The Asians who went places

AN EXHIBITION to celebrate the successful integration of Asians into British society? You can hear the cynical voices already.

Isn’t such an optimistic conclusion premature at best? After all, aren’t these the communities that simply don’t participate in the British way of life?

Well, tell that to award-winning dancer Akram Khan, the son of Bangladeshi immigrants, whose latest show has just finished at Sadler’s Wells, or Farooq Chaudhry who turned his back on London gang culture to become a renowned choreographer, or Shanna Bukhari, who received death threats after becoming the first Muslim to represent Britain in a global beauty pageant.

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All are featured in an exhibition of photographs by Tim Smith marking the 21st anniversary of QED-UK, a Bradford charity which aims to eradicate disadvantage and discrimination by providing education, training and employment.

Here, too, are Zesh Rehman, the first British Asian footballer to start a Premier League match, Adil Ray, radio-show host and TV comedy writer, and BBC news presenter Mishal Husain.

And here, sitting across the table from me in QED’s offices, is Adeeba Malik, the organisation’s deputy chief executive and the representative of a remarkable family which is itself a shining example of integration.

Adeeba’s sister is Zaiba Malik, the award-winning journalist whose work regularly features on the BBC and Channel Four and whose book, We Are A Muslim Please, charts the pressures of being both Muslim and British in the Bradford of the Seventies and Eighties. Adeeba’s brother, Tassadaque, is a head-and-neck cancer surgeon in Plymouth. Her youngest brother, Ahsan, is a self-employed evaluator and researcher in Bradford. And Adeeba herself spent six years on the board of regional development agency Yorkshire Forward as well as – among other things – becoming a governor of Sheffield Hallam University, chairing the Ethnic Minority Business Forum for the Department of Trade and Industry and joining the board of the Waterways Trust. Most recently she was appointed to the board of the Northern Economic Futures Commission, charged with the not inconsiderable task of finding ways to narrow the North-South economic divide.

But if few could dispute that the Maliks are now part of the mainstream, their start was most definitely on the margins. Adeeba’s father, Mohammed Sadiq, arrived in Bradford in the winter of 1958-59, in the first wave of South Asian immigration to the city, after driving from his home town of Sialkot, near Lahore, at the age of 25 to work in the woollen mills. After six years, he went back to Pakistan, married Fahmeeda and returned to Bradford.

“My mum was horrified to see Bradford, full of all these huge old mills, turning out smoke, and such cold, bleak weather.” The family lived in a one-bedroom house and Fahmeeda was made welcome by her white neighbour, an old lady who brought round clothes she had knitted herself. Gradually, however, an Asian network began to develop. “That’s how it was at that time, the mother staying at home, but eventually being drawn together with other Asian women who had settled nearby, talking and meeting up, sharing a life.

“I’m sure my dad must have experienced racism and hostility at the mill. He never said much about it, but I know other people were experiencing it. He just kept his head down, took his money and planned, like everyone else who had come over, to go back to Pakistan. In the end, of course, that didn’t happen and those that did go back ended up returning to England. Big, extended families became established here and only went back to Pakistan to visit relatives.”

Despite – or perhaps because of – his humble beginnings, however, Mohammed Sadiq was so determined that his children should have a better future that he sent them to fee-paying schools.

“My dad was from a very poor background in Pakistan and was self-taught. He didn’t have a father, so there was no money but he learned how to speak English, which was very unusual at that time. So, when he came to Britain, he acted as an interpreter at the factory and got work elsewhere, with the police and in court, and that way earned extra money to pay for his children’s education.”

Tass started at Fulneck School in Pudsey before joining the sixth form at Bradford Grammar, Ahsan also went to Bradford Grammar and Zaiba attended Bradford Girls’ Grammar, becoming one of the first Asian girls there. Indeed, as a sign of the way in which the confidence and success of Asian families has grown, I point out to Adeeba that my own son, James, who goes to the BGGS junior school, is the only non-Asian child in his year.

