My name is Eylem Binboga. I was born in 1976 in Kayseri in the middle of Turkey. I have one older sister, a younger brother, and my mum and dad. We lived in a small house which used to belong to the Armenians. Once my grandmother died, we moved into my granddad’s farm outside the village Kumarli Köyü. I loved the farm.
I was out as soon as the sun rose and came home when it was dark. A person living in Germany had a summerhouse with lots of cherry trees. I used to steal a lot from that. Cherries stain not just your mouth, your teeth but also your clothes and hands. They knew you’d been stealing cherries [laughs].
And I loved sunflower seeds but sunflowers grow quite tall. So we had to break them and check if they were ripe. One time, when the owner appeared, I managed to run through the stems. It was easy because I was little, whereas he was a grownup man. And I ran as far as my granddad’s farm but didn’t have the strength to run further. And there was a scarecrow where mum was growing Turkish peppers, so I managed to undress it and climb into these old rags and stand still, scared to be caught.
When my grandfather heard this man calling he was cursing me, “she has the devil in her.” I could see him boiling with fury, but he didn’t spot me. I could see the rest of my cousins and friends running to hide in the caves, left from the Armenians.
Among this fun, there was hard work. I was like a shepherd. Sometimes we were out in the fields for hours under the sunlight, waiting for someone to bring us food. We did hard work, milking the cows, carrying hay and watering the plants.
One time, I was too busy playing and six of Mum’s turkeys got onto the railroads and got butchered by the passing train. I knew I was in trouble so I decided to run away.
I remember putting a couple of potatoes, tomatoes and spring onion in my apron. I took an hour’s walk, maybe more, to get to my granddad’s village, but I got a big smack, “You turn back and go home.” [Laughs]
We lived in my granddad’s house for maybe a year and a half. For some reason my grandfather and father didn’t get on. So we moved to my uncle’s farm in another village, and there they built a house. That was the time my parents decided to emigrate. It was a hard time socially, politically. We were Kurdish Alevis. There was segregation.
We knew we were Alevi, but what Alevi meant we didn’t know. You could see we were different. Mum didn’t cover her hair. During Eid we would butcher animals but certain neighbours wouldn’t take our meat. My grandfather was a Dede, like an Imam. In his house the cemevi would take place. He used to be a very good saz baglama player and there were songs he would play in a very secretive way. The doors would be locked and we wouldn’t be let in. If we spoke about it at school they would have been taken to jail, tortured and discouraged from doing it. The local Sunni Muslims could have burnt the place down.
The only couple of houses we were in connection with knew we were Alevis. They were Muslim Sunnis but weren’t the radical types. They respected who we were. My parents and grandparents spoke Kurdish but they were very careful not to speak in front of us, in case we spoke Kurdish in school. So they were very hush, hush about it. I discovered our Kurdishness in this country.
My parents took asylum here under the label of Kurds. There are political reasons but I think it was also financial. My dad didn’t like to work with the land. They arrived to this country in 1986.
I was just seven turning eight when my parents left. It was summertime. There was lots of watermelon [laughs]. Nobody actually sat me down and explained what was happening. And I don’t actually remember them leaving me, my sister and brother, with my uncle. Maybe it was painful, my memory blocked it out.
Being out in the sunrise and coming back when the sun was going down, meant their going didn’t feel like a big loss. But when they phoned or a letter came it was very emotional. We had four or five letters. Maybe two or three telephone calls. We didn’t have a telephone in our house. It had to be in a village.
My uncle and aunt were very good to us, especially my aunt. But she didn’t have time for cuddles, bless her. She worked hard.
After two years, 1988, my uncle was taking us to get brand new clothes. It was like, “What’s going on?” And the next thing we know, we’re in a big coach. I’d never been to a big city, so Istanbul was wow, amazing. We were there for five, maybe seven days.
And then got on a plane. I’d never been on a plane before [laughs]. Yeah, that was a bit surreal.
At London airport there was a barrier and forms to be filled up. And there was this black lady from Cyprus, Derya Abla. I think she got to cuddle us first, because mum had to be kept to one side. Derya had a big van. I remember cuddling my mum at the back. She looked old, different, modern. Or I was different. We came to a place called Isci Birgli, Workers Union Party in Balls Pond Road. Dalston. I remember the smell of Turkish tea, my dad’s tears and his prickly moustache. [Laughs] Everybody was so friendly. It was surreal. I was 10, 11. You were caught in a flow of water and just being dragged and nobody’s asking me did I want to leave Turkey, do I want to go to my mum? You’re just following. So I did what I did. I followed what I was being told.
We lived in a room in Hackney Wick. Mum managed to stay with us for a week, but she had to go back to work. They just locked the door and left us. I can never forget that door. In Turkey doors were always open. I hate doors. In my flat I took out all the doors. There is not even a door in the bathroom unless a guest comes.
We came in August, so the schools were on holiday. Then we were sent to temporary accommodation in Walthamstow. That’s where we started Walthamstow School for Girls. One magical thing in this country is it’s lush green. After the rain the sun came out, everything would spark. I loved it. And we were wearing green uniforms. We were almost camouflaged. [Laughs]
For six or eight months we were sent to learn just language. We had girls from Thailand, Pakistan, Nigeria, so everybody had the same problem. After two years the language barrier evaporated but my English teacher said, “Oh, I regret the day you learnt English.” [Laughs] I’m a very talkative person, and not having the voice to say anything was hard.
I had a Pakistani friend called Sadia Anwar, a Jamaican friend called Zoe and a Chinese friend called Pu Ling. They were all born here. And there was Joanna who was British. I loved my friends. They looked after me. I remember going on a camping holiday. Everybody sat around a fire and there were people from different ethnicities, different countries. I didn’t feel the only foreigner. I felt part of this world now.
I did as much after school activities as possible. Drama, running and sailing in Chingford Reservoir. I stayed late to do homework. Home was not happy. My parents were working in factories, making ladies’ jackets, coats. They would get up at six and work till eight, ten, 11, sometimes 12. And they came home with work to do. They had to turn pockets or collars or belts.
When I was 14, 15, we went to the social centre at the Social Workers Centre, Isci Birligi. That’s where I learned about Alevism but they also took you on marches. One time we did a big march against the BNP. It was great fun but they gave you chores to do. I didn’t like this extra burden of interpreting, translation and form filling.
I went to Epping Forest college for two years and then to University of Brighton to study three dimensional design and craft. It was brilliant, [laughs] beside the sea. I should have stayed but I knew I had to come back.
