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Fearless educator missed mother during pandemic and finds vaccine a beacon

Julie Begum talks about her East End upbringing, passion for education and campaign to vaccinate everyone.


She was born in the Mile End Hospital in 1968 when her parents were living in a temporary accommodation in Tower Hamlets. Her brother was born 18 months after. They were given a council flat in Globe Town, Bethnal Green, London. She remembers that:  

‘We live in a block of flats, with a lot of other working class people…  I think there was only one other Bengali family on the estate at the time. And a black family and majority was white. And there was one mixed race family…To be honest, the only safe place was at home. We heard about people being attacked in their homes by racists. So it was, I would say a climate of fear really for a lot of Bengalis at that time. My father was bottled and attacked.’

There was a difference in response between younger and older generation within the Bengali Community from Julie's account.

‘Young men…decided to fight back and become much more sort of resisting the kind of racism that was going on….the older generation understood that they were being discriminated against, but they didn't feel they could challenge them in any way. Whereas the younger generations…felt that because we were born here, I suppose we had a right to be treated fairly.  There was more of a resistance towards that kind of behaviour, and challenging the kind of racism by sort of confronting racist people.’


When she was 16 years old there was a conversation with her uncle, her father's brother, about her marriage proposal.  She responded by saying:

‘Yeah, maybe one day. So he assumed that I was interested in getting married. And so what he did was, through his networks, he sent around a prospective bride groom and his sister to visit me and my family. And I understood that they came for this purpose quite quickly, because it was quite apparent what their intentions were. And so I made myself quite unattractive to them as a candidate. And they went away, not very impressed with me.’

She  then  said to her parents afterwards that she did not appreciate them introducing her for a marriage proposal and she had no intention to get married. 

‘…I grew up in a family, especially with my father, I would say, we discussed politics, religion, all sorts of things. I was encouraged to speak my mind and give my opinions and defend my opinions, really. So when I made it clear to them, that I had no interest in getting an arranged marriage, or getting married to anyone, they took it seriously.’


The prospect of having a career or an ambition appeared to be alien in the environment that Julie and her was brought up. She explained that:

‘…Regardless of race…most of the boys ended up in prison, and the girls ended up being pregnant… That was the way we graduated from that school. There was no expectation whatsoever from anybody for us to do anything well.’

Julie went on to do A-levels at college, and then went on to study at a Polytechnic to be a teacher.   She felt she experienced challenges throughout the process. As part of her training she observed teachers in Tower Hamlets.

‘There was a clear division between the white teachers and the non-white teachers…there was segregated staff and there was this attitude towards the Bangladeshi majority Bangladeshi pupils… as though they were beneath their contempt almost. So I just decided that I wasn't going to carry on with that profession, and not to be in a job where …I was not really in a position to challenge this kind of discrimination really…

Julie retrained to work with adults in further education to teach English to speakers of other languages. 

‘…I thought, at least with adults, they can think for themselves, they can stand up for themselves. And if something's not working, they can let me know. And they can let other people know. So I just thought that was a much more equitable situation.


Life before Lockdown was frantic and was unsustainable for Julie. 

‘I had at least two or three part-time jobs. I had a very active social life, family life… So there was lots of things going on. It was constantly a treadmill…I only do things that are essential now. So it's essential for me to do work, for example, and support older people dimensioned in their homes, it's essential for me to support my mum is essential for me, see and maintain friendships with people that are important to me.’

Julie does also recognises the downside to the Lockdown: she can't go for a swim or go on yoga classes that she use to enjoy.  The lockdown has now remove the frantic pace of life that she use to have. 

‘But I'm also aware that there are people who are suffering in this isolation, with Covid with not be able to see people, you know, it's been a real hardship. And it doesn't help that we are unable to support each other in the ways that we use to support each other by seeing each other by spending time with each other. That really had a huge impact.’


Julie’s mother is 73 years old. She tried to tried to keep her safe by making sure she has what she needs. She he goes on to say that:

‘ She's desperately lonely because she doesn't see anyone. And that's a real hardship. You know, there's no way we could make up for that kind of isolation.’

Julie used to see her mother nearly every day.  She now has rely on phone calls.   She misses her desperately.


‘My manager got in touch with us on Friday saying, you know, if you want the vaccine,  send your details to the health service. And they'll let you know, when there's an opportunity to get vaccinated. And so this morning, I got a call. And they said, Can you come into the centre and when they asked: ‘when?’ I said now and they said, All right, then come in. And that's what I did! And it was, it was really quick, efficient, and very professional, and very safe. And I recommend it! 

This was first time since New Year that she felt a way out of this situation.  

‘I feel like this is the beginning of getting everyone vaccinated. And then we can make a slow and steady recovery, to better health and well-being, you know, there is an end to this.  And we will get as many people vaccinated as possible.’

For Julie the things that she took for granted: going to the cinema or an art gallery or to have a meal, or to go to the pub, or to see friends - all these things have become a lot more precious.


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