Archive for May 5th, 2014

The following, which I think is one of the best pieces to have appeared on this blog, is a guest post by TONY UDDIN.

By way of introduction, Tony is a senior pastor at the Tower Hamlets Community Church in Ricardo Street, Poplar; he hosted a mayor hustings last week when Lutfur Rahman declined to turn up. He also chairs the Tower Hamlets Night Shelter scheme (GrowTH) as well as a local youth charity, The Canaan Project. His article is a personal piece and does not represent the opinions of those organisations.

Tony Uddin

Tony Uddin

Last week saw the negative effects of interpreters in polling booths being widely reported. This gets to the heart of a crucial question. Should LBTH be spending large sums of money on providing both mother tongue and translation services?

Firstly, let me declare an interest. My father, Farid, came from Sylhet to London in the Fifties. His was a brave and courageous generation who took the risk of leaving all that they had and building a new life, in a country where they could not speak the language and where the colour of their skin meant that they instantly stood out. Were he still alive, my dad and many like him would have been righty proud but also somewhat saddened looking around at some aspects of life in Tower Hamlets today.

Although we have lot of Bengali family in the East End, my dad’s connection was not to Tower Hamlets but to London, for one simple reason: for him, coming to London meant becoming a Londoner, being part of a culture wider than just his own.

Tony Uddin

Tony’s dad, Farid Uddin, as a young man


In doing so he opened a curry house in Tooting in the Sixties, married a white woman of Scottish extraction and set about creating a life that preserved elements of his own Sylheti culture but one with a distinctively British edge to it. He saw no problem with keeping a sense of his own culture and identity whilst also integrating into British society.

In doing so he helped many other Bangladeshi people to settle into the UK and was widely respected for it. This was often at a great cost, the Britain of the Sixties was at times far from welcoming. My mother’s family for instance refused to have any contact with her because she married a Bangladeshi man and that has remained the case ever since.

My dad was fiercely proud of his Sylheti roots and yet often voiced the opinion that the translating of road signs, forms and the like into “community languages” was divisive and in the long term held people back from integrating into British society and contributing to the city that he had chosen to call his home.

For him, a strong and confident community did not need to hold others at bay but could be outward looking and would embrace integration whilst maintaining its own culture. When I got married in 1998, we were preparing to have our wedding and some of the speeches translated into Sylheti. When he heard about it, my dad told me in the clearest terms that he was against it.

Tony with his mum and dad and his wife, Anni, on their 1998 wedding day


I remember the conversation well. His point was that by offering interpretation, we were facilitating something that was not in people’s best long term interest. For him playing a positive role in society here meant people needing to learn English and being comfortable amongst people from a range of backgrounds. It meant being outward looking.

Bangladeshis (and other minorities) in Tower Hamlets have overcome tremendous opposition, outright hostility and discrimination as well as intimidation and violence. They have shown a remarkable resilience and determination to thrive.

Their greatest challenge now is to allow this strength and confidence to propel them to reject the divisive community politics of Tower Hamlets First. Theirs is a politics that relies on fear, the fear of acceptance, the fear of being outsiders.

I was desperately saddened this week to hear of people opposed to our current mayor being described as traitors. Being Bengali-British and rejecting the views of other Bengali-British because you believe them to be wrong is not a sign of treachery, but of growth, of a community that is confident.

The politics of Tower Hamlets First and their rhetoric in a strange way mirror those of Ukip and others on the right. However the community here, our community, are strong enough to reject this politics of fear and be what we really are, and can increasingly be, a great example of the positive contribution that immigration makes to London.

I’ve lived in Tower Hamlets for 18 years now. I love the diversity that surrounds us. I’m half Scottish, half Bangladeshi and am married to a German woman whose mother was born in a remote part of Brazil. My dad loved that. For him it summed up what being a Londoner meant.

As a borough we are not served well by those who want, through fear, to keep our community divided. A strong community with a confident culture can and will embrace the wider city around it, building bridges rather than walls around itself.

To get back to where we started, building a strong united community in Tower Hamlets means putting our precious  public resources into things that build a stronger sense of social cohesion. That probably means providing some translation services to help people get established, but it also means that the emphasis should be on putting money into accessible English language courses rather than mother tongue classes.

It means helping our community become stronger through investing into services and projects that facilitate people coming together and creating common ground rather than those that allow them to exist in close proximity to one another yet in very separate worlds.

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