I went to Turkey the first time in 1995. Before that I have dreams about not being able to get there. My grandfather’s farm will be just a field away, but it was full of lurking, muddy creatures. I wanted to go back so much. But when I went back the village had become a town. In seven, eight years the whole place had changed. So this nostalgic, romantic childhood had gone and the dreams stopped. It felt like closure. I love it when I go to see my family. But they have changed. It’s not how it was.
In Turkey I think I would have wed early probably with a cousin. I would love to run a farm. But I couldn’t do that with the current situation in Turkey, I can’t be who I am there. Too much restrictions for a woman to do what she wants.
You can hear Eylem and excerpts from her story here and on Soundcloud
I was born in Pakistan, Lahore, on the 2nd of August 1994. I didn’t live far from Shalimar Garden, a pretty famous place.
I don’t have a rich background. The house was pretty much made out of mud and [laughs] you used to get things coming off it. When it used to rain it went all gooey. Then slowly, slowly my dad collected a bit of money and we built a little bit of a proper house. But my dad wasn’t earning much so it took a long time.
It was my mum, dad, grandparents, uncles in the same street. We used to have family all around us. My dad had some government job. My mum was a housewife. My mum cooked basic chicken curry, lamb curry, vegetables. As long as it’s cooked by my mum it’s good. I’ve got a brother and a younger sister. I’m the middle one.
I used to play cricket and they used to have lots of goats and sheep. There always used to be something to do. I used to get in trouble a lot of the time. Mum used to call me, “Come and have your lunch,” but I’m running around, playing with my friends. [Laughs]
Dad used to take us out. There used to be some ice cream parlour we used to go to. But I prefer it in the neighbourhood rather than going out. I used to have a little bike and we’d just go out exploring. All good memories.
I did go to school when I was young. I was three, four years old probably. Eid, we used to love. The main thing you look forward to is your uncles and your aunties giving you money. Basically you buy sweets, chocolates. There used to be rides like a little banana boat and it used to go up and down. It wasn’t a proper fairground. It used to come once or twice a year, like the way it comes here.
My cousin, he’s a qualified Imam. So every morning we used to go to his house. He used to teach us how to read Qur’an, how to pray in the Mosque. From the roof we could see the Mosque literally two minutes walk.
Yeah, it was a big Mosque. I was a little kid and you mostly pray at home. Your parents don’t want you to go by yourself. I used to muck about, so my mum was extra curious. [Laughs] I used to tell her I’m going Mosque but I used to go somewhere else.
I came with my grandparents. They used to come and go ‘cause my uncle lives here. I couldn’t come with my parents. My parents are still there. I did know that I was coming here, but it was weird. I made sure that I sit by the window, seeing the world with the bird eye view.
When I landed I thought wow [laughs] this is completely different. It’s another world. There everything is all over the place, here everything is organised. And you don’t hear people shouting and screaming. There people are beeping horns all day long.
At the start, leaving your mum, did hurt, But after a few days you kind of get used to it. I used to live in Whitechapel. From Whitechapel, Roman Road.
I used to live with my uncle, his missus and he got two kids. To be honest they looked after me, brought me up. They were my parents and they fed me, everything. So I did miss my parents but I kind of had my parents here. I went to school in Bethnal Green, Bethnal Green Technology College. I was about 12 years old. I had a pretty bad experience at the start ‘cause my English wasn’t really good. I was close to my head assistant. She used to know that my problem is that I’m Pakistani and they’re Bengali and then sometimes they bully me. She used to tell me, “Just walk off from here.” Slowly, slowly, I got better. I think the hardest was in Year 9. I was going to get kicked out of school. Messing around, fighting. [Laughs]. So I had to sort myself out.
I used to love PE and Art – abstract, spray painting and that. You can relax, do the work and it was pretty chilled out. I joined Bow Adventure Places after school for biking, canoeing, shooting and they take you to residentials. It was wicked.
In 2010 I went to John Cass Sixth Form. I studied Level 3 Business and Finance. That was even a better experience than school. My teacher was pretty laid back. She used to know that at the end of the day we’re going to give her the work. I had distinctions in Level 3. I would go back any day. [Laughs]
My friend he’s Sikh, he’s Indian. Another friend of mine he’s from Nigeria, and another friend [laughs] was from Bangladesh. I’ve been to a few Sikh festivals and they walk for about two hours. We’re all different [laughs] and we’re all pretty close. I think we all had a similar personality. I met them all in college.
Obviously your education is important. But it’s basically your friends ‘cause from 16 to 18, you’re becoming an adult so you want your friends around you. You’re going out to places. We used to mess around with girls quite a lot [laughs]. It’s that age. I used to know a few girls in college and then Facebook and social networking and all that.
But I got married now. I’m 21. I met her through a friend of mine. I was with her for about three and a half years, and then I got married. She was working in Bradford, in a community centre. She used to get people to go out a bit more, the women. Asking them to get more involved with the community. She’s Bengali so it was pretty hard to convince her family, but we’ve got kind of got around it.
It wasn’t a really big wedding ‘cause I didn’t have much money. We had all the family, all the house and that. I’ve done the Islamic ceremony in the East London Mosque. I haven’t done the English ceremony, so need to sort something out, do a little big, a big little party and invite a few of my friends. It’s a new life, new life definitely. It should be pretty good.
After school I started learning how to cut hair rather than being on the street. I would love to open my business one day. [Laughs] A lot of people around me speaks Urdu, even Bengali people, they speak Urdu as well.
What I like about East London is people blend in quick. Here I see people coming from all over the world. Today I saw a Spanish guy. He’s only been here for a month. He was telling me about his culture, and I was telling him about my culture
I rent a property in Roman Road. I’ve always lived in a flat. It’s too expensive to live in houses. I go to the Mosque on a Friday to pray in British Street, Merchant Street, just right by the station. When you come into East London you feel home. Everybody knows you so if you ever need help you can call somebody up.
I ain’t got much contact back home now. At the start I used to, but not much now. What you miss from back home is the weather, the food. But other than that, I would prefer UK. I wouldn’t know what to do back home. Here I know what I want to do, where I need to go and how to do it, so I’m better off. I never thought I would spend the rest of my life here.
It is difficult to blend in, really difficult, especially the language barrier. It takes time, but once you get there people around will support you.
I was born in 1968 in Lodz, a Polish equivalent of 19th century, industrial Manchester. The old town is pleasing, secessionist architecture.
Lodz Poland c.1970
The suburbs are communist brutalism.
Mother left when I was about seven or eight. I was quite young so I could move to different family members. They were given a 12-month sentence as I might not have been the best-behaved little boy.
My great grandmother was absolutely lovely. She was truly ancient, 90 something and had a lovely house just outside the city so it was gorgeous countryside. I had a good time there.
