Category Archives: Race

Prejudice and inadequate support: the situation for minority ethnic children with learning disabilities

Callum and Parmi Dheensa (photo: Parmi Dheensa)

When Parmi Dheensa’s son Callum kissed a classmate on the cheek not long after starting at a special needs primary school, a teacher asked his mother if this was “culturally appropriate”. Dheensa said that as long as the classmate was happy, nothing in her son’s Punjabi heritage forbade such displays of affection.

It is just one example over many years of professionals leaping to incorrect conclusions based on the ethnicity of her severely learning disabled son, who is now 19, says Dheensa. They also assume she does not work and is supported by an extended family when in fact she is a lone parent who works full-time. Dheensa, 43, was once told that her son’s support – he lives at home and is at a special school – was “better than it would be in India”. Fair point maybe, she says, but irrelevant to a British-born, Midlands-based family.

My Guardian article focuses on Parmi’s charity, Include Me Too, which works with 1,500 families a year. It has launched a campaign for the government to review its equality duties in relation to special needs education and support for BAME communities.

The charity has now launched a campaign asking the government to review BAME representation in government decision-making (existing involvement is, says Dheensa, “tokenistic”) and a new disability and equality strategy to ensure families get better support. The criticism is that professionals do not fully involve parents in reviews of the support they require, or in drawing up education, health and care plans, and parents or carer forums are predominately white British.

Read the article on the Guardian website.

Immigration: what is it like for a child?

An image from the new book Billu Leaves India! (Artist: Iain MacLeod-Brudenell)
An image from Gersh Subhra’s book Billu Leaves India! illustrated by Iain MacLeod-Brudenell

How does a young child cope when he is suddenly uprooted from the people and places he loves and confronted with a new home in a distant, completely alien land? What was it like for a child to be among the first immigrants moving to Britain from the Indian subcontinent in the 1960s?

I like the idea behind a new children’s book, Billu Leaves India!, because it presents the rarely told story – from the perspective of a child – of the impact of immigration on younger members of the family. Launched yesterday at the University of Derby’s multi-faith centre , it aims to help children of immigrant families “make sense of the feelings of dislocation and strangeness, which are part of the immigrant’s journey”.

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Although fictional, the storybook for children aged seven upwards is loosely based on the childhood experiences of its author, University of Derby associate lecturer Gersh Subhra, who left his small Indian village in 1964 aged four; the family settled in Coventry. Profits from the book go to Oxfam and Derby Open Centre, which promotes better understanding between cultures in the city. The author volunteers with both organisations.

drawing copy

The book tells the tale of six-year-old Billu, who leaves his beloved village in India to emigrate to England in the 60s with his family. The book focuses on the boy’s relationship with his beloved uncle Tyaa. Tyaa makes his nephew a copper bowl as a leaving gift, symbolising the pair’s long-distance relationship.

openingdoor(E) copy

Subhra, a former youth and community worker and ex-head of the university’s Centre for Community Regeneration, explains: “ “As a boy, I grew up with stories about India and the journey that many in our community made from there to England. These anecdotes were filled with all of the emotions one can imagine; the doubts, as well as the hopes and aspirations involved in moving to a new life.

“Because it was a long time before I went back to the village of my birth in India, I’ve added into my story a fictional perspective on what it might have been like. I even had an uncle who was a bit like Billu’s who, unfortunately, I never saw again after I left for England.”

boyandlady(E) copy

Billu Leaves India! is illustrated by artist Iain MacLeod-Brudenell – also a former University of Derby lecturer – and is published through Matador, part of Troubador Publishing. Copies can be bought via the publisher’s website or on Amazon.

Specialist dementia care for black and ethnic minority families

“They should not suffer in silence”, says Amina Begum, a full time carer for her mother, of why we need more culturally specific dementia services for black and South Asian communities.

Speaking to me for a Guardian piece published today ahead of World Alzheimer’s Day on Sunday, Amina spoke about the contrast in support between when her father had Alzheimer’s (he died seven years ago) and today, as she cares for her mother, Jahanara, who has vascular dementia.

Amina is lucky; there is strong targeted support in Tower Hamlets for the area’s Somali, Chinese and Bengali communities. But while there are pockets of great practice, such as the Alzheimer’s Society’s monthly “dementia cafes” that Amina and her mother attend, such specialist care is not widespread. This is despite the fact that African-Caribbean and South Asian UK communities are at greater risk of developing dementia than the indigenous white population.

Amina Begum, a full time carer for her mother who has dementia (photo: Alzheimer's Society)
Amina Begum, a full time carer for her mother who has dementia (photo: Alzheimer’s Society)

Amina told me that as she hears her mother swaps childhood stories with her peers at the Sylheti-speaking dementia cafe, she sees another side to her 65-year-old parent. Jahanara is at ease and animated instead of being confused and frustrated. The pair are among around 200 regulars at the social club for the area’s Bengali community based at the East London Mosque. Continue reading the full piece here.

*Amina and her two daughters are taking part in the fundraising Memory Walk on Saturday 28 September which aims to raise money for research into dementia.

