British Ugandan Asians at 50
Highlighting the experience of British Ugandan Asians in and after 1972, and the many volunteers who helped them.
Fiyaz Mughal OBE
Interviewers: Tom Hearn, Mia Huckstep, Josh Slay (Stoke College) and BUA50 team
Place: Wickhambrook Parish Church, Wickhambrook, Suffolk
Date: 19th April, 2022
Fiyaz Mughal OBE was a baby at Stradishall and is now well known as a community activist and anti-Islamophobia campaigner. He speaks about his parent’s recollections of leaving Uganda hurriedly and being robbed by the authorities. He also discusses integration, racial barriers, and British colonial legacies and responsibility. A disparity between the welcome given by the volunteers and later barriers of discrimination is mentioned. A legacy of fear, intergenerational trauma, and the silences in history surrounding emotional trauma for refugees are also discussed. Other topics mentioned include: effects upon his professional career; Ukraine and the British Government’s response.
Parent’s reflection and departure from Uganda
0:42 So I am reflecting upon my father and my mother’s recalling of events. They reflected upon being kicked out of the country pretty early on, in August, so towards the later end of August, but one of the earlier members of the Ugandan Asian community to leave. My father says obviously it was an extremely hurried departure. Idi Amin was quite unstable and could do anything in terms of people coming into homes, attacking women, attacking property, was pretty much throughout – pervasive throughout the Ugandan Asian community at that time. So there was a sense of fear that had pervaded the community in general and they felt it. The speed and departure was something that came through, that they had to leave hurriedly and quickly.
The other thing that he – my father and my mother – both said was that as they were leaving, they were effectively robbed on the way in their departure, so they were robbed, items were taken from them and then my father was strip searched at the airport by Ugandan soldiers and he always reflects, and recounted to me this story, and I was a year and a half, and you know mother was holding me. But, he recounted how he had five shillings, five Ugandan shillings in his pocket, and there was a bottle of milk that he was holding and so they clearly said, you know that bottle of milk was fine, but when they strip searched him, they took out the last five shillings he had. You know, and he was a pretty proud man, who was at that time an electrical engineer in Uganda, so working on creating lot of the electrical substations and design of electrical distribution in Uganda – so quite a senior role. So you know, they kind of took away every single penny from my father and my mother and just left us with the clothes we had on and effectively the bottle of milk. That’s what we left Uganda with.
Idi Amin and Britain’s responsibility
2:43 Amin was not a unique character. Leaders only come to the forefront if the environment creates them to come to the forefront. So however much Uganda may want to put past the legacy of Amin, Ugandans – Black Ugandan Africans – didn’t really trust Asians, and Ugandan Asians didn’t really trust Black African Ugandans. Right? It’s the unsaid thing. And Amin was part of the discourse going around in Uganda which created, gave him the environment to come to the forefront, in addition to Britain’s bloody involvement in putting Amin into those positions. OK? So, this country has a lot to answer for, because this country gave him the military positions, and this country pushed Amin forward, and this country effectively thought he was the one that they could work and do dealings with, and he turned on them. OK? So, Britain has responsibility and it took some responsibility by taking the Ugandan Asians, but let’s also be honest that Britain didn’t open its arms to us and say, ‘Immediately come in.’ OK? It took public pressure, to get them to take us in. So yeah, they did the right thing in the end, but Britain’s involvement in Uganda has a dirty history.
4:22 The experiences of my family, I think, are quite different. Let me explain that. So my father, who was born in Pakistan, and again there was colonial legacy in Pakistan which was left over; so he was drawn to Britain and he came and studied in Britain. He did his degree here in Britain and he then worked here in the UK. So he was here about six years. So he was quite adept and had lived in the UK and had studied in the UK and then went and worked, he got a contract in Uganda. My mother had been born in Uganda, and she was second generation, born in Uganda. Her father had come as part of the British colonial legacy to come and work in Uganda around 1919/1920 and he’d come to work I think as part of the naval or trade elements attached to the naval trade that was taking place around East Africa. So he came early in 1919/1920. My mother was born in Uganda in 1941, I think. So they met in Uganda. So my father had already kind of had a tradition of being engaged with British life. So it wasn’t a culture shock to come to Britain.
