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Surma Centre Portraits

February 27, 2012
by the gentle author

Spitalfields Life Contributing Photographer Patricia Niven and Novelist Sarah Winman, author of “When God Was a Rabbit,” made this set of portraits at the Surma Centre at Toynbee Hall recently and today it is my pleasure to publish the results of their collaboration.

“After the Second World War, Britain required labour to assist in its post-war reconstruction. Commonwealth countries were targeted and, in what was then East Pakistan (it became Bangladesh after the 1971 Liberation War), vouchers appeared on Post Office counters, urging people to come and work in the United Kingdom, no visa required. The majority of men who came in the 1950’s and 60’s came from a rural background where education was scarce and illiteracy was common. But this generation were hard workers, used to working with their hands, men who could commit to long hours, who had an eagerness to work and a young man’s inquisitiveness to see the world: the perfect workforce to help rebuild this nation. And they did rebuild it, and were soon found working in factories and ship yards, building roads and houses, crossing seas in the merchant navy. These pioneers were the men we met at the Surma Centre.” – Sarah Winman

Shah Mohammed Ali, age 75 years.

I came to this country in November 1961 because my uncle was already living here and inspired me to come. In East Pakistan, I had been working in a shop. I felt life was good. My earliest memory of London was Buckingham Palace. I missed my friends and family but I really missed the weather back home. I became a factory worker, and worked all over the country: a cotton factory in Oldham, a foundry in Sheffield, an aluminium factory in London and Ford motor factory in Dagenham. Ford gave me a good, comfortable life. We had friends all over the country and they would tell us if there was more money being offered at a different factory and then we’d move. I thought I would stay in Britain for four years and then go back home. My heart is in Bangladesh. The roses smell sweeter.

Eyor Miah, age 69 years.

I came to this country in September 1965. I had been a student in East Pakistan. Life was hard, my father was a sailor. I read in a Bengali newspaper stories of people travelling and earning money, and I thought that I, too, would like to do that. I wrote to somebody I knew here to help me. It was a slow process, all done by mail, because of course, there was no internet. It took me two years to gain my papers. I didn’t mind because I was very determined to achieve.

When I first arrived, I became a machinist in the tailoring industry and I earned £1 and ten shillings a week. My weekly outlay was £1 and the rest I saved. Brick Lane was very rundown then. The Jewish population were very welcoming, probably because they were eager for workers! We would queue up outside the mosque and they would come and pick the ones they wanted. In 1969 I bought a house for £55. Of course, I missed my mother who stayed in Bangladesh, and before 1971 I actually thought I would return to live. After that date though, I felt Britain was my home and life was better here.

After tailoring, I worked in restaurants and then began my own business as a travel agent, set up my own restaurants and grocery shop. I have four children. Life has been good to me.

Rokib Ullah, age 81 years.

I came to this country in 1959, because workers were being recruited from the Commonwealth to rebuild after the Second World War. Life in East Pakistan then was good. I was very young and working as a farmer. My fellow countrymen told me about the work in the UK and I came here by air. When I arrived, the airport was so small, not like it is today. And the weather was awful, so bad, not like home, I found that difficult, together with missing my neighbours and friends. I worked in a tyre factory, and then in garment and leather factories. I planned to stay here and earn enough money, and then return to Bangladesh. I am a pensioner now and frequently go back to Bangladesh. It is in my heart. One day I plan to go there forever.

Syed Abdul Kadir, age 77 years.

I first came to this country in 1953. I was in the navy in Karachi and I was selected by the Pakistan Government to be in the Guard of Honour in London at the Queen’s Coronation. I remember this day very clearly. It was June and the weather was cold. When Queen Elizabeth was crowned the noise was tremendous. There were shouts of “God Save the Queen!” and gun salutes were fired. We marched to Buckingham Palace where more crowds were waiting. The Queen and her family came out on the balcony and the RAF flew past the Mall, and the skies above Victoria Embankment were lit up by fireworks. I feel very lucky to have been part of this, and I still have my Coronation ceremony medal.

