Tanzila Zaman, a community mentor, and writer of a book, ‘Mother Tongue’, shares her experience of the pandemic.
Tanzila Zaman was born in Barisal, Bangladesh. Most of her life, prior to coming to the UK just over 10 years ago, she lived, studied and worked in Dhaka, capital city of Bangladesh.
Her mother was always busy and cooking, cleaning and maintaining their home. Tanzila enjoyed her time in school. In Dhaka she studied at the best institutions and later she worked for a corporation.
Her passion to excel in her career made her come to the UK. Her employer preferred her to get trained in Singapore. She chose London.
‘Most of the things you study in Bangladesh is about memorising things. It is not practical at all. In London you are flexible. In Bangladesh there are restriction, and lots of memorising. I don’t like memorising.’
‘When I came to London my life changed (dramatically). When I came to the UK, I started studying and Allah blessed me a baby boy. So having to study, having to look after a baby boy and a husband was really hard.’
She felt she also suffered from post-natal depression. It was a tough time for her.
‘Back home (in Bangladesh), my mum would help her aunt all night when she gave birth. They would look after her for two to three months. No one came to help me. I was all alone in London.’
Tanzila saw Muslim women from many different backgrounds wearing hijab and niqab to cover their hair. Tanzila then started wearing hijab because she was inspired by them.
‘I feel everybody is being valued. Personally I have not experienced racism. I do work with important people: MPs, local mayors and others. They appreciate my community work. I have personally never experienced discrimination.’
As a coach Tanzila helps local residents either with their finances or develop their career. Her prime focus is to build confidence of local residents so they can build their lives with dignity.
‘I help people in many different ways. If they have any problems, I help them to fix them. If they need a social worker, if they need housing advice, I help them. If they want to set up their business, I help them.’
LIFE DURING COVID
Before Covid, she would work in an office or travel to schools to work with parents. During lockdown all her work was online.
‘Physical activities, visiting institutions and schools had completely stopped. I also stopped home visits. I do everything virtual. During Covid my husband quit his job. We were all in a cage or cave.’
Although it was tough, the impact of Covid made her appreciate her family more.
‘look - we are alive, people are in hospital, people are dying. We can breath and we are alive. This is the most motivating factor for me. My husband and I have also learnt to make roti.'
Before they use to buy everything from local shops. Making roti together has brought the family together.
As a boy Mahbub ULLAH felt the spirit of change for Bengalis from the Pakistani Army. When he came to the UK he was attacked racially. His mother died of Covid-19. Currently he is shielding.
Mahbub ULLAH was born in Bogra, one of the districts in Bangladesh. His father’s engineering job, brought him to Dhaka, the capital city. He was brought up with five brothers and four sisters. He was part of a typical middle class Bengali family at the time. Higher education was central to this household. He emphasises that:
‘some might have two degrees, some might have three degrees, some might have four degrees. Once you have finished education, you then think about earnings. Not before.’
FREEDOM FOR BENGALIS
Mahbub was 7 years old when he was exposed the reality of the liberation movement for Bangladesh in 1971. He has seen people being shot dead and stabbed in front of him. He personally ran away from the Pakistani Army when they came to his village.
‘Luckily me, my brothers and sisters have survived. I have seen, in my own eyes, how people were killed by the Pakistani Army.’
His personal experience of the Indian Army was not pleasant either. When the Indian Army came to help to form the new state of Bangladesh, she said, it was not pleasant either:
'The way they use to talk to us and their attitude. We were treated as subordinates. But, we were happy politically, and emotionally because we were a pro-democracy movement. We were extremely happy and over the moon!’
Between 1972 and 1984, the expectation was high but the hope did not last long for him and his family. They would not think about going out of the house in the evenings because they were afraid of being killed and kidnapped.
STUDY IN THE UK
Mahbub’s wish was to be a nuclear engineer. It was this in mind made him think about travelling to the UK. He enjoyed learning about physics and maths. He chose to study at Queen Mary College, East London.
‘The university invited me study physics and maths on the condition that I would get 70% out of a 100%. I would then get an unconditional offer. Luckily I got 100%; not 70%!.’
He could not carry on with his studying on these subjects. His father did not have sufficient funds to carry on paying for the course. Mahbub then changed it to Business Studies. He then completed PGC, MSc and so on. He started doing his doctorate whilst being a part time lecturer at East London University. Having gained experience in Britain, he went back to Dhaka to teach.
