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Julie Begum, Someone Still Evolving

February 2, 2020
by the gentle author

Portrait of Julie Begum by Sarah Ainslie

In the course of my work, I often discover that the people I meet are connected to others I have interviewed. This is especially true of Julie Begum, a woman of magnanimous spirit and moral courage who is widely respected for her involvement in many diverse threads of culture and community in the East End. When I asked Julie how I should describe her, she replied ‘As someone who is still evolving.’

Contributing Photographer Sarah Ainslie & I met Julie in the cafe on the top of the Idea Store in Whitechapel where a wall of glass affords magnificent views down onto the market and eastwards towards Spitalfields. Here at the heart of the East London, with all the different currents of life flowing around us, proved the ideal location for Julie to speak to us of her life and experiences in the surrounding streets.

“I was born in Mile End Hospital, Stepney, in 1968 and I grew up on the Digby Estate in Globe Town, but before that my parents lived in one room in a flat belonging to my uncle on the Chicksand Estate in Spitalfields. I have my mum and dad and two brothers, and Globe Town is my manor.

My dad came to London in 1962 as part of the voucher system to attract immigrants from Commonwealth countries. His father died when my dad was ten and he went to work in a rickshaw workshop in Sylhet. He was the second son of a large family and the eldest brother chose not to come, so the family funded my dad to go overseas to earn money and send it back. He did that for a long time and he paid for his siblings’ education. He worked as a machinist in the East End rag trade in Jewish and Turkish factories, whatever he could find. It was a dying trade then.

When immigration laws changed and it was more difficult to come and go, he decided that if he was going to stay here he would get married. So he went back to Sylhet and married my mum who was the eldest daughter in her family. She took care of her brothers and sisters at home, she did not go to school. She went once and saw a child getting beaten and decided she was not going to go back. She is a non-literate person and my dad did not even finish primary school. They were not the most educated people.

My mother was only a teenager when she arrived in London and then she had me and my two brothers. For both my parents, coming here was not something they had not anticipated in their lives but they did it because it was expected of them by their families. They made a home for themselves here but it was quite a hostile environment. There were other migrants – not just Bengalis, Irish, Caribbean and from other parts of the the world – and they clung to those relationships. They were all sorts and they were all in it together. I remember my mum used to leave me with her Irish neighbour when she needed to go off and do things. It was informal and friendly in the early days.

We lived on a mostly white council estate with a few black families and just a couple of other Bengalis. The atmosphere in Globe Town was quite nasty at the time. We were careful about not hanging about in public and going to school could be a challenge. If we were with adults, we would be safe. We had a neighbour, Pauline, who worked in the school and sometimes she took us and, if my mum could go, we would be fine.

If there was an incident, we would leg it. We had to go past this dry-cleaner’s shop that had an alsation and they would set dogs, on us on the way there and back, as a way of scaring us. That sort of thing happened on a daily basis, hostility in the street. There was quite a lot of paki-bashing going on, not just for children but for adults as well. People were being assaulted and they would go out in groups for security if they could. Sometimes you just had to get on with life and face it. We continued to play outside.

We had a very nasty family on the estate of known troublemakers who were always in trouble with the police and were known racists. I remember when my dad got arrested after Philip the son made me eat some dog shit because he thought that was what we ate. I went running home to my parents and my dad came out and challenged him. Then Philip’s dad came out and they got into an altercation. And the police arrested my dad for getting in a fight. I remember having to go to a phone box to get hold of someone to come and see my dad in the police cell in Bethnal Green. I was seven, eight or nine at the time. Things like that did not happen all the time but it created an atmosphere. You realised that the world was not a friendly place. Yet we also had neighbours who were very kind and supportive, and I was sad to leave the estate because it was where I grew up.

What I have drawn from those experiences is I want the world to be a better place and I am really pleased that those things don’t really happen any more in the same way. It has made me aware of social justice and the need for a fairer society, which is regardless of peoples’ backgrounds. My family were very keen to lead a certain kind of life, to be acknowledged and taken seriously, and not to be judged for what people think you might be.

My parents did not talk much about anything. As children, we did not know why they had come to this country or anything about what had happened to their families in Bangladesh. We did not know there had been a war there.

