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How my parents migrated to the UK

My father was an economic migrant who came to the UK due to dire poverty in British India. My mother came with me for the sake of my education.

Presented on 23 June 2019. Posted 6 July 2019.

On 23 June 2019 the Muslim Jewish Forum of Greater Manchester held an event, "Migration Stories", when four Muslims and four Jews spoke how they or their ancestors came to the UK.

You can read more about it and hear all but one of the speakers on the Forum's website page "Migration Stories: Manchester Muslims and Jews tell their family migration stories."

I spoke about how my father and mother came to the UK. You can hear the talk below.

I was speaking from a prepared text. I have amended my original draft to match the talk delivered, and that can be read below the embedded audio.

Embedded audio

Text of my talk

Migration stories June 2019 as delivered

Before I start, I was touched by something that Jay [Charara, the speaker before me at the event] said when he used the phrase “Stranger in a strange land” which of course is the title of a very famous science fiction novel by Robert Heinlein.

But even more, it’s what Moses said when he named his first child “Gershom” which means “stranger” or “alien” in Hebrew because as Moses said “I have been a stranger in a strange land.” That phrase has stayed with me ever since I read the Book of Exodus.

I want to tell you about my father and my mother. The year is 1931. In a remote village in the Punjab in India is a young man of 26, with a wife aged 15.

What makes him leave behind his wife, his recently widowed mother, his younger brothers and sisters, because he is the eldest in the family, and set off to a faraway country, Britain?

A country he knows almost nothing about. He doesn’t know a single word of English.

The answer is dire poverty. He was an “economic migrant,” a phrase that has become very unfashionable recently. His own father had died recently, due to an accident during a fight with a neighbour. The family owned very little land, and he had heard there was more opportunity in Britain.

Because even in 1931 there were already other people from that village there, and also people from other nearby villages. In the audience is my closest friend Mahibulla Din and his father came into the UK four years earlier in 1927. Scraping the money together, he bought a ticket to Southampton. Showing people a piece of paper with an address in Manchester, somehow he found his way from Southampton to Manchester. Somebody obviously helped him to buy a train ticket etc..

We know that he liked Manchester. He liked it so much that, apart from three short years from 1947 to 1950, he spent the rest of his life here, and is buried in Southern Cemetery.

Arriving at the bottom of the depression, there was no work. Like many others, he bought a suitcase full of clothes from a warehouse. Many of these warehouses in  Manchester were owned by Jewish merchants. He bought those clothes on credit. The rest of the week was spent knocking on doors as a door-to-door salesman. The next weekend he would pay for that first batch of clothes, have some money left over, and buy another suitcase worth of clothes on credit.

That was what he did for a living.

In the early 1940s, he heard from somebody that there was money in wrestling. He started going to the YMCA to work out. When I was growing up in the 1950s, my father still had some of his old chest expanders, stretchy things, I used to play with them. His wrestling title was “The Great Mehrban.” I have often thought of going through old newspaper archives to see if I could find some of his bouts but I just  never ever had the time. There was one electronic archive I found but there was nothing in there.

In later life, he was a manual worker, including his longest job at The North Western Gas Board. My first job, in 1969, voluntarily between school and university, was working alongside him. It was hard work, and I lasted about a week and a half. That is the kind of hard work that he went through.

Let me tell you also about my mother.

Her first child, a daughter, was born after my father set off for the UK in 1931. Sadly she died at about the age of 13 of an infection because child mortality in India was very high at that time. My father never saw his first daughter.

My father only went back to India, in fact Pakistan, after partition in 1947. It took him six months going from refugee camp to refugee camp until he found his family. They settled in the Pakistani part of the Punjab.

They had a daughter. But my father preferred being in Britain, he just didn’t feel happy there [Pakistan], he didn’t like it. He came back here in 1950. At that time my mother was pregnant, although they did not know it, and I was born later that year. Sadly, a year or so later, my sister who was a year or so older than me, she also died of an infection.

When my father received a letter telling him, he decided that after losing two children that way, he wrote back to my mother saying to her to “You have to come to the UK with our son.” In those days, wives had no choice but to do what their husband wanted.

For years afterwards, my mother hated being in the UK. She was so far away from her own mother, she never saw own mother again. Eventually when her mother became ill and died the family simply could not afford for my mother to go back to Pakistan to see her. She hated being away from her brothers and sisters, and everything she had known.

But she stayed here because she knew that there was no education in Pakistan in our village for me and she wanted me to be educated. What I have described are the kinds of sacrifices that migrants have made throughout history for the better lives of their children.

That is what has always driven me on. Educationally, to Cambridge, and to my professional career where I became the first [Muslim] partner in [Price Waterhouse, now] PricewaterhouseCoopers.   

Let me just touch on contributions to society.

I reckon the taxpayer made a net loss on my parents undoubtedly. My mother did some [paid] work but not very much. My father paid taxes all his life, but not very much, compared with the pension that he got.

But in my own life I have paid so much in taxes that it would have covered my father, my mother, myself, my education, my pension, my sister. Because that is how it often works in migration. To simply look at what one person does is not enough.

The other story that I am particularly proud of.

One day my father, for Eid, the meal that you have after Ramadan, actually this was probably Eid al Adha because there was a sheep involved. He fed all of his friend, he organised the meal, he did all the cooking himself. And then they wanted to pass a plate around to collect some money to reimburse him. He refused the reimbursement and instead that they bank it.

They opened a brand new bank account because he wanted to build a mosque in Manchester. That bank account is the original bank account of the Central Mosque in Manchester although most of the money that paid towards it came much later on from some Memon merchants which you will find on their [Manchester Central Mosque’s] website.

Thank you.

Postscript

While composing this page, I have been reminded of a conversation I had with a client, who was a little older than me, over 30 years ago. I had expressed my condolences after the recent death of his father.

He said: "Your parents are the only people who will always love you unconditionally."

That statement of my client's has stayed with me ever since, both when I think about my late parents, and when I think about my own children.

 

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