Interviewer: Kevin Philemon
Organisation: Aashyana Housing Association
KEVIN: Ok, if you um, if I just start by, you tell me your name, um, where you were born and what brought to you to England?
ABDUL: My name is Abdul Wahab I was born in Bangladesh. It is Bangladesh now but it was of course when I was born it was India, so I was born an Indian and then of course it’s the history you know perhaps in 47 it was Pakistan and I was, it was, I belong to East Pakistan. And then in 1971 it became Bangladesh, so I’m Bangladeshi now. So I’m British Bangladeshi, I’m British, I’m a Bangladeshi. Err, so I came to Bristol, to England in 1956 as a student. My whole aim was to study but when I started taking the courses I discovered that my English was not good enough to take direct courses or, err, going to the education, err, through the education system in this country. So, and in the meantime what had to happen was I had to earn my living as well. So it was not easy to work and then go to um, full time education. So I was going part time and then bettering my English language. Anyway, err, I lived in London for 6 months then I went to Oxford err, and err, and there were some friends of mine, very close friends, they came and err, took me there and um, err, I worked in a restaurant. Err, in an Indian restaurant who, which was, the proprietor was an English man himself but err, all the foods and things were um, Indian restaurant food and I had a friend there who was working so he took me with him. I started working there then. But in the meantime I also continued my study, um, and then the funny thing was, that gentleman and err, in term time he kept the restaurant open but in the summer time, which was often, he closed it and he went for holiday in S.E.N in India now, all over the um, world, he was a traveller, he was a good traveller. Anyway, so err; when he closed it we didn’t have a job. So I had some friends in Bradford, I went there just to have the summer time passed as err, ultimately in 1958 I went to Bradford and stayed there for quite some time err, and I started, at that time I was a Pakistani, I started a Pakistani Association there. And I did um; work in Wool Mill and then all industry, Cotton industry was declining and Mills were closing. People started going to others err, down subsidies for employment. But there were local employment as well, for example in the transport system, the thing was err, in the transport system those who could be qualified for the job they were feeling superior complex. I’m an educated man, I can’t work in a bus, you know. That was as a, err, thing at that time, which was preventing people to go into the transport system. Err, so myself and one of my friend, we went, um, to the interview, we wanted to break that barrier of bus driver. Of course those people who were not educated, they couldn’t get into it as there were err, some examine and some training, which was purely an initiation. Most of all people, do not, were not, passing English or understanding English, so we went there, just, and got the job and I worked at a bus conductor for about 6 weeks. Just to show our people because that time I was secretary of Bangladesh err, Pakistani Association and people new me our community people. I was a Pakistani at that time of course and err, our people new me. So when they saw me taking the job they were realising and err, that it is not degrading to work err, in, in, in the bus, you know, work as conductor, work as bus driver. So I felt very happy that um, err, I have done something just to, um, facilitate, um, to make people understand it’s a mistake to discriminate about job, job is a job. Anywhere you go you can take a job and it does take any honour from you.
KEVIN: A job is a job.
ABDUL: A job is a job.
KEVIN: How, how, what was it like when you came um, when you did come…
KEVIN: um, tell me about the languages that you speak when you, what languages do you speak first?
ABDUL: My mother tongue was Bangla, this is Bengali in English, but we say Bangla. This is my mother tongue but I could speak a little bit of English, I could speak Urdu and I know Arabic as well, a bit, but Bangla is my mother tongue. But most of our community were speaking Bengali and err; most of our worst Pakistani brothers were speaking Punjabi or Urdu, Urdustan.
KEVIN: Was language, language a barrier when you came here?
ABDUL: Of course.
KEVIN: What, what kind of difficulties, yes, can you tell me a bit about that?