‘One day I was picked up by a main road by a group of men who held me at a gun point. They kidnapped me for money. Somehow I was lucky. One of those who who was holding me, knew my elder brother. He then had a conversation with other kidnappers and they let me go.’
Mahbub had to pay them off and then he was released. His experience of being kidnapped and fear of being shot dead left made him decide to leave Bangladesh permanently.
LIFE IN BRITAIN
Since moving to the UK, Mahbub lived in Lewisham, South London. His experience was not a plain sail. He was horrifically attacked by racists on two occasions. On both of the these occasions he was hospitalised. Regardless of such experiences, he carried on establishing his home in Britain. He opened up restaurant business and then got married. He had three children. His wife is a medical doctor. He realised that this business does not suit his family life.
‘You finish at half past 12 or 1am…By the time you go home everyone else is sleeping. When you come out, they are gone and you are sleeping. So I decided - no more restaurant please! I then started applying for normal jobs.’
Mahbub Ullah applied for hundreds of jobs. He was not getting not a single response from prospective employers. He decided to change his name through Deed Poll.
‘When I changed by name from Mahbub to Michael ULLAH, out of 100 jobs, I would get response from at least 60. When I had Mahbub ULLA, I had 0 response; if I had Michael ULLAH, I had 60% responses.’
He is now a health project workers for the NHS. He feels he has never been happier. He sees local residents when they came to his hospital. He advises them to stay safe and have good health.
He emphesized that if he had not changed his job, he would not have been able to get to where he is.
‘My mother died of Covid-19. She died on 12 April...A lot of friends have lost their loved ones. Even today, this afternoon, one of my very close friends - his mother died.’
There is stigma attached to talking about Covid-19 and deaths in the community. Mahbub says that:
’A lot of people don’t like to talk about their parents who have died due to Covid. They are lying about the cause of deaths.’
Two people have died had no health conditions states Mahbub.
He has underlying health conditions. He suffers from high blood pressure, diabetic and ashma. He has been classified by the British government as vulnerable.
‘I got a letter from my GP that I should be shielding for three months. I am shielding now. I don’t go out. I don’t do anything. Just staying at home.’
He and his family members are now spending time at home. They are keeping themselves busy by talking to people on the phone.
IMPACT OF COVID
He would only go to the mosque during Eid. He could not go to mosques this time because they are closed. He says:
‘If they were open, people would have gone. They would not abide by the social distancing rules.’
He use to love speaking to clients in person. Since the lockdown, everything he does is online. He keeps himself busy by giving advice to those who need support on Zoom, Microsoft Teams or WhatsApp. He is still happy that he is making an impact in the community.
Abdulla Almamun plays a huge part in the local faith community by carrying on motivating volunteers to develop their confidence and morale during COVID-19.
Abdulla was born in Sylhet, Bangladesh. He came to the UK in 1988 with his family. Since then he was brought up in Whitechapel, Tower Hamlets, near East London Mosque. He has three sisters and two brothers. His father owned a factory and was involved in transfer of money business. His mother was a home-keeper. According to Abdulla she made sure that:
‘we went to school, wake up, come back, go the local mosque, feed us, look after us. We were fortunate, Alhamdulillah’.
He lived in the same five bedroom house with his family until he was married. He stepped out of Tower Hamlets when he decided to study at Kingsway College, Holborn.
His dad was active in the community and part of the local Labour Party. Abdulla goes on to say that:
‘Initially, I hated politics. I wanted nothing to do with my dad. I don't want to see 10-15 people queueing up in the house. But I ended up being like my dad. He supported communities back home (in Bangladesh), helped to build village schools.’
In the 1990s, he would get together with other Bangladeshi boys to play football. To him there was a sense of community where everyone was looking after each other. As time went on he observed that many local residents were doing really well professionally. They were moving out to other areas such as Dagenham, Barking and Surrey.
‘Our forefathers worked in factories with low income as manual labourers, we are, Alhamdulilla, now in a better place. We are working, have nice jobs, professionals with nice houses and with a big fat mortgage. However, we must not forget the community who are left behind in the (council) estates in Tower Hamlets. There were three, four, five children living in two bedroom flats. Some of these flats were in damp conditions. It was really sad. Those who are left behind they are the ones we really need to support.'
