Fresh off the boat with £3 in his pocket. That’s how my dad arrived in the UK back in the summer of ’65, leaving his home, country and family five thousand miles behind him to start a new life on British soil.
My father’s story is not unique. It’s the story of thousands of Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis migrating to the UK in the 1960s, many responding to the call of the British government which sent employment vouchers to tackle the severe shortage of doctors and teachers in Britain at the time. My father took up a teaching post in a rural Kent village, where I live to this day.
Life was different then for those new brown faces – they didn’t have the luxuries I now take for granted. For a start, not many houses had a bathroom or even an indoor toilet. An uncle (not actually related, but a common term to describe any South Asian family friend beyond the age of fifty) told me it was the norm for young workers to go to public bathhouses on Sundays. The men would queue up in front of the Brylcreem dispenser, pop in a penny and get a squirt of hair-cream in return. Then it was off to the ‘pictures’.
Today’s abundance of halal restaurants, Islamic organisations and a Muslim social scene that I have seen grow in the last fifteen years, are a far cry from my parent’s environment forty years ago when the closest halal butcher was thirty miles away. The new Muslim communities began to set up mosques, urgent to bring over imams from ‘back home’. At times, when a Muslim died, there was no imam to fulfil the funeral rites – some Muslims had Christian burials or services. One Pakistani man was even cremated by his English wife – the repercussion of lacking a strong Muslim community.
Today we complain about non-English speaking imams – the legacy of 60s Britain. Unsavoury as it might be, it stands testament to those first efforts to establish a place of prayer: the first anchor for immigrant communities, upon which second generation Muslims could build their future, refine their own identity.
Identity was a different ball game in 1960s Britain. My parents and other ‘freshies’ (also known as fresh off the boat or F.O.B – slang for South Asians travelling to Britain by boat) weren’t identified as Muslims but as Indians, first and foremost. It was too complicated then for indigenous British folk to distinguish between the Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, putting them all in the same boat (again). Yet, equally, many Muslim immigrants reinforced the race card, regarding it more strongly than their religion.
The question of race has shifted towards faith, particularly for Muslims, and even further personally for me. My father committed himself to improving race relations in our local area: he was Chair of the Racial Equality Council for over thirty years. The groundwork laid, I can choose to move forward in my work with what is more important to me than my ethnic make-up – my faith. The term ‘British Muslim’ was one I scarcely heard when growing up, but in the last ten years, through various social schemes or political agendas, it has permeated my identity.
In London, I walk past young Muslims sitting in their Beemers – iPhones in one hand, Khan-tucky Fried Chicken in the other – and I reflect on the debt we owe our parents and their generation. Young British Muslims are now in a better position to have a voice in society, thanks to the sweat off our parents’ backs. Their efforts are the reason I can now choose to wear hijab, why I can feel confident about belonging, why I can focus my work on Muslim issues.
I owe all of them, every single uncle and aunty, and above them all of course, my parents. I haven’t had to work in a Kleenex factory, waking at the 4am every morning just to make ends meet, like my mother, a Zoology Masters graduate, before getting her teaching job. I haven’t had to start from scratch, as my father did, to promote racial equality with his first office literally in the boot of his car.
Dad, Mum, Freshies – I owe you, big time.