Globe School was really lovely. I loved it. It’s why I wanted to become a teacher. We had some really good teachers there, inspirational in lots of ways. Morpeth School, where I went next, was the opposite – it was more like being in a prison. There was lots of fighting in the corridors, a pupil took an overdose in the toilets and teachers were being assaulted by the kids. I became part of it, it was very nasty bullying environment. I adapted to being in a difficult place. I did not acknowledge my brothers in the playground because you did not want anyone to know who you were. We pretended we did not know each other. It was a horrible place.

That was the East End at that time. The boys came out of school and went to prison and the girls ended up having babies. There was no expectation of anybody, whether black, white or brown. School was merely a containment space for lots of young people.

Quite early on, I knew I did not want to get married or have children, so I realised I needed to earn a living. I thought, ‘What can I do that I can earn a living by? Maybe I can get a job doing something?’ I did not have a clue but I realised I needed to get some qualifications because I did not get any at Morpeth School, so I went to a sixth form centre to get some. After that, I did some A Levels and I decided it was time to think about getting a job. I was walking down the Holloway Rd with a friend and we saw an advert for a teaching training course in the window of the North London Polytechnic so I went in to have a look and ended up signing up for a B Ed and spent four years there.

I think my parents would been really happy if I had simply got married and had kids. They did not expect me to do very much. They did not understand my need to do something else, but my father would listen to a reasoned argument. We were brought up to reason. When the news was on we might not agree on the issues but we were encouraged to argue why. So I was able to persuade my father that getting an education would be something worthwhile and he agreed.

He had very particular ideas about life and what people should do. He said ‘If you live in my house, you live by my rules,’ and I accepted that until I realised, ‘I can’t live by your rules, so I am leaving’  and that was what I did. It wasn’t pleasant, it created quite a rift yet I respected his standards. I was eighteen.

I was lucky, I had good friends and I was introduced me to someone who lived in a shared women’s house that was short-life housing in Turner’s Rd, Bow. The place was falling apart but there was a spare room, so I moved in. There were women from different backgrounds, all sorts. It was eclectic. I ended up being the housing officer for that house because all my friends ended up living there too. If there was a spare room and a friend needed somewhere to live, and as long as they paid the rent, it was fine. We had a really nice time and it became quite normal for me as I had grown up in a family household. At home, we always had somebody staying over. In Bengali culture, people are not possessive about where they sleep, having your own bedroom or your own things.

During my last teaching practice, I was at a school where I saw a lot of racial discrimination and inequality. What disheartened me the most was it was coming from the head teacher who was African-Asian. The black and white staff were not working together and there was a bad attitude towards the kids. It made me think, ‘I don’t want to be a teacher if this is the case.’ So I nearly gave up, but my lecturer at North London Polytechnic, who was one of the few black women there, she gave me a good talking-to. She convinced me to finish the course. ‘Even if you don’t want to teach,’ she said, ‘you need to finish.’ That was good on her part and I did qualify but I didn’t end up teaching in a primary school as I had planned. I re-qualified to teach adults in further education. At least adults know their own minds and, teaching them, there is a sense of equality whereas I saw things were being done to children.

I taught in Tower Hamlets College and met some amazing people. I think it is really important to teach skills that people can use to improve their lives and have a good life. But after a few years, they were enforcing new terms and conditions, and I realised I did’t want to spend the rest of my life as a teacher. I was still in my twenties so I thought, ‘I’ll try to have an adventure.’ So I interviewed for Voluntary Service Overseas and I was posted to the Orange Free State in South Africa but it wasn’t possible under segregation because I was Asian. Then I was offered Pakistan, also not ideal for a person of Bengali heritage considering our recent history.

Instead they sent me to Nepal in the foothills of the Himalayas, as remote as you can be from East London. My job was to train teachers in the villages to interact with their pupils not just teach by rote. It made me very aware that I did not know very much about these people and I wanted to learn about them for a year first. I was completely clueless and I needed to learn what it was like to be hungry, be cold and without family or friends – to test myself. It taught me to take life more seriously and appreciate it better.

I hated it when I came back. I walked into a supermarket and walked out again because I couldn’t bear it. It was so stark, coming from a place where there was only six items in a shop. We have so much stuff that we do not need. I do not enjoy being a consumer of material culture.