ABDUL: Of course, of course. That’s why what I said. Err, when, I, that avenue opened in transport system, majority of people could not get into it because of the language because they don’t know the language, they couldn’t speak to the, err, customers, to the passengers to err, to err, to anybody. All even have the have the training because they don’t know the language so the language was a big barrier, really, really, a big barrier for employment and that’s why I intended to break the taboo that um. Of course those who could take the employment as I told you err; they were not going because they are feeling that it is inferior. Err, they had a superiority complex and ah, they thought it was degrading to take a job like this as a, well, err, as a bus conductor. But the pride of those people who couldn’t speak in English or couldn’t write in English. So your, to answer your question, of course it, err, language barrier was err, real barrier for, for going on with your life. I will tell you a story, a funny story, when job was going err, changing from Bradford; people were, were going from Bradford to other cities. One of the elderly person he went to Oldham and he brought, he brought a house and he came once and he was crying. He said I brought a house there ha, and they are not giving me possession, I don’t know why they are not giving me possession, err; they say I can’t live in there. So I and one of my friend we went there, it was so…winter was so severe winter that err, my hands were frozen, we went in a um, coach. My hands are frozen like, you know, so much snow. We went there and, err, we went to his house and we warmed our self first and then went to the estate agent to learn the thing. You see for a little misunderstanding because he was good in err, the language, the English language, he couldn’t explain himself. He said to the err, err, agent that I’m buying a house err, to come here to take employment and I err, err, my lodgers will come here as well and err, to perhaps take unemployment and we will live together and we will share the expenses and things like this, but he couldn’t explain to them that. They understood that he is buying it to make it a logging house and it is a strictly, strictly residential area where lodging houses have no room for. So this is the little thing we explain to them and it was resolved, you know. So, so this is in practical life that language was a really, really, um, a bid trouble for err, our community.
KEVIN: Was there any other barriers um, that affected you when you around, any other barriers, as a, as a person of colour coming to England?
ABDUL: Of course, of course, you know. My title, the award I got as an MBE, this for race relation work and community work in Southeast, um, Southwest England. Racism was it, sometimes it was obvious but underneath it was in employment in a, in education in every aspects of life you can see it viability, visible, it is visible. And that was giving me pain so I started, when I came to Bristol I started a fasting because I’m a Muslim, I started a um, organisation called Easton Muslim Association, then Pakistani Association. They I joined a Racial Equality Council. I wanted to do something to better that kind of tension. I have been working about it since then, I have never stopped. And um, I’m glad that I have been awarded this um, title, err, because of this work, you know. So I was always working relax, re, re, um, always working hard for about it. Err, without sparing err, any time for myself. Always I was, when Bristol Law Centre started I joined and now it is now a Community Law Centre now. It is um, and they were in, that, they are in Bedminster to start with. I joined them and through them we have campaigned for equality and justice for Black people.
ABDUL: For immigrant people.
KEVIN: So, so how useful do you think um, BME organisations in general has been?
ABDUL: In Southwest I would say we were quite strong, we are quite strong and we demonstrated it time and time again. We did demonstrate err, because of um, you know the um, transport work in, in Bristol. How we were struggling and who, I was part of it as well. When we started err, campaigning err, for equality and for our right I was part of it and err, um, I alerted that time that I was a Pakistani, whole of the community as well. And err, always, always tired to err, tried to make people realise what they are and what they, I said that language barrier we must over come. Culture barriers we must over come, we are here to live. One of tragedy about our Asian people particularly, take for myself, I never thought I was going to live in this country for ever. Our aims and objectives were come here, earn some money or earn some education or qualification, go back to our countries and start life there in India. That’s why until mid sixties people didn’t even bring their families here, you know. And err, so they didn’t buy a house, they were just sharing um, um, houses, um, in one house there was um, 15, 20, people living. All, all bachelors, all bachelors or like for instance there was a living room upstairs though you didn’t need a houses um, because we didn’t have family. But then when we realise that we are here for good there is no way back because I tried myself in 1996 it was in Bristol of course. 