I lived with my father for a year or so because they were still together when my mother came here. They divorced when I was probably ten or something. He was a nice enough chap but liked the bottle a bit too much. I think that’s why they divorced. I have two half-sisters that I’ve never met and don’t even know their names.
I’m sure I missed my mother but kids are very resilient. You adapt to whatever situation you’re in. There were times I wasn’t particularly happy, but no kid ever is. Living with my aunt and my grandmother wasn’t much fun. I ended up bunking off school for about eight months
I got to know the city really well. I walked for long distances and with no one batting an eyelid. I would go to markets, trade bits and pieces, meet friends. Bizarrely for a kid who bunks off, I often sat under a tree to read.
I had access to forbidden books through my grandmother at the university. Academics had to have access to them for Marxist Leninist criticism. I read loads of trash but also good stuff. I was about nine when I read Catch 22 – quite inappropriate.
As I was moving around I got quite good at making friends quickly, but also dropping friends. That’s a habit I picked up. Quite a bad habit really.
The one school I really liked was quite strict but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. You’re assigned a form tutor and he stays with you throughout. Mine was this kind of military, mathematics teacher and I really liked him. It gave me structure.
Everyone was aware of politics. We would make anti-Communist pamphlets to give out at school. It was a patriotic duty to disrupt Russian language lessons but I wish my Russian was better these days. I remember a favourite history teacher who taught us about Katyn, where the Russians murdered 20,000 Polish officers at the beginning of WW11.
We never saw her again. It was political but I don’t think she’s pushing up the daisies anywhere. Poland wasn’t as repressive as other Eastern Bloc regimes.
We’re naturally a libertarian nation so the whole Communism project never sat easily.
I don’t think you would call my family particularly politicised. They just did little acts of resistance. My grandmother ran the cafeteria at Lodz University and a massive meat franchise at a time of meat shortages. She was in charge of distributing it and made sure party members were slightly less privileged than others.
It was a time of Solidarity and Lech Walesa.
It was not like Dansk where it all kicked off but we were the second biggest city so there was a lot of activity and demonstrations. I don’t think anyone got shot which happened in other places. People just used to get truncheoned, arrested, beaten up in backs of cars, disappear. You interacted with others aware of where they stood. I got truncheoned when I was about 11. They were ghastly, miserable times really.
I was in the Scouts which was fun. Polish Scouts is a bit different. They have a history fighting the Nazis so you had to join. You would set up camps, do a bit of military training probably considered quite unsavoury these days. I loved it.
We were quite a secular family which is unusual for Poland but Easter can be quite fun. There’s lots of egg painting and they made this basket full of painted eggs to take to church to be blessed.
My mother would come every so often and I would visit here. I came over three or four times before settling down. I flew a few times. Twice I came on a ship, once on a cruise ship and once on a cargo ship. That was kind of cool. I think I was 13 or something when I came. It just didn’t seem that big a move. It just seemed natural to step into a new life.
My mother was a manual worker. There was this big warehouse in Wapping where they would collect old clothes and send to different parts of the world, an early version of recycling. It was primarily black market because there were so many things we were not allowed. You can make quite a good living taking jeans to Moscow and coming back with diamonds. It wasn’t something she did all the time but it certainly helped.
My mother married my stepfather, a Czech. We lived in a totally derelict, three storey, building on Wapping High Street with a view of the Thames and the Tower Bridge. It was great fun. I really liked my stepfather and, my mum too but I wasn’t very good at taking direction so there was a bit of conflict but not too much. They did allow me to do whatever I felt necessary.
My school was quite a long way so I had to get to Poplar from Wapping on buses so that gave me freedom. You could hang round with lots of friends. Poplar was slightly different in those days. It was Cockney, very working class and I loved it. It was very much cockles and mussels. It was quite ugly ‘cause it, got bombed to hell. They put up vile blocks of flats everywhere.
In Ealing there were huge Polish communities from the war and a public school that gave bursaries for Polish kids. I was offered one but for me personally, a comprehensive in Poplar was much better than a public school in West London. If you stay in your own culture then you never become part of the mainstream.
I went to a very good Catholic school, Philip Howard in Poplar, run by a Dutch headmistress. The teachers were fun and education standards were quite good. It was a well-structured school.
In Poland, I took some English lessons but the chap that taught me was a WW11 RAF pilot and I picked up his accent that was like something out of a WW11 movie. When I first arrived in this working class area I had hardly any vocabulary, my grammar wasn’t good but I sounded posh. I had about eight fights within a fortnight. I had moved schools enough to know you stand your ground, blood a couple of noses and then everyone leaves you alone. I almost got expelled.
Because my English wasn’t good I got sent to a language centre near Brick Lane and there was quite a few Bangladeshis there. They were a very tight group and weren’t always polite. If I had not been able to turn the mean gene on at will, I would have had a horrendous time.
I took O-Levels but because my English wasn’t very good they weren’t brilliant. I took time out, bummed around, odd job here and there. I remember clearing market stalls, worked in a pub, had a job for BT in Holborn in an IT department.
I’ve been independent from a very young age so I moved out to Poplar the day after my 16th birthday. Four of us from the same class in school ended up having an apartment in an abandoned tower block. We weren’t paying rent but it was derelict so no one really bothered. We put locks on, contacted an electricity board. It was fine, a good community. We had beds, an occasional chair and lots of beanbags. I didn’t actually tell my parents where I was living. [Laughs] I didn’t want them to worry
I did get knifed quite badly but that wasn’t because of the building. One night this bunch of guys started chasing us. I think it was racially motivated as they were black. We were running down the middle intersection of the motorway across the Blackwall Tunnel approach from Poplar. I saw a piece of wood and I stupidly picked it up.
I didn’t actually know I was knifed until a couple of my friends managed to chase them and they went “you’re bleeding like a pig.” I went to pubs where music was playing. I didn’t really go to cinema. It was days of videos so groups of us would lock ourselves in a room and watch Kung Fu movies. Chasing girls is just what teenagers do. I had a girlfriend from an Italian background. There were quite a few Italians around.
I did A-Levels in different places – City and Jubilee and Kingsway Princeton Colleges and went on to university. I was like 20. I went to Reading for Modern European Literature and Philosophy, a degree designed to be able to bullshit at dinner parties. I can bullshit for England. I decided to do a PGCE, which I hated, volunteered for Friends of the Earth and got the job as fundraiser within the week. I was there for about two years before I moved to be a Director of Strategy for Dignity in Dying.