How do you raise “good Muslim British citizens”?

Parenting, at the best of times, can be as difficult as it is rewarding, but what happens if what you take to be your religious values muddy the water when it comes to raising your family? If you’re brought up thinking your religion bans any talk about sex, what do you do when your child asks where babies come from?

This kind of question was at the nub of a recent course for Muslim parents – Islamic Values and the Parenting Puzzle – I reported on. Some of the cultural “learnings” that were mistaken as religious teaching included issues such as not talking about sex or ignoring the child’s opinion about family matters.

The course stems from the work of a very forward thinking family practitioner called Arifa Naeem. Naeem used an established course devised by the charity Family Links, which trains parenting support workers, and added extracts from the Qur’an and the Prophet Mohammad’s sayings.Family Links now employs Naeem

One concern among parents is how to reconcile western values and life with their religious or cultural upbringing. The course, as Naeem says, supports parents towards adopting positive practices consistent with Islamic religious values, helping them be “good Muslim British citizens”.

Although I did the story before the murder of Lee Rigby and the ensuing reports about a rise in Islamaphobia, anyone with any assumptions about Islam and Muslims would do well to listen to the words of the many mothers on the course, with their unanimous aim of raising “good Muslim British citizens” and reconciling their eastern heritage with their western context.

I’d like to thank the women, like Ifat, who shared their family stories and their time:

Ifat Nisa feared her teenage son was hanging out with “the wrong crowd”, drinking, smoking or experimenting with drugs – but when she questioned him, they always argued.

Brought up not to challenge her own parents, Nisa was confused about how to parent an apparently disrespectful teenager. She heard about a parenting course at her mosque in Slough, Berkshire, and despite initially dismissing it – “My reaction was ‘it’s not Islamic'” – when she discovered it was tailored for Muslim parents, decided to try it out.

Nisa recalls: “I was worrying I wasn’t a good parent. I was confused why my son was reacting like he did; the course helped me understand his emotions and feelings.” Nisa learned about empathy and stopped blaming and constantly questioning her son. She credits the course for their strong, healthy relationship now.

You can read the rest of the piece here.

Comment is free

Hello all, briefly highlighting my words posted in the comments thread under my Guardian interview last week with the Muslim mayor of Tower Hamlets council, Lutfur Rahman.

I’m re-posting my comment here for clarity given there were around 140 responses last time I looked.

Thanks if you’ve read and commented on this piece. As many of you know, it’s written for the SocietyGuardian interview slot, which has a particular format and tone and if it was an investigation or piece of long-form journalism, it would have been tagged as such. 
The aim, mentioned early on, is to push aside the mutual mudslinging, hype and hate, and look specifically at whether or not aspects of the latest budget stack up long term – essentially, can the council balance its books? The piece doesn’t set out to repeat or re–explore the well–documented allegations and criticisms which are available to read in other places:
‘Is it time that Tower Hamlets, a political morass and England’s third most deprived authority where half the 250,000 residents are from black and minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds, mostly Bangladeshi, be looked at afresh?’
While it’s not possible to include or analyse every element of spending or cuts in 1200 words, the piece ultimately disputes Rahman’s claim of fireproofing the frontline and his divisive nature, outlined at the start, is reflected by many of the responses here
.”

Here’s a comment from my editor in the same thread:
As the editor of the Society section I commissioned Saba to interview Lutfur Rahman, about the plans he had in place to try to protect public services in Tower Hamlets from huge spending cuts. He seemed to be taking a very different approach to councils such as Newcastle, whose leader we profiled a couple of weeks earlier. The interview was intended to explore Rahman’s approach by giving him a chance to put his case and to assess whether or not his plans were viable.
I appreciated that he is a divisive figure for various reasons outlined in the interview – such as alleged links to Islamic fundamentalist groups which he has has repeatedly and categorically denied – but the purpose of the interview was not to focus on this aspect of his leadership which has been the subject of TV documentaries and countless column inches, but to focus on his policy initiatives. I feel that it achieved this, as some of you have acknowledged in your comments
.”

If you’re interested in reading more, try this, on the Telegraph website, which leads on from the comments thread and outlines issues not included in the Guardian piece. These issues weren’t included for the reasons stated in the piece itself and in the two responses above.

More background, history, facts, detail as well as conjecture from all parties involved – journalists, commentators, residents, Rahman’s supporters, his opponents and politicians of all hues – is easily found via a quick Google search.

Finally, there are a couple of links here and here (specifically the section marked footnote on the second link) by other writers who have felt compelled to clarify their reporting of and interviews with Rahman.

Happy reading!

Cuts and controversy in Tower Hamlets

Lutfur Rahman’s name is usually prefixed with the word “controversial”. It is an apt description of the first directly elected mayor of Tower Hamlets, in east London. He is the council’s ex-Labour leader turned independent mayoral candidate who won 2010’s election amid political intrigue, mudslinging and alleged links to Islamic fundamentalist groups – allegations he has repeatedly and categorically denied. His win, with 51% of the vote, handed Britain its first Muslim and Bangladesh-born executive mayor and the Labour party an intractable gulf between national leadership and grassroots activism. The rest of my piece is on the Guardian’s Society page.