1966, one of, I have two sons at that time, one was 7 and one was 5. I went to live in Pakistan with bag and baggage. I had a house in Clifton. I sold the house, I had 3 businesses, I sold 2 businesses, and left only one. I was one of the person who opened the curry restaurant, the first curry restaurant in Bristol. My restaurant was in the centre it was, it was called Kohenote, just behind the Hippodrome in Denmark Street. That I opened in 1960, March 1960, so then I had a grocery shop, I had a, I had another restaurant and err, but when I went to Pakistan I wanted settle there. To cut the story short, I wanted to also; I wanted to educate my, err, children the primary education at least, in our environment, in Islamic environment mainly. But when I went there I was nothing because I didn’t have no worldly experience, I couldn’t take a job, I couldn’t start a business and there are so much corruption which I am not used to because I came to this country when I was a school boy or college student like. And then I went back, I didn’t have any worldly experience, any business experience there, any err, normal day to day experience to handle err, day to day things. So you are, I was an odd man out there. You know, so this is, I lost so much money, I wanted to um, educate my children in a, in a English media. So I went in to um, the English Media School and all the English Media Schools were run by Christian missionary people. So I said, what’s, what I have done. If my children go to Christian missionary School, what was wrong with State School there? Or Primary School there, you know and, err, the, err, err, the same language is exactly near me, you know, they could go there (laughter) then. So I thought I made a mistake. Anyway…
ABDUL: To cut a story short um, and then in 1978 err, the tension started and the business what I left here was also going down without me so I had to come back and, and leave the children there, you know. Then of course the trouble started between East Pakistan and West Pakistan so that was the independent moment it stared then err, then I thought it is time I bring, I bring my family back. Then I brought this house in 19, in 1970, err, 71 they came, err, 70, they came back, 1970, in the middle of 1970. So since then we are living here (laughter). And err; one, one son was born in Bangladesh as well so I was…
KEVIN: What’s, what’s this area called again?
KEVIN: What is this area called?
ABDUL: Which area? Oh, this area. This is Knowle, Upper Knowle.
KEVIN : And you’ve lived here since?
ABDUL: Err, Yes.
ABDUL: 1970, 1970.
KEVIN: Ok, um, how, in your, Mr Wahab, in your opinion how would you define heritage, if you have to define heritage?
ABDUL: Heritage is a thing, which every human being feel proud if he or she can be part of it. If he can contribute towards it, it is a pride as a human being.
KEVIN: Ok. How would you describe your personal heritage? What impact do you think your personal heritage has had in the BME community in Bristol?
ABDUL: Um, yes that’s um, that’s the thing. As I said as a Muslim I believe that my religion is my first priority and in a different country I got to preserve that very dearly because in a strange or hostile environment, our children, our people can be confused. So I started a Muslim Association. The aim of the Muslim Association was to, to build a Mosque in Bristol. So that through the Mosque we can keep our religion and err, our people can, can be keeping or be proud of their own culture in their own religion. This is outcome of that Mosque, Totterdown Mosque that I’m, I was a Trustee and I started that as well and this is the first Mosque in Bristol, we brought a charge. Through that charge we also did languages classes, we invited people to come and charged people to come and school people to come and see what we are and tell them what we are and learn from them what they are. How they, what thing about us, this kind of things was started. I was of course supported by err, students of Bristol University, very, very much and then I had, we Pakistani Association. But in 1971 we were Bangladeshi people so we, I started the Bangladeshi Association as well. Err, so through the Bangladeshi Association we were focusing on Bangladeshi culture mainly and err, to preserve Bangladeshi culture and our language as well. That time we were err, as well as teaching people or encouraging people to learn English because we were living here. We were also conscious that when we realised that we are not going back to preserve our language, our culture we encourage people to keep our language as well, to learn our language, to learn our culture and, so through Bangladeshi Association I stated that exercise as well.
KEVIN: Ok. How do you see, this is general question, how do you see the future of the BME organisations or the BME sector in general?
