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British Ugandan Asians at 50

Highlighting the experience of British Ugandan Asians in and after 1972, and the many volunteers who helped them.

History:

Life in the Resettlement Camps

From early September 1972 and into October things moved quickly as the Uganda Resettlement Board put arrangements in place to receive up to thirty thousand Ugandan Asians. Although the Board had wanted to avoid using military camps as they weren’t adapted for family life, these were the only places big enough to house, feed and support such large numbers of people.

Conditions varied widely between the sixteen camps. Nearly all were empty RAF bases, but much depended on how long they had been vacant and what they had been used for before closing. The camps in the worst condition, notably Piddlehinton in Dorset, only ran for a very few weeks.

Huts have been partitioned with curtains, and their only heating is from bottled-gas stoves. There are no kitchens capable of mass catering. Hot food is sent twice a day in insulated containers from the nearest resettlement centre, 25 miles away. Disposable cups and plates have to be used. Breakfasts are cereals, bread, butter and tea.

John Owen, ‘’Unsuitable’ refugee camp to shut’, Daily Telegraph, 27 Oct 1972

Camp commanders, often with a colonial civil service or military background, were appointed as heads of the sixteen camps. Each also had a civilian administrator employed by the Uganda Resettlement Board. Uniformed voluntary organisations – the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service, St John’s Ambulance and the Red Cross, and other national voluntary bodies such as the Women’s Institute and the YMCA, provided the backbone of the everyday work of the camps. Their numbers were added to by civil servants and local employment exchange workers who aimed to match everyone with accommodation and an offer of work.

At their peak each camp operated almost like a self-contained welfare state, providing all the services the Ugandan Asians needed to sustain them while they familiarised themselves with British life and as they began to think about the future. Stradishall, as the biggest of the camps, also created and ran its own school. In other camps volunteers ran activities and more informal lessons for the children, as well as providing language classes for the many Ugandan Asian adults who did not speak English.

Hot drinks and refreshments on arrival; medical examination, including if possible, mass X-ray procedures; documentation; interviews with heads of families, designed to ascertain their financial position, their family responsibilities, their skills, the educational needs of their dependants and whether they had relatives or friends to whom they could look for housing or employment, or both; assistance from the Supplementary Benefits Commission; care of babies and young children; care of the old, the sick and the handicapped; first aid centres transport within the airport and from the airport to the reception centres; transport to hospitals for those needing hospital treatment; telephone communication; general welfare; the issue of warm clothing to those needing it.

R A Wilkinson, ‘Establishment of a refugee camp’

He had to beg and borrow for equipment. He was given a series of rooms over in the air base. They weren’t actually proper classrooms. They had to be divided up with cloth screens like the sort you might find in a hospital. No desks were the same, they were all different style desks, chairs, big chairs, little chairs, but he got the school together and they started meeting as a school. And, on the Friday before, he had three staff, a school, no pupils; on the following Monday, he had a school, three staff, eighty pupils; and the following Friday – five days later – he had a school, three staff, and 1,200 pupils.

Deborah Sheridan recounting her father’s efforts as headmaster of Stradishall camp’s temporary school

Basic furniture, appliances, utensils, bedding, crockery etc was provided by the army or requisitioned by the Ministry of Works. Local people, as well as people from right across the country, donated blankets, clothes and toys to make camp life more comfortable. Volunteers were also at the forefront of providing support, social and ‘reorientation’ activities, including teaching English or providing entertainment and visits to places of interest. 

Food was a point of particular concern for the expellees. In a world where they had lost everything, familiar food was a point of stability. In some camps, poor quality food led to organised complaints to the camp authorities, the threat of food strikes and publicising the problems in the media. Rather than listening to these problems some camp commanders dismissed them, blaming the grievances on younger volunteers and ‘troublemakers’, who they simply moved to other camps. Elsewhere camp workers adopted a more flexible approach and included the Ugandan Asians in the menu planning and cooking.

In the evening, we went to the canteen and there was food there which was, you know… we thought, ‘What is this? It’s all meat and everything, you know, chicken and pork’ – whatever it was. It was alien to us. A lot of us wouldn’t eat that, you know, especially the elder lot. Obviously we had the mashed potatoes, beans and everything. And then a day later my mum and a group of ladies approached the manager and said, ‘Look, we won’t be able to eat this food. Is there any chance we can make our Indian food?’ And he said, ‘Yes, that’s no problem. If you tell me what you need, we’ll get everything.’ So my mum and two ladies went to Cambridge to a local Indian shop and bought all the herbs and spices that needed to make all the food. My mum got six women who cut all the potatoes, all the other stuff they needed to make the food. My mum was the person in charge. She’d make the main masala to mix in the potatoes and all that. The ladies would you cook it and everything. So within two days, we were having an Indian meal every day. It was fantastic’.

Mayur Seta who was a child at Stradishall camp

In some areas surrounding the reception camps there was initially suspicion of the newcomers, but as the Ugandan Asians became a familiar sight around local towns ,the welcome they received was generally a warm one. As the months went on volunteers and camp residents settled into a routine and in the process made friends and gained insights into their different ways of life. Camp staff and voluntary workers at Faldingworth and Hemswell camps attended the camps’ Diwali and Eid celebrations, sitting on the floor through what one WRVS worker described as “nearly four hours of deafening music, wild dance and recitations – I didn’t understand a word”.

In Wales, people were quite friendly but when we used to go to the town centre, we used to experience a little bit of racism, but not to the extent that it frightened us. But once they came to know that we are OK, they were alright with us.’

Praful Purohit, resident at Tonfanau camp

Many camp residents were impressed by the enthusiasm and dedication of some of the volunteers, such as Bunty Charles who led the WRVS at Heathfield camp, and Mrs R at one of the Lincolnshire camps “who on some days arrived at 8.00 in the morning and often left in the early hours of the following morning, taking everything in her stride and not once complaining about the long hours’.

It was not only the camp residents who benefited from the presence of the volunteers. Many of those who worked with the Ugandan Asians reflected how much they gained from the experience of volunteering.

I feel really great about the fact that I can look back fifty years and say I did this, I was involved in this, I played my part. I feel that I learnt a truly valuable lesson to treat other people as I would wish to be treated myself and irrespective of what the circumstances were, if someone was in front of me and needed my assistance then they would get it, whatever way I could possibly deliver.

Stephen Poulton, former police cadet, Stradishall camp

It was a very humbling experience for us to see it – we’ve never forgotten it’

Ron Isles, Round Table volunteer, Tonfanau camp

I think it was an example of efficient compassion if you like. I like to think it was. It
was a great experience.

Sheila Bailey, volunteer teacher at Stradishall camp

As the months went by, most residents of the camps found homes and jobs. From a peak of 13,051 camp residents on 9 November 1972, by March 1973 only 1,100 people remained in the final two of the original sixteen resettlement centres. The last resettlement camp, Heathfield, closed on 24 March 1973. Many of the tensions and dramas which accompanied the reception and resettlement programme rapidly faded from the public mind and from political discourse.

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