After that I worked with Praxis Community Projects, for refugees and asylum seekers in Bethnal Green as a basic skills co-ordinator, teaching English and IT, whatever they needed to survive here. It was tough work because of the hostility those people face and I had to leave when the funding ran out. So eventually I joined the Museum of Childhood and then the Geffrye Museum, collecting oral histories of the experience of growing up in the East End. It is quite a rarified world, museums and galleries.

In 2000, I started Swadhinata Trust with Ansar Ahmed Ullah, and a few other like-minded people, to provide answers for young Bengali people who were wondering about their identities and history. When I was growing up there was nowhere to find out about why my parents came here.

My mother has been diagnosed with dementia and now I am preparing myself and my family for old age and what that it is going to mean for us. I volunteer for the Youth Offending Team working with young people and supporting families dealing with the situation where a member of their family has committed a crime, after they have gone to court, pleaded guilty, shown remorse and want to make good. They need to show they are going to learn from the experience, by making better choices and making amends.

I think I was lucky when I was a child that, even though things were being done to me that weren’t very pleasant, I had positive people around me, parents and teachers, who made me realise that there are other ways of living.”

Julie cooking at home (Photo by Sarah Ainslie)

Julie in Brick Lane at the time of the anti-fascist marches (Photo by Phil Maxwell)

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28 Responses leave one →
  1. Alex Knisely permalink
    February 2, 2020

    Very much worth the reading. Thank you for sharing her story with us.

  2. February 2, 2020

    It’s a good thing there are generous people like Julie Begum. Thank you, Julie.

  3. February 2, 2020

    Fascinating and courageous life.

  4. February 2, 2020

    Another wonderful life story, and piece of quite unusual social history. And what a beautiful woman Julie is too…

  5. Ros permalink
    February 2, 2020

    Julie, I salute you. I hope you go on evolving all your life for you show such sensitivity, courage and perspective in everything life has thrown at you and the unique set of experiences you have had. I hope you will have many more opportunities opening up as you continue. Thank you for sharing your story. It is very precious. I hope you and your mum get good care and support.

  6. Jane Jones permalink
    February 2, 2020

    What a remarkable and inspiring lady. How wonderful to read about a quiet journey of goodness – a welcome antidote to populism and many of the less attractive aspects of our society.

  7. February 2, 2020

    Great to see this about Julie who I have known for many years. But there is always more to know about a person so thank you for this. I empathise with Julie’s reaction to the supermarket after coming back from Nepal. I had the same reaction going up an escalator on the tube, passing all the adverts, after a year in Burundi, central Africa. Yes Julie is always evolving – always initiating or supporting some exciting venture. And her mum is delightful, fiery, a lover of plants that she grows on her balcony.

  8. Suresh Singh permalink
    February 2, 2020

    We bow down from the 4 corners of our Sikh ancestors to you Julie and your family. Born in Mile EndHospital, close to my heart and your experiences as a kid, some people say, ‘get, over it’, ‘man up’, my gurus say no, instead hold them deep inside, I feel your evolving is the same.
    Deep respect for sharing these stories. I bow down Suresh Singh

  9. Linda Granfield permalink
    February 2, 2020

    I’m glad to have ‘met’ Julie. What a courageous woman. Her ability to adapt to so much change in her life’s direction is inspiring. Makes me both wonder if I could do so much adjusting, and know I could!
    Thank you.

  10. February 2, 2020

    What a courageous and good person. If only the world were filled with people like Julie, but it is wonderful that she exists, carries on her good ways and enables the rest of us and anyone who comes in contact with her to have a better life or better moments in our lives. I salute her. I hope in future she can keep caring for her mother and herself.

    Thank you for telling about her and her life. She should not go unmemorialized.

    Her life also shows the continual culture of cruelty in so many societies that is encouraged by these societies. So the story has the merit of showing us how far we are from civilized.

  11. February 2, 2020

    This posting, today, was a gift. The past week has left me feeling hollowed-out and doubtful
    about the human condition and our collective moral compass. This story about Julie (and the accompanying photos) have brought me back to sanity and optimism. I especially enjoyed the exuberant photo of Julie serving up her delicious, aromatic, and colorful food — a banquet for the senses.