The first time I went back to Poland was with Alison, 20 years down the line. I went to Krakow, which was nice. I’m not into keeping in touch. The only family member I was close to was my great grandmother who died. My relationship with my family was a bit complicated. I think they got paid by my mother to look after me,
I like visiting Poland because it’s good to try and speak the lingo. My Polish is atrocious. I’ve got a foreign accent in whichever language I speak. Me and my parents speak “Poleglish” — whichever word comes to mind first. I have a fondness for good vodka, so that’s a Polish thing and I’ve always been a great fan of steak tartar. Here people think it’s dreadfully posh but it’s not. I really missed that when I came over.
I started making stained glass as a hobby and when the time came to leave Dignity in Dying I had a go at making this as a living. Certainly my designs are quite Polish. It’s kind of in there. Poland had a very strong Bauhaus before Bauhaus existed.
If I had to have an identity I would say English rather than British. Britishness is a very vague concept. I suppose my identity came from Poplar, East End. There are very few of us left [laughs]. I feel I am a cockney or an East Ender though I don’t sound it. It must sound strange from a foreigner, doesn’t it?
So joyful and happy to come different place.
I was born in Sylhet in 1946. We’re an agriculture family – at that time the village was not very rich. I used to go to primary school and then to High School. I passed Matric in 1961, like GCSE. I was a teacher in a primary school.
Suddenly everybody coming to London. It was a postcard, three pence or two pence. London send me this voucher number. I go to the High Commission in Dhaka. I apply for the passport. It was a little bit hard but it wasn’t very much.
I came alone. At that time I was 16. I wasn’t thinking I would stay long because I was so joyful and happy to come different place.
I come by KLM, the plane, 26th August 1963. At that time it was East Pakistan. I get off in Heathrow and somebody show me where I go to Aldgate by underground. I can speak a little bit but not very much and a little bit hard to understand. I show a man the address and he show me a black taxi. I didn’t walk because I don’t know how far.
The taxi took me to 42 Heneage Street. I told him to knock. Then our relatives take the suitcase. I never see them in Pakistan. They came before in 1960, ’61. They asked me, “Did I pay or not?” I can’t remember the cost. Two shilling and six pence I think. I had ten shilling some relative gave me in Pakistan.
Brick Lane was so nasty. Aldgate was very old buildings. Bombed buildings as well. The car was less than now and it was not much crowded. But the older white people were very helpful. If we didn’t know the street they take us home. Not their home, our home, because we lost. Sometimes they get on the bus or, if not too far, they walk them. They were very, very helpful.
At number 42, I was the youngest one. There were about 10, 12, 15, 20 of us. Two, three, four living in one room. No sitting room and there wasn’t any carpet. Only lino. In the wintertime it was very, very cold. Paraffin heater was smelly, but it make very hot. Every week the white people they supply us paraffin. We go to the Cheshire Street market to buy jumpers.
On Saturday or Friday evening everybody go to the public bath. One was in Aldgate East, another in Cheshire Street, another in York Hall. Three, four of us queue together. The white people gave soap, towel, everything. Some of them was Maltese. Some of our people were working in the boiler.
We cook three, four of us together because all single. All men. At that time a lot of Jewish shops sell live chickens and we can halal them ourselves.
Everybody knows the Jobar Shop. He married a white lady. Mixed marriages at the time was very rare. Some who came from the ship married white ladies. They help us as well. We buy food here because everything is available – rice, a little bit meat, spices. We had only English fish but now we can get our Bangladeshi fish all the time.
Now nephew is running it. They call it Taj Stores.
One of my relative was living in 144 Bethnal Green Road, so after six months I went there. Only two of us were living in one room and we pay rent, maybe £4 or £5. Then I come to 2 Sheba Street and after 27 Princelet Street.
Now I am in Spitalfields 33 years. We make it Bangla Town. Our community got everything, our Mosque as well.
I was always worried about how could I get work. They took me to the labour office and I fill the form up a little bit. They surprised because at that time people wasn’t very much educated and they said, “You have to go as a boy for an electrician.” “Okay, if you find something then it’s okay.” Then suddenly I find a job as a canteen boy in Oxford Circus. One of my relative was working in the hotel. After that I find another job, J. Lyons & Co as a counter boy. I start with £7, then as a waiter, because they know I can speak English a little bit, progressing all the time. Then it changed as a club, not too late. The manager said it would be more money, about £13, £14, £15. 1976, ’78 I work in the Jewish quilting factory. Jewish people had clothing factories and all kinds of business. Then everywhere was leather. And now everything is gone to the foreign countries and a lot of people unemployed. Yeah, it was Jewish only, only Jewish factories.
It was a lot of racism at that time. Enoch Powell, he was the leader. If the skinhead see one or two of us going alone, they call us Paki, they hit us. That’s why we scared. That’s why three, four or five of us go and come from work together. They punch me. I didn’t fall down.
Saturday, Sunday we went to Naz cinema in Brick Lane and another one was Commercial Street, Paliseum cinema. At that time was very old Indian films like Mother India, Mughal-E-Azam.
Sometimes I went to the seaside – Southend, Ramsgate, Margate with friends, four or five of us by train. I take them because they didn’t know underground. London zoo and Madame Tussauds as well. Later I took my wife and children.
I was helping people, as well, fill up a form or write a letter but never take any money. Free, okay. At that time the only correspondence was letters. We couldn’t telephone in Bangladesh. Everybody send money to our families, £5, £6, £3, to buy land for paddy fields, rice fields. They were poor.
Taslim Ali bought three, four storeys building and made a mosque In Stepney. Sometimes, like Eid, we’d go. We can’t put our cap on the head, otherwise the skinhead fight with us. About 30 years ago Taslim Ali moved from there to East London. We call it East London Mosque. Three, four thousand people can pray together. Not only Bangladeshi, not only from Pakistan, from everywhere.
In 1971 the fighting started with Pakistan. Our area was little bit safe but in the other places they kill a lot of people. I was collecting money, blankets and every Sunday, Saturday we went to Hyde Park. Mr Abu Sayeed and Mr. Peter Shore our MP, he was also helping. When we independent in 1971 I make a Bangladesh passport.
After ten years I went home to see my family and also to marry. Everybody come to see me. In 1973, I make British passport and about 1978 I brought my son here with my wife. I got more children born here.
I like social work. When I was a boy I collect bamboo from every house for the primary school, I was a teacher here in the community school from 1992 until about two or three years ago. And I was a school governor in Canon Barnett for 20 years. In Bangladesh, we help poor people – orphans who, haven’t got enough money and are good student.
My father died and mother is alive but she is about 90 years old so sometimes I go to see her. My brothers cultivate the land. We’ve got jackfruit, coconut, pineapple, banana and mango trees. So many fruit – blackberries, lychees, melon. Vegetables as well – potatoes, tomato, beans, cabbage, cauliflower, carrot. Everything we’ve got ourselves. Now they got machines. Nobody else came, ‘til now, only myself.