ABDUL: Yes, this is ah, wanting I, in um, about 20 years ago or 15 years ago I was getting a bit err, discouraged err, that the thing will never get better for us. But now about 3, 4 years ago I realised that our young people are so bright and so alert and so understanding that I’m feeling now that we don’t have to worry about, we don’t have to worry about them because they know what their doing. Their becoming Chief Executive, their becoming err, engineers, barristers, magistrates, MPs, councillors, so they are really being part of this system and they know their origin, their not forgetting it either. In the meantime they understand their environment, the society they are living around, you know. So they know how to tackle it. I am quite sure you don’t have to worry anymore. As foreigners or as Black people we are ok, I’m feeling we are a hundred per cent ok.
KEVIN: So you’re saying we don’t need the BME sector anymore?
ABDUL: We, we need the BME sector still to, err, to keep, keep, our things, keep our things, err, what I should say updated you know, because we mustn’t forget it, we mustn’t forget it. But what I’m saying is if we tell those educated people this what you are, they understand it quite quickly, you know. And formally people were busy to meet both ends. Look after the err, mother country and look after life here as well. So they were in a, err, err, in a two, two way traffic (laughter), but now mainly people are settled, mainly people are getting um, educated and err, err, people are getting really into the mainstream. Of course Black people should preserve their own things and always look after it. I’m not saying that err, we don’t need, err, BME err, community, that’s why I’m saying Bangladeshi Association should exist, West Indies Association should exist you know, because still we are not hundred per cent as that we are in a big um, melting bowl that we can be all err, without our identification. Because we should be proud of our identification, we should be proud of our identification, we should be proud of our heritage, we should be proud of our culture, our habits, our err, way of life. What is way of life to us; still it is not dissimilar thing to the European people or other things. There not, there quite a few things. If we can get these things here as well, they will be benefited and if we take there good things we were be benefited as well. So we are in a much more advantages way. When European people went to our countries they never adapted anything or took anything from our culture or our, err, religion, you know. But they were themselves; they kept themselves to themselves, we mustn’t make um, this mistake, you know. But in the meantime of course we must not forget our, that we are, we are coming from these cultures and we are coming from rich um, err, habits and family values. These are precious thing for us.
KEVIN: That’s basically.
ABDUL: Yes. Bangladeshi Association…
KEVIN: Sorry let…
KEVIN: let me put my. Can you tell me about the Bangladeshi Association, how you started, your involvement…
KEVIN: And son on please?
ABDUL: Yes, yes, I’m glad; I would be um, very pleased to say about it because I’m proud of it because I’m a founder chair of the Bangladeshi Association in Bristol, Bath and West. It is actually continuation of the Pakistani Association. When we ceased to be Pakistanis we are Bangladeshis so we thought we need an organisation for ourselves. Because our language, to preserve our language err, keep the community together, err, we need an Association. So when we were independent in 1971 just after that we formed the Association, which is called Bangladeshi Association, and I was the Chair, I, I ran it for 15 years. And then we err, err, we said, we must find our err, ourselves a premises where we can. Err, we can, we can get together and talk about ourselves and talk about our um, education, our community education and um, our welfare and how our people can be err, good citizen and good err, Bristolian as well, because I’m proud of Bristol. Since I came I liked this City. It is not very big, it is not too small and it, 5 minutes drive and we you’re out in the country. So it is a beautiful place to live in, err, and I encourage people to come here. Anyway, err, we started Bangladeshi Association and started liaising with other organisations as well, liaising with the current, um, with the authorities, police and err, councils err, and err, we learnt um, people we always kept very, very good relations with them. Err, Pakistani Association, Indian Association, I tried to make an ASEAN organisation with all of them so that we can work together and police and the authorities were also in support of that but it is a long story, I had to go to Bangladesh again for um, um, for something err, and I went for 6 weeks and I had to stay more than 2 years. And by the time I came back that organisation folded off, the ASEAN organisation. But we, in that time we were granted 120,000 pounds for developing the, err, the ASEAN Council. But, um, the authorities were happy to see us in one platform. They can, they, they thought they could talk to us in one platform and they were happy and we were, we were suc, err, we were very successful to start with but because I was err, in Bangladesh for so long, when I came back that organisation was finished. So that kind of things I did, but still Bangladesh Association of course when I came back I didn’t give it up. We kept liaising with the, err, Bangladesh High Commission and um, commerce, um, the local Mr. business commerce, um, err, business people and bring our Bangladesh Association, High Commission err, and um, liaised with them ,err, with the Bristol business people and so that we can, if we can promote some Bangladeshi industry and make our self err, a bit better err, as a Bangladeshi people in Bristol as well and um, so people know that we are, we are a community we are, we want to, we want to err, live here honourably at until like this. I always, always try to promote my community.