Youth film reveals the hidden gems of black theatre

The term black theatre might conjure up images of a niche and very 20th century concept, but from Ira Aldridge playing Othello in Covent Garden in the 1830s to the 1990 production of Amani Napthali’s Ragamuffin and to grime star Bashy in a rap opera a couple of years ago, the genre is historical and diverse – if lesser known than its mainstream counterpart.

A youth-led film being premiered at London’s Royal Court theatre today, Margins to Mainstream, seeks to demystify and tell the story of black theatre in Britain. Made by young people in west London and Birmingham, in a partnership between London’s Octavia Foundation and Nu Century Arts in Birmingham, with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, its visual treasures include forgotten plays and landmark performances.

Those who appear in the film include playwright and broadcaster Kwame Kwei-Armah and Pat Cumper, director of the Talawa Arts Centre. The film was shot at locations including Theatre Royal East, London Southbank Centre, Royal Court Theatre, Old Vic and The Tabernacle.

The cross-city project allowed young people in London and Birmingham to learn and develop skills in media, research and film-making and is the latest in a series of innovative community filmmaking initiatives from the charity.

Zakiya, 18, a sixth form student studying photography, media and sociology and a tenant of Octavia Housing, adds that working on the project has inspired her to see more theatre and be more creative: “I didn’t really know anything about black theatre before, or theatre in general but it was really great and we saw some good productions…this project has helped build my experience in the field – I’m studying media, sociology and photography and want to be a photographer when I’m older. Seeing the finished film and knowing I’ve been a part of it is incredible.”

After the premiere in London the film will be screened at venues throughout London, Birmingham and the rest of the country and made available to theatres, arts and community groups and other interested groups later on this year. You can find out more about the screenings here.

Illegal immigrants:not as simple as sending them all home

Peter Solomon, 46, is a former trade union representative who spent 17 years in the transport sector. He is a hardworking taxpayer and father-of-three who, until recently, worked as a security guard in Manchester where he rented a flat. He is also an illegal immigrant.

Some illegal immigrants should be returned home, according to an IPPR report seized on by the government to support its hardline stance. But it’s not that simple, as I explain in this piece in Society Guardian today.

The cuts – an alternative

For those who’ve not already seen it, this powerful film presents an alternative to the government’s devastating cuts agenda. It features community groups and anti-cuts campaigners along with Bill Nighy, Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien and Zac Goldsmith MP. Worth watching ahead of this weekend’s demo in London against the cuts.

It Cuts Both Ways…The Alternatives from Oonagh Cousins on Vimeo.

How Roma integration could be child’s play

It is a simple act that speaks volumes about the barriers that have been broken; a young Roma boy hands a flower to the play worker he had been so challenging towards just two weeks ago.

The scene took place in August at a groundbreaking playscheme run by social enterprise the Big Life group which encouraged Roma children aged 7-11 to mix with their local Manchester counterparts.

As Europe’s largest ethnic minority, the 12m-strong Roma population might be dispersed across the EU, but it is unified in the discrimination routinely faced by its people. From being moved on from traveller sites to outright repatriation, Roma families live in poverty and are reluctant to contact statuary services fear being moved on or suffer harassment.

Negative perceptions of the Roma community in Manchester along with an increase in the number of Roma people wanting to sell The Big Issue in the North led to the launch of the Big Life group summer play scheme (Big Life owns the Big Issue in the North). Open to all children living in the Longsight area of Manchester, it aimed to break down barriers between the communities and reduce the perceived or actual nuisance behaviour over the summer.

The scheme was publicised through leaflets given out during the social enterprise’s family support sessions and through local children’s centres. Word of mouth also encouraged Roma children to access the project.

Children doing al fresco craft activiites at the Big Life group summer scheme

The scheme, jointly funded by Manchester city council and The Big Issue in the North Trust, did not charge participants and 60 children registered across the month-long scheme with a total of 30 per session. Take up was even; 52 % Roma registrations and 48% from other communities.

Project leader Daniel Achim recalls that the scheme got off to a shaky start: “At the beginning all children seemed to be rather slow to action the requests of the play workers. The children were testing the boundaries and the workers had to repeat the same information over and over again in order to get a result.”

Yet, as Achim says, by the end of the playscheme there was a major transformation in the behaviour of the children in terms of respect and politeness to staff. “In a safe and welcoming environment where they were not discriminated against children learned to relax around each other, they learned to share play equipment, they learned to wait their turn.”

Children at the Big Life group scheme in August

While entrenched attitudes towards those who are different can be hard to shatter, the Big Life playscheme shows how to break down barriers through play. Any mutual suspicion was soon overcome. Encouraging integration through play and from an early age is starting to reap rewards.

As Achim says, often the tensions tended to be between children from the same backgrounds: “Sometimes it is easy to see differences between communities – when really it is just kids being kids.”