Fear and generational trauma
6:00 But there was something that is unsaid here and it’s something that is difficult – it’s an unsaid and it’s a difficult thing again. There is a legacy in Uganda and in Kenya and in East Africa, particularly in East Africa, that the colonial legacy was one based upon race, and so the Ugandan Asians were the administrative functions within the area. They were good at business, they were very good at you know – the administrative functions and entrepreneurial in Uganda. But in a way there was a sense that whatever was white and British was excellent. Whatever was Black and African wasn’t so good. That was just permeating through. Right? So when they came back, there was a sense that actually whatever was white and British was good. So there was a sense that actually you had to work harder to be accepted into the process of the country. And that was carried, I think, with my parents. And so it wasn’t so much culture shock but there was more of a racial sense of wanting to integrate. And obviously there was never going to be a racial integration in the 1970s when you are just arriving, when Enoch Powell is really at the height of his strength. So I guess what I’m saying is there was always a need for acceptance from my parents, but my father was one who said, ‘Well I am going back to Africa’, and took us back to Africa.
So there is a sense, I suspect, given what my family went through, of a need for acceptance but actually a lot of Ugandan Asians probably finding rejection in the employment market, in discrimination, but acceptance in the volunteers who helped them in the camp – it’s kind of a double edged sword. Does that make sense? You know, a lot of volunteers helping – ‘Great! This is really good, we feel accepted.’ But you go for a job or try to get into the employment market and you are suddenly finding discrimination and you’re going, well ‘What’s this about? This is really weird’, so there are probably multiple pulls going on with the population at that time.
So in a way the dislocation from Uganda – let me go back to that – was a dislocation from the sense of community. It was very strong, there was a very strong sense of community that came through what my mother said and my father said. So first of all, it was a sense of dislocation from the community. It was a community pretty clearly that didn’t have a sense of sectarianism around it. But you find, actually, if you look at the Asian community in the UK, it has a strong sense of sectarianism which has kind of permeated over the last two, three decades. So we as Ugandan Asians didn’t have a sense of sectarianism. Actually, we had a sense of collective – we had a collective identity, which transcended religion and to some degree transcended race. Even though there was a colonial legacy left over by, by the British colonial powers which was based on race. OK? The unsaid thing which was based on race.
So we lost that sense of collectiveness by coming here – that’s gone. The sense also of fear, and the sense- so the sense of fear of being kicked out in that scenario, I think stayed with my mother. She carried that throughout her life. She really carried that. So, you know, ‘Am I safe? Is somebody going to come in my house? Are we totally safe?’ She only felt that in the last ten, fifteen years of her life. She died last year but she only felt that last fifteen years of her life. Before that, she was always worried about security. She would check her locks all the time and I knew that was coming back from the time in Uganda and the sense of fear that had permeated into her. So, my mother became quite fearful, throughout her life actually, and that fear gets generated into kids. It’s the fear that you see in the refugees, the trauma in refugees. The trauma goes straight through generations. So if there’s a fearful event that takes place, like refugees in Ukraine, it goes into the next generation and into next generation, and just gets carried through – unless there’s work done. So my mother transmitted that fear, kind of projected that straight into us as kids. And I feel that sometimes but I can manage it. But the impact of that has been a generational trauma.
Trauma, dislocation and insecurity
10:30 The sense of trauma and dislocation is something that’s not talked about within the Ugandan Asian experience. It’s an experience which is talked about by some people who are very wealthy, you know, that wealth is something they’ve been successful with, which is great. There is lot of talk about, well it was the right thing that happened in the end to some in the Ugandan Asian community they found their peace in the UK, but that’s not the full story. What’s drastically missing in this whole arena, and I have raised this and I continue to raise it, is the fact that actually there has been an emotional trauma that is carried by refugees that is not talked about. So that emotional trauma, that sense of dislocation I’ve carried with me even though I’ve lived in the UK forty-one years now. I can wake up any day and think, actually I can leave the UK tomorrow. So I do feel a sense of rootedness but I also don’t feel the sense of rootedness. And that comes from a sense of dislocation actually.