KEVIN: So what would you say was um, the key purpose of the Bangladeshi association?
ABDUL: They, the language barrier what I, err, what we were talking about before. That language barrier, culture barriers were preventing people to mix or to err, get into the mainstream of the society. And that is the way I was working with Bristol, err, Racial Equally Council or Bristol Law Centre, another organisation to promote these things and um, to say that we want, we want to live here and we want to, err, we want to organise our people our, and our, within our culture, err, things within our language as well, we want to, we want to bring them up. Now what this culture barriers and language barrier also we are preventing people to go into the housing system. Our people didn’t get housing because they, they couldn’t go to the office and express themselves, what is their need, what is their housing needs. This promoted me to start a Association, Housing Association and which was called Aashyana Housing Association. I was a Chair and which I, we started with some other colleagues um, and someone Pakistani and another Bangladeshi. 2 Pakistani and 1 Bangladeshi people um, people, we started that Association. So, that we had always an officer to help the people to apply for the housing, to explain their needs properly. I was going in the meetings of Housing Ministers, Housing Associations and Bristol City Council Housing Teams. I started campaigning for translating and interpreting services in Bristol. I presented our, err, problems to them that was Avon County that time, we were, we belonged to Avon County, and they excepted it and they started helping err, the language things and err, until, the last um, few years, there was a devolvement of translating and interpreting in Bristol City Council. And I’m proud to say that I was part of it as well, to present it to the Council, to the County Council and err, they approved it. So this is part of giving chance to our people, to my Bangladeshi people primary and generally minority people, you know.
KEVIN: So in short words how useful do you think the Bangladeshi Association has been to Bristol?
ABDUL: Oh, yes it was, as I said, you will not find any big moment or any big things going on without Bangladeshi Association. Bangladeshi Association I can proudly say participated in every big things in Bristol. In 1975 there was a exhibition in Watershed, it, it was called Taste of Orient there were some Bangladeshi err, some Bangladeshi group as well who did, I entered in them, I helped them to settle down and I took part with the, with the Lord Mayor and the well, organising authority to, to teach or to show people what our cultures. There were one group from err; I mean from, from, all over from ethnic minority countries, from Africa and Nigesto and it was taste of oriented, from Thailand and um, Malaysia and things like this so we err, I, I did, took part. Any where I found a new opportunity to campaign for Bangladeshi people or for Ethnic Minority people, I took, I err, took this chance, I did take. I, I arranged seminar in Bristol Mosque in Bangladeshi. Yeah, by the way we brought a house, there was house and we brought it and made it a, a community centre like our, where you, where you went this is um, Stapleton Road, bottom of Stapleton Road. There was, this was a house and we brought it through the continuation of people. So I went, I brought these premises I was, err, err, I was a Trustee as well, so we were 3 Trustees and we are still Trustees, holding trust of the, of this house and we made it our offices as well. So our, our children’s Arabic lessons, Bangla, Bengali lesson, language lesson, we, you, organised through this. Any cultural difficulty, any official difficulties, we helped, we started helping people. We received some grants from various grants. Later we received grants from err, from err, Lottery funding as well and um, err, through that we started a full fledged school um, office, and we received some grants as well from Urban Agent (please check highlighted word) to, to make this house, err, to equip it to be a community centre like, um.
KEVIN: Ok, it’s the…
ABDUL: Aashyana Asian Housing Association.
KEVIN: Thank you. Ok can you tell me about Aashyana Asian Housing Association and um, the history and when it was started, your role as well?