A lot of our people are now rich, got colour television, freezer, fridge. All over the world our people are working and sending money, making nice houses, buildings, hotel and hospitals.
Where I am living, the Spitalfields Market is nice because they refurbished it. Before all night it was noisy [laughs]. These are the green chillies (on Nurul’s balcony in his flat in Spitalfields market). We get the seed from Bangladesh. That’s why they are very hot. Very small but very, very hot. Too hot [laughs]. If you eat it, you will cry. In the wintertime I take them home, inside [laughs]. I like gardening. When I go to school in the evening time, morning time, I used to do it. That’s why I do here as well. My wife, she also like it.
You can hear Nurul and excerpts from his story on below and on Soundcloud
So many people of every colour and nation
We had war in Yemen so my family had to go to Somalia and live there for a couple of years. Then we went back to Yemen because there was war in Somalia. I was one-year old maybe. We went back to live in Hadhramaut, a small town in the South. A lot of my family live there.
It’s really, really hot. After sunsets we go upstairs, take our mattresses, have dinner, talk a little and then go to sleep ‘cause you can’t sleep inside while it’s hot.
I have four brothers, three sisters. I’m in the middle. In Yemen my father worked in a shop, selling groceries. My mum used to bake samosa, spring rolls and falafels. Then she’ll sell them.
I went to school. In the morning it was all the boys and the afternoon it was all the girls. Sometimes we leave messages on the table, [Laughs]. But we didn’t see each other. I was really intelligent kid. I loved mathematics and science. I love art, but back in the days I used to hate it because they’ll ask you to buy everything and you just can’t afford it and then you get told off in front of everyone. That was really harsh.
After lunch we get dressed, my mum does my hair and I’ll go out with the girls and just play around. It’s very deserty, really hot. I had to be home before sunset.
It’s about 45 minutes to the sea. We used to rent a car. It wouldn’t fit us all sometimes so we’ll be put into the boot. The beach is beautiful. The sand is really white. We used to have lunch, swim and play with the sand. We collected rocks – different textures, different colours, different sizes. They look beautiful.
I remember Eid. We used to go to one of my family’s house and queue up for henna to get done. And then shopping. We’ll show off how you match your shoes with your dress and your hairclips. The women wear abayas and cover their faces.
My mum had a car crash and my dad had to look after us and we were kicked out of the house we rented. It was a very hard situation. We were coming back from a visit to another relative and my Dad asked, “Do you guys want to go to London?” I thought he was joking [laughs]. So we went to Sana’a for interviews. I think twice. My dad stayed away for nine months.
My dad had to come first and then I came with my family. I’ve never cried as much in my life, just leaving everything behind and never coming back.
We went from Sana’a to Qatar, and stayed there overnight. The hotel was lovely so I was just jumping up and down. Next morning we took a flight to London. I thought I’m watching a movie, because I never thought London would be this diverse, so many people of every colour and nation. I’d never seen someone different like me. I’ve always seen people of my kind.
I remember running to give my dad a hug. First of all we went to a hostel in Hackney- London Metropolitan Hostel. It was very weird.
It was the first Eid I spent away and I remember crying so much because we didn’t know where to go and what to do.
I started going to BSix College in Clapton. I’ve had a lovely teacher. She understood that we just came and made us feel comfortable. We had to mix with boys, but you get over that. I did one year of Entry 1 and Entry 2 ESOL, the second year was Entry 3. And then I went to BTEC diploma in media for the third year.
When I was 17 the government stopped funding the course so I went to Tower Hamlets and did two years of my diploma in media.
Ravensbourne was the dream of my life. The first two years was a foundation degree in editing and postproduction, and then you do one year of BA top up. During the summer holiday, I used to take part in workshops and short courses, which Tower Hamlets used to do. I’ve loved the photography and collage. It was girls only and about the power of women.
It was really hard for me to feel I’m part of the society. How do I fit in here, what can I do to make myself feel at home? I’ve started meeting people, going to different places with my friends. Like art exhibitions, or open days or going to the park [laughs]. Most of the Yemeni community live in Sheffield.
We’ve been back to Yemen, was it 2012? It was my cousin’s wedding. When I first arrived I felt I am actually at home, that safe feeling of being where we belong. But with the heat and the electricity not working and too many people in one house I hated it. [Laughs]
I was very happy when I came back. I felt I’m home again. I was like, oh, I can’t wait to go to my bed. I miss my house in Newham so much.
I have my place where I keep my artwork and shelves of books that I I’ve read or I want to read. I still have my sketchbooks from those summer courses. I share my room with two sisters, but it’s all right.
I think if I were still on there (Yemen) I wouldn’t have a future. I wouldn’t have much, I wouldn’t respect myself and have confidence just like I do right now. I would have been absolutely a different person. I think I might be married at home with kids and running around going crazy. [Laughs]
You can hear recordings of Balquis, including excerpts mentioned here on Soundcloud:
With thanks to Eric Lafforgue for allowing us to use his wonderful images of Hadhramaut in Yemen.
Arriving in Slush Puppy Land
Henry loved the city he was born in. “In those days it was a beautiful place. You can sleep in the street and people will look after you.”
He lived with his family in a, “wonderful happy house.” It was so big that they created a roller-skating ring in the front room.
Opposite the house was a Catholic church where, from a young age, Henry learnt to play the organ. “The church was my playground. One day I heard a knock at the door and it was the verger. And he said, ‘Look, we have a funeral so can you play the bells as well?’ “
Henry was artistic. He made puppets and wooden toys and was a self-taught pianist, impressing his cousins who lived in the capital with his rendering of Beethoven’s Fur Elise.
Then civil war erupted. “14 families owned the whole country. Any rebellion was suppressed by heavy attacks. Óscar Romero, the Archbishop, actually asked the government, ‘In the name of God, I order you to stop killing your own people.’ D’Aubuisson gave the order to kill Óscar Romero.
“I remember people saying, ‘If they don’t respect the man of God, who is going to respect us?’ I began to see my friends being killed. One lost his life because he saw somebody being kidnapped. On my birthday, about 200 yards from where I was standing, there was a gunshot and this guy fell. My friends were calling, ‘Henry, come back inside before you get shot.’ I couldn’t move. The other guy finished all the bullets and the body jumped every time. I don’t celebrate my birthday now.
“In 1980, my dad said to me, ‘I have to recruit you into the Army. The guerrillas are not going to kill you because they’re all your friends but the Army will.’ So at the age of 16 he enrol me, not as a soldier, but as a musician. In fact, the sergeant ban the musicians to lend me an instrument as he wanted me to read music. ‘If you lend an instrument to Henry, I put you in jail.’