Since my first visit, I developed a fondness for the British culture, its people and the Royal Family. I have always believed this country looks after its poor.

I owe the Pakistan Navy for much of my experiences in life and was lucky to travel and to see the world. I actively participated in the 1965 India-Pakistan war and the 1971 Pakistan war and have medals for both.

My family are settled here and my life revolves around grandchildren. I have been coming to Surma since 2004. When someone sees me, they call me “Captain!” We are like a family here.

Shunu Miah, age 79 years.

I came to this country in November 1961. Back home, I helped my father farm. It was a good life, still East Pakistan, the population was low, not much poverty, food for everyone: it was a land of plenty. It wasn’t a bad life, I was young and was just looking for more. My uncle had been in the UK since 1931, my father since 1946, both encouraged me to come.

Cinema here was my greatest memory. Back home, cinema was rare. Every Saturday and Sunday there was a cinema above Cafe Naz on Brick Lane, or I’d go to the cinema in Commercial Rd, or up to the West End. It was so exciting, the buildings, the underground, the lights! People were friendly and welcoming then. I saw Indian films, but also Samson and Delilah and the Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston.

I have worked at the Savoy Hotel as a kitchen porter and also in cotton factories in Bradford. What did I miss? Family and friends, of course, but also the weather. The smell of flowers, too, they are much stronger back home. I thought I would stay here and work for three or four years, go home and buy land, build a house and live happily ever after. I have helped to build homes for my family in Bangladesh. I have never been able to own a home here.

Abul Azad, Co-ordinator at the Surma Centre.

“These men are very loyal to a country that has given them a home,” said Abul Azad, the charismatic project co-ordinator at Surma Centre in Whitechapel. “When they first arrived, living conditions were bad, sometimes up to ten people lived in a room. Facilities were unhealthy, toilets outside, and nothing to protect them from an unfamiliar cold that many still talk about. Most intended to earn money to send back to families, and then return after a few years – a dream realised by few, especially after the settlement of families. Instead they were open to exploitation, often working over sixty hours a week, the consequence of which is clearly visible today in low state pensions, due to companies not paying the correct National Insurance contributions. And most Bangladeshi people don’t have private pensions. Culturally, pensions are not of this generation. Their families are their pension – always imagined they would be looked after. But times are changing for everyone.”

Surma runs a regular coffee morning, providing support for elderly Bangladeshi people. The language barrier is still the greatest hindrance to this older generation and Surma provides a specialist team ready to assist their needs – both financially and socially – and to provide free legal advice. It is also quite simply a haven for people to get out of the house and to be amongst their peers, to read newspapers, to have discussions, to talk about what is happening here and in Bangladesh.

There is something profound that holds this group together, a deep unspoken, clothed in dignity. Maybe it is the history of a shared journey, where the desire for a better life meant hours of physical hardship and unceasing toil and lonely years of not being able to communicate. Maybe it is quite simply the longing for home, remaining just that: an unrealised dream. Whatever it is – “This is a very beautiful group.” said Abul Azad.

Photographs copyright © Patricia Niven

You may also like to take look at these other portraits by Patricia Niven and Sarah Winman

Golden Oldies from the Golden Lane Estate

5 Responses leave one →
  1. February 27, 2012

    Thank you. I found this incredibly moving.

  2. JerryW permalink
    February 27, 2012

    They seem a very dignified, almost forbidding set of people. I have a deep sympathy for their belief that if they worked hard, and did right, everything would work out well for them and I am sorry that some of them don’t feel that it has.

    It is hard, for a transplanted culture. You can never entirely lose what you came with; you can never entirely become one with what you receive. You are somewhere in the middle, and although that should be a comfortable place, somehow it isn’t. I know.

  3. Robson Cezar permalink
    February 27, 2012

    thank you very much in doing this – wonderful people story and photographs.

  4. YORKSHIRE BENGALI permalink
    September 21, 2012

    What a fantastic read these men do us proud..

  5. January 13, 2013

    so beautiful, i missed this one upon its original posting and came back to it from ms. dastgir’s link on the st. joseph’s hospice piece. thanks for this.

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