Going to university has helped Abdulla to develop his life skills, gain confidence, and see things differently. He met many different types students.
Currently, Abdulla looks after volunteers for Islamic Relief. He looks after over 1000 volunteers by providing them with training and development. As part of his role, he meets Bangladeshi families from Glasgow, Bradford, Manchester and Cardiff.
'Majority of the Bengalis are doing well in East London. But those who are in Bradford or Sheffield, their fathers are still working in factories and catering trade and the children are in education and want to do well. Many of them are trying to get to where we are.’
COVID AND WORK
He had prepared his annual training programme for his volunteers. He was getting ready to prepare for an award ceremony for his volunteers. He had to prepare 200 volunteers across the country which was meant to happen in July this year as well as taking many of the volunteers to a trip to Kosovo.
'I was working from home because I injured my back. Obviously the news came then I realised that things were very serious. My manager was sending me lots of stuff to think about social distancing and how to safeguard our volunteers and what can they and can't do. So I was really busy during the week before, during and after the lockdown. I was writing reports, talking to stakeholders. In my mind I was constantly thinking about how to safeguard our volunteers.’
Although he and his wife were working from home, his wife commented that he was married to his phone. He would phone, Whatspapp and email all the time. He also volunteers for Faith Inspire time to get Muslims to physically and mentally be active by taking them to summer camps and keep them closer to their faith. He had to learn many things:
'Oh my god, how do you use Zoom. We can't go on Live Facebook. How do you do that? We had to Google it, learn it! Oh my god, we have to purchase this and that.’
His sister was unwell for a few days. It was not clear whether she had Covid. A few of his distant cousins had passed away. His friend's father passed away. His cousin's father passed away. It was hard for Abdulla because he was not able to see them nor say good bye to them.
'Bangladeshis are generally communities of families getting together, eating together, sharing things together. This has been a weird Ramadan where you are not allowed to see anyone or eat Iftar together. Even EID has gone and we have not come together. It was hard not been together.'
His faith, belief and family support have helped him. To him talking to his wife has helped a lot to deal with the stress of the change of working life. He also spoke to his siblings.
To Abdulla, the Covid-19 has brought communities together whereby Bengali and non-Bengalis have come together to support each other. He has been part of Tower Hamlets Mutual Group. By taking part in the group he learnt a lot of about how fortunate he is because there are so many individuals who are all alone. To him:
‘It's about supporting each other. If they are smiling, it makes you smile. It keeps me going. That is why I am motivated to make others happy.’
He has learnt and still learning to cook curing the Lockdown, how to use different technology to get his message across to volunteers and the community quickly.
‘I miss going to the mosque. I missed imams and reciters during Ramadan. Don't get me wrong, you can pray at home. But you’ve got a community there. The Bangladeshi community is very social people. The mosque is a hub for people. Sometimes I might see some people once a year during an Iftar gathering. We are not going to have it this year.’
SHIRINA ALI'S EXPERIENCE OF COVID WAS REAL WHEN TWO COLLEAGUES OF HER HUSBAND AND HER COUSIN DIED. FINANCIAL LOSSES ARE ALSO IMMENSE.
Born to a first generation Bangladeshi migrant family, Shirina is the eldest of 'many British siblings.' A self-confessed ‘Tower Hamlets girl’ was born and brought up in this borough. Little did she know then that she would also marry in Tower Hamlets. At the age of 17, she was married off to a man chosen by her grand father.
As a teenager, the world of motherhood was hard for her at first. She had to cook, clean and learn new ways of living with her husband. During her A-Level exams, she was fully pregnant with her first girl. She missed going to the cinemas, gossiping with her friends and learning to drive. These are many of things her friends did whilst Shirina embraced her new life as a wife. She confessed that as part of her marriage contract her husband would be the bread winner.
‘It was kind of built into my head that I won't have to work. At that time, I did not know anything about money. I just assumed that we could live on what he made - so romantic and rosey. It was like a Bollywood film. I use to wear my sarees and I enjoyed my life as a mum. I did not have a clue what was out there or the cost of living. In a way, I did not have any ambitions either. An ambition has a price tag on it.’
