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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:

Rebuilding Lives in a New Country

The Uganda Resettlement Board was responsible for a number of misjudgements and mistakes; these are documented in a report, ‘A Job Well Done?’, prepared by the Central Committee for the Welfare of Evacuees from Uganda. Nevertheless, it is acknowledged by many in the Ugandan Asian community that overall the Board achieved a remarkable success, in terms of setting up and running the camps, the speed of the expellees’ resettlement, and the way in which a difficult process was generally managed fairly and efficiently.

We had some good times here at Honiton. People were so good. When I left the camp, I was still 17. Obviously we left at the end of January, the camp was closing in February so we were one of the last families to leave, and there were a few families left as well, so we had to go to another camp called Doniford camp in Watchett, in Somerset. The reason being that two of my brothers got a job in Bristol in a small village called Thornbury outside Bristol. There was a job plus a council house, but our council house was not ready so we had to go to Doniford for about four weeks, I think it was. From there, once the council house was ready we moved to Thornbury and I still have some very good memories of Thornbury. We left Thornbury, we lived about three, four miles from Thornbury but we still lot of people there, and again the country did wonders for us lot.

Teji Sond, resident of Heathfield camp

The Board’s final report showed that roughly a quarter of the expellees made independent plans immediately on arrival in Britain, and the rest – 21,987 people – went through one of the camps. Of these, around half found their own work or housing, often through family or friends. Ultimately just over a third of all expellees – 8,429 – were settled by the Board directly, across around four hundred local authority areas. Of these, 1,793 went directly into council housing in the Green Areas, while 2,437 were found private accommodation. 

Some families, supported by local voluntary and social services, happily settled in their allocated housing in Green Areas, finding work locally and becoming part of the community. Not all families were as isolated as might have been expected. The Muhammed family who had been sent to Wick in the far north of Scotland, and who had ‘the unenviable distinction of being the northernmost Uganda Asian family in Britain’, found on arrival that there were already five Pakistani trader families in the town. In Wick, as elsewhere, existing networks of family, friends and co-religionists were central to the process of rebuilding the Ugandan Asians’ life from scratch in a new country.

So, my grandma worked in a lot of the local factories most of her life right until she was retired, working long shifts with people very closely who also supported them when they first came here. My auntie then went to work for the civil service – so also helping to give back to others – and my mum worked in the local prison which was turned into prison from the original camp! So, [laughs], so her journey coming from the first place they went to, to then working every day in the prison was pretty cool. So their lives are very connected to everything that happened.

Vanisha Sparks, daughter and granddaughter of residents at Stradishall camp, now settled in Suffolk

The Green Areas were not satisfactory for all families. The Board may have tried to guide people away from Leicester, Ealing and Wandsworth, but in reality it had little power. Time and again, expellees voted with their feet and moved to the Red Areas, because they had family living locally, saw opportunities to open businesses or get work, or were attracted by being able to worship together, celebrate important festivals and rebuild social networks.

There was second load of Asian people coming to Wales. I and a friend of mine went as volunteers to receive them. And who do I see, but one of my best friends coming, getting off that train. I tell you what, that was the biggest, most joyous moment in my life when I saw him. We hugged… [cries]. As soon as I saw my friend, I asked straight away about my family: ‘How are they? What are they doing? Is everything OK in Uganda?’. He reassured me that everything was alright, so don’t worry about that. He was put in a room next to me. I didn’t have any relations in the UK at all, but he had his sister and his brother-in-law. So as soon as he settled, he wrote to his brother-in-law who said, ‘Don’t waste your time in the camp. Come over here’.

Praful Purohit, resident at Tonfanau camp

We stayed at my cousin’s house until my wider family decided where we should settle for good. It was agreed that we would rent a four-bedroom house in Kenton, Harrow, which was a fair distance from my cousin’s in Mitcham. Since we all had very tight budgets, the families of my aunt and her sister resided with mine under the same roof for a few years, before my immediate family felt financially comfortable enough to buy our first home in Kenton.

Rupal, aged 10 in 1972

For many expellees, this was a time of unrelenting hard work and of using family ties and community networks to establish themselves. All families needed find ways of making a living. For some, particularly the elderly, long-term sick, those with disabilities and those with limited English language, life remained difficult and they needed to continue to rely on family, community and state support for years to come.

