign. “I think that the words and the rhetoric that were used has led to the rise of fear against communities based on their differences. It has definitely contributed to the rise of anti-semitism and Islamophobia.

“I’m not political but Brexit has damaged the social fabric of this country. We talk about the business benefits and consequences but the effect on race relations, community relations and the impact on those communities has been something which wasn’t thought through. For the first time since my school days, I feel race has become an issue again.”

But Karim hopes his new role will give him a platform for promoting a more positive message and to “showcase Bradford to the world”. Now a father-of-two and grandfather himself, he says his appointment has made him reflect on the different generations of his family who have made Bradford their home from his grandparents who first came here to build a life for their family and his inspirational and encouraging mother, who passed away last year.

He says his wife, Saira Ali, who works for Bradford Council, has also been a great support. “I live in a city that is so diverse with some amazing people,” he says. “I’m just absolutely delighted to be part of it and honoured to be able to make a contribution.”

Help to save synagogue

Zulfi Karim made international headlines five years ago when he helped rally Bradford’s Muslim community to raise funds to save the city’s last remaining Jewish synagogue from closure.

The Grade II-listed, 132-year-old building was leaking and damaged and the congregation, which could not afford the repairs, would have been forced to worship in Leeds.

Mr Karim says he hopes to be able to do similarly positive work in his new role.

“I am passionate about genuinely integrating communities and creating social understanding,” he says.

“I have first-hand appreciation of multicultural issues and I want to reach diverse communities on their terms and help build bridges between them.”