“One soldier said, ‘You’re so lucky you’re in the Army because we cannot touch you now.’ I began to like the power as I was bullied at school but I was afraid of it too. Soldiers said to me, ‘Henry if you need to get rid of anybody just let us know and we’ll get rid of them.’ And the other side said, ‘Henry, why don’t you join the guerrillas? You’ll be okay there.” But I said, ‘No, I don’t want to risk my family.’ It was very scary.
“The guerrillas never actually hurt anyone. They used bombs only to frighten, to attack certain places. The guerrillas took over most of the churches. There were two reasons why the Army couldn’t touch a guerrilla. One is, if you’re in a church and two, if you wrap yourself with the national flag they cannot shoot you.
“My brother (brother in law) was kidnapped because he was a Head of the University. Anything that was education was a danger for the government. He came to England in 1979. In 1980 my sister came to be reunited with him. When my brother-in-law found out I was in the army, he didn’t want me to be brainwash, so I came to England through Human Right Campaign.
“Napo and Omar, my friends, were the only ones that knew. When they drop me at the bus stop, they started crying, and we knew then that was it. The plane from El Salvador to Miami was fine but when I saw the jumbo jet that was going to bring me to London I thought, how is that thing going to stay up there? I didn’t go to toilet. I remember being on a train and you look down the hole and you see the railways. So that’s why I didn’t want to go to toilet just in case I fall down the hole.
I arrive at 7 o’clock in the morning and all I could say is, ‘I’m coming to study music.’ And they (immigration officers) said to me, ‘but music college is very expensive.’ I say, ‘Yeah, I got $25.’ ‘That doesn’t even cover you if you walk from the airport to London,’ They photocopy every paper I have. And then they said, ‘So you coming to us for a political asylum? Your sister is outside with the Human Right Campaign. Why didn’t you say that when you arrived?’ I wouldn’t trust anybody. I wouldn’t say anything that will cause a threat to my life.
“I arrive around September or November and it is snow, snow and snow. For me it was so funny because it’s a Slush Puppy land. I wanted to put a flavour on it and finish it all up.
“It was a Latin American music festival and they said, ‘we have a singer from El Salvador’. My sister pushed me on stage and that was the first time I perform in England.
I started singing other people’s songs but then I need to express what I feel. Performing took me all over England. I was invited to the Labour Party Conference in Blackpool. I arrive in the taxi. And someone said, ‘Who the hell is he?’ And all the cameras started taking pictures just in case.
It wasn’t until I came to England that I started seeing documentaries, films and photographs, testimonies. Then my eyes were open. We thought it was normal you know, you just cope with life as it comes. Sometimes I had nightmares and, my dad said to me, ‘Why you don’t sleep?’ and I say, ‘it’s just all these memories come back. It’s like changing all the channels of a television, all this imagines come back.’
“After ten years I went back to El Salvador and did a concert in the National Theatre to raise funds for the orphans. They took me to the Central Park in front of the Cathedral and I saw this whole row of chairs from people from the Government and the Army band. And I thought, ‘They going to lynch me or what?’ ‘No,’ they said, ‘We are here to honour you.’ And they present me with two diplomas for all the work I have done for refugees and El Salvador.
“I went to the house. It was full of cobwebs. A sad house. A haunted house. I sat where I used to sit on a little wall. I was wearing white trousers, a white top. A bus stopped right in the middle of the road and everyone came out. ‘You gave us such a fright,’ said the bus driver, ‘ because suddenly we see this haunted house and you sitting outside wearing all white.’ Someone said I’d been kidnapped and killed during the war.
“When I came to England I said, ‘This is my home. I’m not going back.’ Hackney is everything for me. Everything is Hackney. El Salvador is just a dream that I left behind. I can always go back and dream again, but Hackney is my home.
You can hear Henry and excerpts from his story on Soundcloud:
When one year old Sadeka met her father at Milan airport, she “just ran to him ‘cause my mum used to show pictures of my dad. And people thought, I wouldn’t be close to him or it would take time, but it really didn’t. [Laughs].”
The family settled in Milan where Sadeka’s father owned two restaurants. The Italian woman next door helped Sadeka with her homework. Her son played football with Sadeka.
When the family went back to Sylhet during the long summer holidays they stayed with Sadeka’s maternal grandparents in Sreemangal – near the famous tea gardens. “I used to take pictures of animals or plants or even cockroaches and stuff. And my mum used to shout at me, ‘Why don’t you take a picture of us?’”
Sadeka liked the tea gardens because there were people, like her, visiting from other countries. “Cause even if you’re Bengali, they understand you’re from another country, so that makes you feel, “Oh, am I really from this country or not?” [Laughs]
Sadeka used to sit with her cousin on the platform outside her grandparents’ shop in Sreemangal and make paper boats. They sailed them on the water but, “One of the workers used to shout at us, ‘Don’t waste paper,’ because paper was expensive [laughs]. I didn’t have that mentality. I can find paper anywhere here.”
Sadeka also stayed with her father’s parents in Sylhet town. This house was full of her cousins who were shy of their young cousin from Italy. At first they hid from Sadeka but within a day they were inseparable.
Sadeka remembers her first day at school in Milan. Despite the school being multicultural she was the only Bengali in her class. Sadeka’s first school friend was Spanish.
In Italy Sadeka celebrated Eid but also Christmas. “All my friends were Italian and they used to give me Christmas presents, so obviously I used to buy them presents as well.”
For New Year they would go to the centre of Milan to see fireworks and wait for the castle clock to strike midnight. “It was really fun.”
On Saturdays Sadeka’s family used to go to ‘dawat’ parties. “That’s how I made my Bengali friends.”
When Sadeka was about 9 or 10 the family moved to Pero just outside Milan. Sadeka was worried she would not make new friends. “I was like, ‘Imagine if I can’t [laughs] remember the names.’” But she soon made friends with the girl next door. “Her family was so crazy about Indian food, so my mum used to cook for them. The younger found it so spicy, but he kept on eating it [laughs].”
When her father told her they were going to England Sadeka was sad. “It’s quite scary ‘cause obviously it’s a different language, different education system and everything.”
When they arrived in Tower Hamlets their luggage had not arrived from Italy, they slept on sofas and it was freezing cold. “So it wasn’t a good impression.”
Sadeka missed not only her school friends but her dolls that she had packed away in three boxes. “My mum said we can’t get all of them and I was so sad, because every doll has a memory, whether it’s in Italy or Bangladesh. I had maybe nearly 100.”
