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Councillor's early memory of racist attacks, safeguarding lives as a social worker and recent loss of family members to Covid

Mumtaz Khan began her journey in Tower Hamlets where she learnt the tools to serve her community through social work and then as a local councillor in the East End. During the pandemic, she lost her father and mother in law. This is her story.


Early Life in Tower Hamlets


Mumtaz and her five siblings, along with their mother, arrived in the mid 1970s to join their father,  to live in Spitalfields, Tower Hamlets.  They emigrated from Bangladesh to make Britain their home. 


‘There was a huge struggle for my father to get us into the education system. There was a long waiting list. I also came at a time when east London was not the same east London that we were able to walk around quite safely these days,’ says Mumtuz.


Fear, attack and racism


She remembers the brutal killing of Altab Ali in 1978 by white racists which was a turning point for Bengali struggle in the East End.  The place where Altab Ali was killed was a minute walk away from where Mumtuz lived.


‘Dad kind of given us quite clear instructions. You don't draw the curtains in the block that we lived. Each time we came out of our block, we would literally just run and then run back because the fear of them setting the dog on us.’


Mumtuz’s early experience of Tower Hamlets was about  the fear of being attacked and being abused by racists. It was nothing like what she and her siblings expected when they arrived. She felt she was mis-sold a dream. When she was in Bangladesh and getting ready to come to London, she was told:


‘London is the land of beautiful things. I certainly did not experience beautiful things when I arrived here. We were literally cramped in a small accommodation not being allowed to play out  fear of being racially attacked. We used to get  fireworks thrown at us.’ 


She vividly remembers that every time their father went to the local mosque racists would grab his hat and take it off him.  For young Bangladeshi men, it was even hard:


‘I think the boys had it quite hard in the early days because they wanted to go out more than I did. They use to get physically attacked.’


Bangladeshi Women Empowerment


Mumtaz knew she wanted to work where she was making a difference in people’s lives. She wanted to work in a caring field in Tower Hamlets.


‘...I remember a project where I worked as an outreach worker where I encouraged women and girls to take up training. I remember I quickly got involved in setting up an Asian counselling project.’


Whilst she was setting up the project in 1987,  she was in search of a full-time job.  Her  first  full time job was to be a Women's Development Officer.


‘...And I thought, wow, £12,000 pounds! You know, its a lot of money. I went home and I said, dad, you know, this is the job I got!’ 


But she confessed that her work may not have taken her to safest areas in the borough.  She remembers her dad telling her that her job maybe risky.


‘I guess I didn't really understand the risk. I know I wanted to help people. I wanted women to come out and... take advantage of the resources that we have available...’ 


Journey to Social work


In the late 1980s and early 1990s   Bangladeshi boys began to enter the criminal justice system and how unfairly the system treated them. She wanted to do something about it.


‘My parents didn't understand some of the issues that were really impacting the teenage boys out there. And racism, you know, impacts people's lives. I was offered the position of the unqualified social worker in the youth offending team.’


She remembers one of the things offered was to get qualification of social work on the job. This is how she got involved: both experience and qualification combined together. From then on she:


‘..started as a qualified social worker. I'm grateful. I'm grateful because there was a huge need for social workers.’ 


According to Mumtaz,  the need to support Bangladeshis in Tower Hamlets opened the door for people like her. 


‘And it's the best thing I did. And I've always been doing safeguarding and child protection work... I do take some of the credit along with some of my sisters, some of my brothers who started working in the field because of what we also started seeing was the entry of a lot of Bangladeshi children into the care system ...and the system at the time, didn't quite understand our family values.’ 


Bangladeshis and domestic abuse education


Mumtaz admits that the values of a number of Bangladeshis who came to the UK were different from the values that she was taught as a social worker.


‘Physical chastisement is not the way to teach children in life... that became another kind of campaign for us… We are good parents, but we also need to understand basic ethics...’


What she would see as part of her work are usually domestic abuse and child protection related.   Young adults may also be involved or being pulled into gangs, dealing drugs, and substance misuse.


‘I think in Tower Hamlets in the early nineties that became a huge problem… Young Bangladeshi boys were introduced to drugs. Young Bangladeshi boys were  getting involved in the law.’



Pandemic:  Loss of Family members and freedom


‘I guess during the Covid restriction, I couldn't go and see my family. I wanted to make sure that they were safe.' 


'My dad,  my mother-in-law passed away. It was difficult. Family members were not able to sit with you to recite the Koran to say their last goodbye. It's just been a very strange time.’ 


She also remembers hearing rumours about cousins and her relatives being in hospital. For her it was a horrible experience. She would not forget it.


Safeguarding & lockdown


During lockdown, Mumtaz was only doing video calls as a social worker. She admits that:


‘…its not always the best way to engage with people. Some people are video shy; some children may not want to interact with me or  tell me their wishes and feelings via a video link. Its hard enough to  engage with them face-to-face.’


She fears that victims of domestic abuse were trapped during lockdown. She also worries about people’s mental health.

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