In fact, Adeeba, the eldest of the four children, was the only one not to go to an independent school. When she couldn’t face re-taking the Bradford Girls’ entrance exam, she went to Grange School in Bradford. “I ended up with a school life that was very different from my sister’s but I don’t regret it for a minute. She would be surrounded by wealthy kids whose families had big cars and lots of holidays, while we never had any holidays. But I’d never swap my experience for anything. I mixed with children from so many different backgrounds, middle-class, working-class, Asian, white.”

This she found of enormous help when she arrived in the – at that time – very white city of Hull to do a teaching degree at Humberside Polytechnic, now Humberside University. “There was no one like me walking around Hull at that time, in the late Eighties and early Nineties, but school had given me the confidence to do it, to interact with people.

“Of course, teaching at schools on the Orchard Park and Bransholme estates was challenging, but it was a wonderful experience. When I came back to Bradford, I wanted to teach in all-white schools. It was important for me, as well as for the children, to meet people who were different.”

She ended up teaching in the Eccleshill area, even though there was a lot of support for far-Right parties in the area at the time. “One or two pupils were unhappy and complained, but tough! I was there, it was my job to educate these children and that’s what I did. It made my day when one father, who had been in prison and whose son had severe behavioural problems, came to tell me that there’d been a huge improvement in his child.

“Of course I got hurt because I was young, but because I’d experienced Hull for four years, I knew I could do it.”

Adeeba joined QED in 1992, two years after it had been set up by Mohammed Ali who remains its chief executive.. “At that time the textile industry had collapsed and we were managing a training programme, funded by the EU, to help unemployed Asian men to develop the language skills which they had not really needed in the mills but which they would need if they were going to move on. It was construction work, plumbing and joinery that was predicted to be the next big thing, but of course that didn’t happen.”

What did happen was that Adeeba’s own skills were recognised and in 1999 she found herself sitting round the table with the region’s industrial leaders on the board of the newly formed Yorkshire Forward – “a very big learning experience”.

“I see it as my role to set an example, not in the sense of being a role model as such, but to set a good example to both communities, white as well as Asian.

“My father was not the type to show his emotions and he never spoke about how proud he was of us. It was only when he died, 10 years ago, that I found a file of cuttings about myself that he had kept.”

Adeeba’s achievements received national recognition in the form of an MBE in the 2004 Queen’s Birthday Honours. This year she was named by Forward Ladies as the Not-For-Profit Businesswoman of the Year. “It’s good when people from your own background honour you, but when you are recognised by an organisation like that, you are seen as equal.

“It’s through experiencing life in the mainstream, whether that’s in work or education, that you come to feel part of a city or town. It’s still unusual to be the only non-white person on a board, if not to be the only woman, but the Asian population simply has to do this. It’s very important – they aren’t going anywhere else, so they have to do it here.”

Certainly one thing that now unites Britons of all culture is economic uncertainty. “It’s an extremely worrying time for children, with no guarantees of employment and universities are no longer the key to getting a job. But what makes us the same is that we all wake up in the morning wanting to go to work, to earn money and to live in safety in a good area.

“It’s important to build aspiration, to keep people’s hopes and dreams going, even if times are hard. We’re still here. There’s a huge amount of pressure, but we’re pleased that, 21 years down the line, QED is still here, doing what we were set up to do. It’s a time when a lot of third-sector organisations are disappearing.

“We’ve just got a contract to deliver English lessons to people across the Bradford district. Our core aim is still to help South Asian communities, but we have to diversify and look at other opportunities. Gone are the days when you could rely on grants and handouts.

“One of the reasons behind the exhibition is that people say ‘Oh, those communities don’t integrate with British life’. So, to mark our anniversary, instead of having a grand dinner or something like that, we wanted to show that these communities do take part in mainstream life and have got a British identity as well. We want to change perceptions, to give British Asians a positive image.

“Do you know what I wanted to be when I was young?” she suddenly asks. “I wanted to be a pop star, I wanted to be Debbie Harry who I absolutely idolised.

“At first I wanted to be a wrestler, after my father made us watch it every week on TV on Saturday afternoons. Later it was Debbie Harry and then I decided I wanted to set an example and have an impact on society.

“So if I’ve achieved one out of those three, that’s something.”

Making Britain: Margins to Mainstream, an exhibition of photographs by Tim Smith at the National Media Museum, for two weeks from November 23 and then touring the North.