She used to play with them with her younger brother. He drove the caravan whilst Sadeka looked after the dolls in the back. “I used to feed them, try to make them fall asleep. I had a few with brown hair and other were just blonde. And there was one of my favourite dolls which had pink hair [laughs].”
Sadeka is still trying to bring her dolls to London.
Sadeka soon settled into Tower Hamlets as as there were so many other people of Bangladeshi origin. Her Bengali language improved and she, “got to know more about my Bengali traditions.”
She went to Morpeth school where, “it was everyone from Bengali but no one was from Italy, so everyone used to think I’m cool.” She did well and, despite English being a struggle, passed her GCSEs and went onto do A levels. Within 3 and a half years she had been accepted by Queen Mary University of London to do a degree in medical science.
Sadeka is worried about losing her Italian. “Nowadays, with my Italian friends, I sometimes get stuck. I think, like, does this word exist, what is that word again?” With her mother she speaks mainly Bengali but with her father she speaks a mixture of Bengali, Italian and English.
There are things she still misses about Italy. “During the summer even if it’s twelve or one, we used to just go out, have a walk and get a bit of fresh air. And even if it’s two or three in the night, ice cream shops they are open [laughs]. “
There are things, too, that Sadeka does not like about England. “The rain is so annoying. One minute it rains, one minute it doesn’t and you can’t even predict it.” But the universities are better, there is more work and even an Italian restaurant that sells halal food. Sadeka wants to stay here but go back to Italy for holidays but she would like to live by the sea, maybe Brighton or Southend as, ‘ I really, really enjoy it – being on the beach and swimming.”
Sadeka thinks there are advantages of having lived in different countries, “ because, wherever you go, you’re not always going to find Bengali are you? There are other people. And if you are not used to mixing with other people, then it’s going to be a struggle.”
You can hear Sadeka and excerpt’s from her story on Soundcloud:
The Brown Sheep of the Family
Duncan’s family lived on the first floor of a block of flats where a leper used to sleep in the doorway. “It wasn’t the poorest area… it was middle of the road Calcutta.”
Duncan experienced the street from the first floor balcony as he was not allowed to play outside. He remembers the clamour of the chai sellers, lean rickshaw pullers, trams with overhead wires, bicycles tottering under heavy loads and Hindu festivals. “Holi, holi… oh, it scared the wits out of me. A huge wonderful, colourful, chaotic mess, where people would throw coloured powder and coloured water at each other. It was an anarchy and we were very controlled.”
The flat was on a borderline between the Hindu and Muslim communities and riots were common.“This was post partition. Hindus and Muslims had got on brilliantly beforehand. [Sighs] Ah, bless you lot, with respect, partition happened, Britain withdrew, high and dry, countries are split. It never did get sorted, really.”
The location of the flat meant that Duncan experienced more terrifying sights than people throwing coloured paints at each other and Hindu goddesses with too many arms. “There were people who would get wheelbarrows, open the manholes, load rotting bodies on, wheel them about and demand money to take them away from outside your house.”
One day Duncan watched a boy being pulled off his bike and killed. “Whether he was Hindu or Muslim, I don’t know.” Duncan was pulled back into the flat and sat back shaking, cradling his trembling dog. Duncan still suffers from flashbacks from that incident – “a hand with the whole palm covered in blood…. as a child you don’t have the means to deal with this stuff.”
One day the riots were particularly bad so his family urged his mother not to go to work. Ignoring the warning she left the house hoping the official flag of her chauffeur-driven car would provide some protection. But “the car was surrounded by very violent rioting youths who gave the driver two options, ‘One you stay in the car and we burn you all to death, all the women and you, or you get out and we kill you.’ So he (the driver) had the presence of mind to put his foot on the accelerator and plough his way through the mob.”
Duncan’s mother escaped with her life but the incident changed the direction of all their lives. “And I have this clear memory…..of my mum, who was really quite a timid woman, coming home, standing in the doorway, icy cold, determined, saying, ‘I’m leaving. You can come with me if you want, or you can stay here. Enough.’”
As they prepared to leave for the ‘motherland’ Duncan became more and more excited. “I knew there would be a thatched cottage. I knew I would have a garden to play in.” Two years after the incident when his mother was nearly killed the family crossed India by train and embarked on a PO liner. Their ship was near the end of the last convoy to go through the Suez Canal before the Suez crisis erupted. “And the left side was all desert and the right side was green …and men on horseback with guns. It was all terribly exciting. This was, oh, the peak, the pinnacle. Britain, going to Britain”
A friend picked up the family from Tilbury Dock on a cold September day in 1956 and they all drove to Clapton. On the way an excited eight year-old Duncan bombarded his parents with questions.“Can I play in the garden when we get there?” “Will there be smoke coming out of the chimney?” “Will there be, will there be…?”
Duncan soon realized his future was not going to be as he imagined. “I remember my head pressed up against the taxi window and the total silence in the cab. And the growing up that happened between Tilbury Dock and Clapton. All this processing in my little eight year old mind.”
Duncan walked up dark stairs to a Clapton flat. “It wasn’t this thatched cottage. It was basically one room, and another room which was best, which we never used, and a kitchen.”
Five years later the family were able to put a mortgage down on a house without a thatched roof near Clapton station. Duncan had, not only his own bedroom, but a garden where he could put up his huge six-foot telescope, something he keeps to this day.
Duncan went to Northwold Primary School where he did well. His education at the prestigious La Martiniere school in Calcutta served him well. He then went onto Hackney Downs where over half the students were Jewish. School was everything to him and he, along with his friends, thrived academically. “We were East End kids. It didn’t mean we had patched, ragged trousers and went core blimey. We were bright, but East End kids.”
Joe Brearley, the deputy head teacher who taught Russian O level, was just one of the teachers who inspired not only Duncan, but Harold Pinter, a former pupil.“He (Joe Brearley) taught us the instrumental case in Russ, by him getting the whole class up, walking us around Hackney Downs in the snow, plonking an instrument with us, chanting the endings, ‘som, soi, som, sami.” Over 50 years Duncan has still not forgotten the instrumental case in Russian.
Duncan’s complexion was darker than that of his parents and sister, something he was unaware of until he came to Britain.“I didn’t know in India I was brown….my mum and dad and sister basically are white. I’m clearly brown, so way, way, way back, way back somewhere almost certainly there was an Indian woman. It would never have been an Indian man who would dared to have taken up with an English woman.”
As the, “brown sheep of the family” he experienced a level of racism in Clapton unknown in Calcutta.
It was many years before Duncan took an active interest in his Indian heritage.”I didn’t go back to India for 47 years and I then realised I’d been having flashbacks of looking out our balcony window…I had to go back three times over the three visits. And finally, got it into my head that actually there’s a road barrier where that boy was. He isn’t being killed anymore.” He has also returned to the place where he believes his mother’s car was surrounded in the riots.