    Life is good — thanks for the reminder.
    From the Hudson River Valley in New York.

  12. Adele permalink
    February 2, 2020

    What an inspiring story. Julie, May you continue to follow your dreams.

  13. February 2, 2020

    A story of hope and strength. A wonderful lady.

  14. Jane Heavyside permalink
    February 2, 2020

    Julie IS evolved. This rich history of Julie’s struggles and self made victories is inspirational.
    Thank you.

  15. February 2, 2020

    Thank you, Julie, for your resilience and persistence. Best regards to your parents — courageous and generous young people. I love the idea of the international mix of neighbors helping each other.
    Maybe some day you will write about overcoming racism, what your parents taught you, how you and your brothers, as resilient children, worked out such codes as not recognizing each other.
    I’m sorry you had to go through that. I know the force which brought you safely to this day is with you and all your family now.

  16. February 2, 2020

    A truly inspiring and uplifting narrative from Julie.
    As an Eastender, I am saddened and sorry for the struggles that you and your family faced ‘back in the day’.
    Goodness always prevails in the long run…..and you have proved that.
    Seeing that amazing food I’m wondering why you haven’t thought of opening a restaurant!

  17. February 3, 2020

    >’We had to go past this dry-cleaner’s shop that had an alsation and they would set dogs, on us on the way there and back, as a way of scaring us.’

    That is heart wrenching. Adults do that to children.

    I remember those day. They were dire. All the way to the 90s perhaps.

    The ideals of the commonwealth taught in British colonial schools, did not equate to reality when in London, as taught to us then as the ‘Mother Country’.

  18. Claire permalink
    February 3, 2020

    What courage and determination. Some of Julie’s experiences are horrifying and made me very sad. I wish her all the best.

  19. Dean Armond permalink
    February 3, 2020

    Great article about the life of a wonderful person!

  20. Saba permalink
    February 3, 2020

    Julie, I write to you from my heart as I share some of your experiences but did not have to suffer many of the misfortunes that you did. What struck me was your maturity at a very early age — that I definitely did not have! But, I also considered marriage, mortgage, and children a trap and was an adventurer who wanted to see the world. I have used oral history and other narrative forms to facilitate the self-image of young people, including those from other countries who come to the U.S. So, please accept me as your support and maybe even a soul sister. All the best to you, Saba

  21. February 3, 2020

    Wonderful stuff. Nurjahan Jules will be recorded as one of the Greats in East London and beyond. One of my extended family. Lot’s more. Tony

  22. February 3, 2020

    what a beautiful and rambling interview, like walking on a path that takes you nowhere you had imagined or wanted but make it your own, like only Julie could. Need more of Julie. Here, everywhere.

  23. Val Harding permalink
    February 3, 2020

    Julie, your story is truely inspirational. Such an open and honest account. It’s a privilege to know and work with you. Val

  24. Ron Wilkinson permalink
    February 5, 2020

    Thanks for sharing Julie. It reminds me that you just have to move forward and retain your compassion/passion.
    I feel the same way Lynne from NY does and your story is uplifting.
    Ron from San Diego, CA

  25. February 9, 2020

    Great read. Big decision to leave home at 18. Thats not easy for anyone less for a teenage Bengali girl!! Leaving home was oddly referred to as running away by our families!!

  26. February 9, 2020

    Julie, you are an inspiration!

  27. Kenneth Sherwood permalink
    February 15, 2020

    A lovely heart-warming tale of a woman who overcame so much unwarranted hatred and bitterness towards her, to lead a fulfilling life helping others, inspirational.

  28. February 19, 2020

    Julie’s story moved me. It’s a reminder of our shared collective history of growing up in Bethnal Green. As someone of Bangladeshi heritage, I can relate to Julie’s experience growing up in the East End of London. I spent most of my formative years in Columbia Road, it was not uncommon getting assaulted (verbally & physically) while going to school. Thank God’s these horrible days are now behind us. This piece of writing serves as a reminder to our youth today that the freedom they enjoy today should not be taken for granted. We need to remain vigilant in post Brexit Britain to ensure all minority community feel safe!

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