Six of us moved into my brother’s two bedroom house: my parents had one room, and my brother and his wife had the other, while my wife and I slept on a blow-up mattress. Money was tight, and our meals weren’t big portions, but we always made sure my parents ate well. Soon, after hassling the council on a daily basis, I was granted a council house as well, into which my wife and I moved. Meanwhile, my older brother too got a council house, into which he and my parents moved.

Things were starting to improve, although life was still very hard. We were taking on as much work as we could, which usually meant 18 hour shifts; and on some days, we’d even work for 24 hours straight. We’d often travel to London for work, too, refurbishing restaurants and commercial businesses. After about six to seven months into living in the UK, we’d saved enough money to buy our first workshop, on Carmarthen Road in Swansea. Unfortunately, the place wasn’t in good condition – big rats could be seen crawling around – but it was a start towards building our businesses. And soon, we were able to buy a second shop in Castle Square; fortunately, this was a nicer area, and even more fortunately, there were no rats living in this shop!

Ramzu Pirmohamad

As the expellees began to find their feet, Leicester, the city that had tried so hard to deter Ugandan Asians from coming, developed the largest East African Asian population in the UK, reaching nearly 60,000 by the end of the 1970s. The Belgrave Road district became the focal point for the new arrivals. Some started small shops and businesses because that it what they had always done; others were forced into it because racial prejudice stopped them from finding work that matched their qualifications and experience.

As well as working to establish themselves economically, many families focussed on supporting their children to do their best in school and college, so that they might take advantage of Britain’s free education and gain professional and vocational qualifications.

I had to start working straight away. I worked in a fruit and veg shop in West London. I had never previously worked in my short life in Uganda. So it was an experience working in a fruit and veg, carrying boxes of apples, bags of onions, potatoes, bananas, in the winter of ’72. Coming back home with aching back and complaining to my mum, ‘I can’t do all this’. That was a very good lesson from her, to say, ‘Now you go into school. You are not going to give up your schooling, so go back to school unless you want to do this job for the rest of your life.’ My mother said to me and my brother and sister, ‘You’ve got to learn to stand on your own feet. Nobody is going to give you anything for nothing.’ So that’s the motivation that drove me to get the best education. The advantage was that the education was free here.

Harish Mandalia, a child at Stradishall camp

Although the Ugandan Asian community is most commonly associated with entrepreneurial and professional success, they also played pivotal roles in Britain’s trade union and labour movements. For instance, they were central to Leicester’s famous 1974 Imperial Typewriters strike, precipitated when some of the South Asian female employees discovered they were being paid less for the same work than their white colleagues.

The very visible successes of Britain’s Ugandan Asian community – perhaps most obviously embodied in Leicester’s ‘Golden Mile’ – can hide the very personal costs of the trauma of sudden expulsion, total loss of livelihoods and a whole way of life, and forcible relocation to a very foreign country.

The sense of fear of being kicked out in that scenario, I think stayed with my mother. She carried that throughout her life. You know, ‘Am I safe? Is somebody going to come in my house? Are we totally safe?’ 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. The sense of trauma and dislocation is something that’s not talked about within the Ugandan Asian experience. There is lot of talk about, ‘Well it was the right thing that happened in the end’. For some in the Ugandan Asian community they found their peace in the UK, but that’s not the full story’.

Fiyaz Mughal OBE

Leaving his home, and having to do so in such an abrupt fashion, really damaged my father. From then on, he never again spoke in Swahili; he never revisited Uganda; and even when he was in Kenya, right next door to his old home, he would decline his nephew’s offers to drive him there. Dad never explicitly spoke about it, but the pain of leaving and starting from scratch, and the trauma of how it all occurred so fast, certainly stayed with him.

Subhas Patel

Nevertheless, within a few years, the Uganda Asian community were well on the road to rebuilding their lives. Many who had fled the regime of Idi Amin, experienced life in the resettlement camps and faced the challenges of settling into a new country, went on to excel in their chosen fields. In a remarkable story of triumph, the community has developed from a small, traumatised group that were not welcome in various cities, into one that has made a huge economic and social contribution to cities like Leicester and London, and to Britain as a whole.

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