11:30 Uganda has given me an ability to learn to adapt, because we had to learn to adapt and adapt quickly. We didn’t have time. We were just thrown into the situation and we learnt that. I guess also my parents kept saying that. You know, they were pretty much like survivors. You get there, you get to a country and you adapt. Like other Ugandan Asians, you get on with it. You have to, you have to live, you know. So the flexibility of mindset, I think, the flexibility of being able to overcome obstacles is one of the outcomes of the trauma of dislocation from Uganda. There was a strong feeling of unsafeness that my parent’s had throughout their lives, after Uganda. After Uganda, my father was OK but my mother was pretty paranoid about security. She carried that all the time. And I guess the sense of fear that my mother has had, or had, has I think been in a way been projected into me. So there is a part of me that feels very willing to fight for my identity. I think it created a mistrust of Africa in me, which is really sad because I was born in Uganda. I was born in a place called Fort Portal, just on the eastern side of Uganda. And I have, you know, I have gone to Africa and I enjoy Africa, but there’s always been a mistrust of the security in Africa and you know, when I go to an African country, I’m like ‘Am I safe? Am I safe?’ So there’s a sense that I’m carrying a legacy, which is sad because I’m never quite certain of feeling safe in the continent.
How the experience impacted his professional life in the UK
13:16 So the kind of work that I have done has been in the heart of communities and I think, I think what happened to me in Uganda and what happened to me in Kenya – and again we had to leave in Kenya – has been, I have ended up in this work because of those incidents and events. So my work in communities really has been around social cohesion, bringing communities together. Does that resonate very closely with what I said about Uganda? Right? Why would that happen? And the fact is it comes-, I suspect, it comes down to – I have kind of closed a loop. So that’s why I have worked and tried to bring communities together. Some of the work I’ve done really has been around kind of hate crime monitoring around racist hate. Where did that come from? A little bit of the legacy of Uganda, right? So I’ve kind of lived out my experiences subconsciously and they’ve come out in my professional career, in my professional life. So yes, what I’ve done I can clearly link back to my experiences. You know, it’s chalk and cheese going from Uganda and Kenya, Uganda for example, to the UK. Not only a different look, a different race of people, a different culture, different background, but the whole environment is completely different. And so, you know, part of it has been learning to live with difference in the legacy of the move. Do I feel visually and emotionally at ease with the UK? It’s taken me a long time.
Importance of marking the 50th Anniversary
14:44 I think it’s really important to mark the fiftieth Anniversary because, you know, it’s part of the cultural history of our country. It’s part of the migration and sets of migration that have taken place that make this country what it is. Alright? So I think it’s really important to mark that. I think it’s also important to mark – what’s specific and unique to this project – the way that society came together to help the people to be resettled in the camps, I think it’s really important in the specificity of what this project is doing. But I also want to say that the fiftieth anniversary should give us an opportunity to reflect on how … it is still so difficult for refugees to actually enter the UK. It was easier for us compared to what it is today. You would think after two, three, decades – four or five decades – we would make it easier for people to seek sanctuary with us. But we are making it much, much harder for them to get sanctuary with us.
Lessons learnt from the Ugandan resettlement programme
15:41 I think there are lessons that the ’72 settlement could teach us now. I think the community mobilisation we have seen reflected in the Ukraine crisis, but I think the government was much more empathic and much more fluid and willing to work with communities quicker, with less bureaucracy, and more connectedness in 1972 than today. And I think the bureaucracy, the sense that security overrides asylum – so let’s check your background, ‘Have you got a bill?’, when people are running away from Ukraine, is ludicrous. So it’s more about looking at refugees through securitisation of the country rather than the empathy that we as Ugandan Asians in the end got. Right? You know, you can’t deny that.
Well, what happened in Uganda has lived with me for fifty years. The impact of what’s happening in Ukraine will live with this country for decades to come, unless, we take some of the approach that we took to Ugandan Asians. We settle them in, we integrate them quickly, we open up our systems of support for them, but I don’t see that happening from a government level – I see that happening from a community level in this country. It’s sad, because the government is lagging.
Last modified: 28th Nov 2022