Duncan’s early experiences have given him some insight into what other young migrants might have suffered.“Some of our Somali lads, who first came over, kept themselves to themselves. And I had this heart and feeling for them. They wouldn’t speak to me, but just thinking you guys have seen some awful, awful stuff as children, you know.”
Those early experiences have also influenced his approach as a Church of England priest. “Growing up along all these fault lines, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, non-Christian, Catholic, there was a determination in me somewhere, and I never knew I was going to be a priest, that never ever would I do anything to foster division.”
Despite his popularity and the respect with which he is held in East London Duncan still feels that he has never totally belonged, that he will be rumbled one day. “That the ice I walk on is quite thin, and when Farage starts, and you see people gathering ..I just suddenly feel, there’s a horrible feeling they’re going to send me back.”
You can hear Duncan and excerpts from his story below and on Soundcloud. You can also read Duncan’s blog post describing his involvement with this project.
You’re Going to Turn White
“And I’d get all these parcels with little dolls and bits and pieces from England and then I was told I was coming to England.”
Four years after Heather’s mother left Jamaica she had saved enough money to bring over two of her children, Heather and her son from her first marriage. When people knew Heather was going to London they warned she would change. “Everybody said, ‘You’re going to turn white.’ ‘Am I?’ They said, ‘Yes, you turn white when you go there’”.
Heather recalls the bus journey to Kingston to collect her passport, memorable because she rarely left the countryside to visit the capital. “….and I remember seeing blue sea, I still dream of it… but I also remember there must have been oranges or tangerines on the tree …it was one of the most beautiful things I ever saw.”
Heather’s mother had paid to make sure her daughter had a good education. When Heather got to the UK airport she remembers the immigration officers questioning her. “I was able to read and write quite well and do joined up writing. And when I came to the passport control they didn’t believe that it was me that had signed my passport [laughs].”
Heather remembers very little about how she felt to be leaving Jamaica.“ I don’t remember any sadness. I don’t remember any joy. I don’t remember anything really.” She remembers her first flight on an aeroplane but nothing special about it. She does remember her mother meeting her at the airport in London.
Heather settled in with her mother in a one room flat in a multi-occupational house in Tottenham. School was not easy. “I had a very thick Caribbean accent and I was laughed at in class so I consciously switched and changed. I had to, to survive really. I wish I had kept my Caribbean accent ‘cause when I hear it I think, oh it’s so rich, there’s a lovely twang, there’s a lovely sound to it – I was the only black face in the class.”
Heather found it difficult to make friends.“We had no use of a garden but I’d overlook the garden and there was a child next door and I’d play with her from the window… we connected and made friends ….I was never invited in to her house or anything like that.”
Even the names of food were deceptive. “I remember potatoes and I thought they used to taste awful …. I spat it out! Irish potato they used to call it… and I thought what is this insipid thing? ‘Cause I was used to sweet potatoes.”
Heather and her mother moved from Tottenham to Hackney, moving 8 times over 8 years to multi-occupational houses, usually with shared bathrooms and heated by calor gas. Heather soon learned to help around the house until her mother returned from work. “ I had my own key to let myself in and I’d do the cooking, do the clearing up, do some of the chores.”
When Heather attended Gayhurst School, near London Fields, they teased her with such taunts as, ‘ Heather, feather, leather rubber lips.’ She comforted herself that Mick Jagger, who was white, also had rubber lips. A fellow boy pupil reacted badly to such racism. He tried to scrub himself white with bleach. The rumour was that he died.
When Heather lived near her primary school she made friends with a white middle class girl who lived in a detached house nearby. “ And I would go there and they would never allow me in the house but we were very good friends, and I couldn’t understand why her parents would never allow me in the house…….. I didn’t ever really think it was my colour. I always thought I was ugly.”
In Jamaica Heather had loved the sense of space in the countryside. She climbed trees, teased her dogs and cats and played with her brothers near the river at the back of their house. England was a shock. “So the difference is just astounding that I could be in one country where I was just normal and then another country where I just felt completely alien. I wanted to die sometimes, not just die but you know, be somewhere else. I just didn’t feel I belonged here but I couldn’t put my finger on why.”
When Heather was 10 or 11 she adopted an important role model. “ It was the time of Black Power with Angela Davis… and I had my hair out. And my mum was crazy, ‘What are you doing?’ ‘Cause I used to have plaits before… and I was wearing these trainers, white plimsolls with power written on it, and I used to make long maxi skirts [laughs], and wear these frameless glasses and go to the library [laughs] and come home with books under my arm and people must have been laughing at me because there …was no glass in the frame. [laughs].”
Heather went to a secondary school in Hackney. She did well at most subjects but was particularly encouraged by her clothesmaking, art and dance teachers. Heather was accepted by London College of Fashion but dropped out to a take a job in accountancy, a decision she regrets. At 18 she had her son. She became a lone parent.
Heather’s adult life has been full of accomplishments. She took up women’s weightlifting and was soon being placed in national and international competitions. “I done really well at it. I’ve been British champion many times.” Heather was placed third in Europe and sixth in the world and became captain of the British women’s weightlifting team. Under her captaincy, the team was placed first in the EEC, and twice placed second in the European Championships.
Heather has been a manager in adult and further education and is now studying for a Professional Directorate in the educational and social experiences of lone parents in higher education. It is something close to her heart. “And I thought of my mother, and I thought how do women actually manage and cope, you know, having children as well as having to deal with everyday stuff and study?”
She showed no enthusiasm for returning to Jamaica as a child or even as a young adult. “When I left Jamaica I never made contact with anybody again. It’s unbelievable how much I regret that and it’s about survival. My mother went back but I never went with her. And my grandmother, she died at 103 and I hated myself for never going back to see her, or to get that history from her. And I just thought, you silly, silly woman.”
Heather did eventually go back in and just in time for one important reunion. “Then I met my dad before he died, so I saw him and saw other people that knew me.”
Heather reflects on her achievements.“My determination may be coming from the fact that …my early years in the UK were so wasted.” She never turned white, as predicted when she left Jamaica, but now interprets that warning differently.“ The guy at the door (caretaker of Hackney adult education service) used to say to me, ‘A white, you white, you’re white,’ and I’ve had that expression before. So when they said that to me (in Jamaica) I was thinking skin colour. I wasn’t thinking about the things I’ve adopted – my whole persona and the way I am,the way I dress my house and everything. I’ve always moved quite a lot in the white world. I can see that actually.”
You can hear Heather and excerpts from her story below and on Soundcloud