ABDUL: Um, err, as we were talking about um, our, our status as immigrants we never ever thought that we would be living in this country for good. Our aim was to come to this country, get some money, earn some money or have some qualification, go back to our country and settle in comfort. That was the main objectives for most people. But through the circumstances, going through the circumstances we thought we found, we discovered that it’s not easy to going back to and settle in our own country we would have to live here. Then we started to bring our own families and then we the felt the housing need of our community. To get into housing system, it is not an easy job at all. In Bristol we have a Black Housing Association existing err, which was, which is, still is, the United Housing Association. But this people are not, they don’t have, they have colour barriers, culture barriers, but not language barriers. But for our community South Asian people language barriers is a big barriers because most of our people cannot speak in English very much let alone write it properly. Then we thought we must do something about it. I and a couple of my friends, we thought we must start a Housing Association for our people, to, to have a Housing Association for our people, to help them particularly in, language, with their language barriers. We talked with um, Barnardos and they agreed to send some people to help us, you know, to advise people. And we persuaded them they should engage an officer if we started the office, officer you can speak Urdu and Bengali languages as well. And that was our objective to help our people, so we stared the Association err, in 91 and in 91 we started that Association and err, we stared very small. We presented ourselves to the err, housing department in err, Bristol and they accepted us. They gave us some grant to start our organisations and they gave us some stock as well.
KEVIN: So does, does this association only cater for the Asian community; tell me about the groups that they, um, Aashyana Housing Association…
KEVIN: Um, is set up, um, have been, have been looking after?
ABDUL: Yes. I, I, um, yes it was um, err, we had to find a partner and err, err, Knightstone was our first partner, you know. There were keeping us under their shadow and um, that was our first partner. Then it was Housing, Housing 21 and now at the minute it is um, Affinity Sudden. Err, so we started as I said, big, it is, it is for South Asian um, partners of South Asian people but our err, tenants, now we have got about um, over, 200, 200 houses under our management but our tenants are not necessarily all Southeast Asian. They are Somalian’s, even Europeans some of them and there err, of course still I think about 30 per cent are Southeast Asians but rest are all mixed tenants. So there was never a um, variegated and any other people cannot ask for housing for, to Aashyana Housing Association. I run it for um, now for so many years ago, um, err, 15 years and now I am retired from it. But it is, it is, a big a, it is a big, big Association, it is large Association err, with another big housing complex called Affinity Sudden err. I, but to establish it, it was not an easy job of course, we had to struggle, we had to struggle, we had to go to the meetings. Of course as I said the City Council was always supportive to us. They are giving us grant to err, to um, employ housing officers and err, workers and err, they were giving us stocks from the, so that we can self service things in time err, and we were registered in the err, after about 6, 7 years, we were registered in the housing corporation as well. Then we could our own housing um, ourselves. And err, but I had to go to so many meetings, so many seminars, to learn how to run a Housing Association. It is not easy, really it is not a easy job and also in our inward err, meeting err, we asked other housing experts, merra to me housing experts to come and tell us how to run our business and tell our people how to get into housing system. This kind of things we were doing and I’m very proud to say that it is a successful Housing Association now, it is quite established. We err; we are in um Easton for quite a long time, quite a long time. In Stapleton Road we have, we have our office and we double up most things from here. And we are working with the City Council and with all other Housing Associations as well, with the united there were partners in err, BME cause, causes we um, tackle err, the local housing system, we tackle the national system together. Um, and err, we built new projects err; or build houses also to suit our people, you know, err, housing in, where our people would like to live, this kind of thing. So we did err, quite successfully.
KEVIN: So, so, your, your, you, you think um, the objectives of Aashyana Housing Association, you think that’s been fully achieved…
KEVIN: By what you attended.
ABDUL: Fully achieved, fully achieved, yes. I can, I can proudly say that, it is fully achieved and it is, it is going into the mainstream now quite easily and quite err, effectively.
KEVIN: Thank you.