Once her second daughter was born, they moved into a bigger home. Her friends spoke about their work and colleagues they worked with. Having a big and expensive wedding were also on the agenda for them as they prepare to settle down and get married. It dawned on Shirina that her two girls needed a role model. There was no one else to turn to for inspiration. She knew that education was the stepping stone to a better life. She went onto do an access course. Once she finished the course, she carried on with her education at London Met University. She studied community management and after three years of full time education, she obtained a 1st. Whilst studying, she worked part time and looked after her two children and a husband. She pursued her career in the charity sector.
‘A lot of people I met before work were just surviving. They get their three meals and they are happy. Then, I met these people who had extraordinary lives. Even when they are working full time they had hobbies and have expensive holidays. I have not been exposed to that world until then. I did not know about helping people, tutoring and mentoring. I suddenly realised - wow! It might sound naive but you have to understand the bubble I was in: protected by my parents and then husband. My bubble was very small.’
Shirina works as a part time money adviser at Limehouse Project and trains residents all over London on how to manage money. She feels that this job has given her the opportunity to engage with people on many different levels.
‘My entire family fell ill…for ten days (during the Christmas break) . Every single siblings were ill. I don’t know what happened. I don’t usually fall ill. Everyone was unwell,’ she says.
She was not sure whether it was Covid-19. When she went to work after the break, she heard about the virus but did not take much notice of it. When the lockdown was implemented, she did not prepare for it either.
‘I knew I was going to struggle. I knew I was disciplined enough to stay home. In the first week I was making lists and trying to keep a timetable. I was trying to get my daughters motivated. The first week was really good…By third week I had my first few dark moments and I was crying. And I was crying because I was crying. I could not believe that I was that weak. I had not seen my mum, nephew and grandson.’
During her twenty years of marriage she and her husband rarely been home together at the same time. He was workaholic. In the third week of the lockdown he was going through a mental health crisis. His savings had also ran out. As a restaurant worker he gets paid weekly. He was not furloughed. She could not plan ahead because no one knew how long both are going to be in the lockdown. There are other horrific impact too for them:
‘My husband lost two colleagues who had underlying health conditions. I’ve also lost an aunt. My daughter and I were helping a family who had the virus. As a family we know it is very real to us and it makes me so angry when people question Covid-19’.
Her job requires working with people who have no income due to the Covid-19 pandemic and a lot of people are having money problems. Many of them are worried about feeding their children.
‘In this community a lot of people have language barriers. Many of them do not understand social distancing either. Currently, any work I do are on the phone.Our clients have been very calm and accepted that we are going to do self-help.’
Shirina felt the impact of the rise in food prices during the month of Ramadan. A lot of people have ran out of money. Ramadan is a community event. Usually, everyone would fast together during this time. Her daughters are fasting in isolation instead of doing it together with their friends. They are finding it very hard. ‘Mosques are closed. It is so hard for men especially because that is their community time. Mosques play such a big role in the community. That is not there.’
ABDUL SHOHID’S BACKGROUND
His father came to the UK in the 1960s as part of the chain migration from Sylhet, Bangladesh. His mother joined his father in the 70s. She could not speak a word of English at the time.
Shohid was born and brought up in Tower Hamlets. He was born in Mile End Hospital. He went to Hackney Community College and grew up with four siblings. He lived all his life in the borough. He was the only person in his family and relatives to go to university.
‘I am not sure what I expected when I was going to university. I felt this was something I needed to do. I was academically gifted…This would also help me to get a good job. I studied anthropology. In terms of understanding society, community and individuals, these are some of the things going to university has taught me.’
Currently he works with young offenders who are seen as high risk in the local community. Many of these individuals have language, misuse of drugs problems and have been brought up in deprived areas. They are unsure about their identity either in the context of their family or community. From his point of view:
‘these multi-layered issues led these individuals to fall into crime and then the criminal justice system.’
His job involves preventing young individuals from re-offending by supporting them in many different ways such as: identifying their problems and helping them to rebuild their lives. Shohid would help them by identifying an action plan which they would agree, work with his colleagues, the courts and the social services. He might guide them to get into further education, work or have a difficult conversation with their family members.
Initially the first few weeks during the lockdown were very stressful because he missed being with his colleagues. He enjoyed the office banter and gossip. Instead of seeing them, these days he would speak to them on Zoom or Microsoft Team. But he goes on to say:
‘You lose track of what day it is. Is it Monday or Friday? You don’t really know. In terms of my work it has been demotivating because you want to support the person but none of the support structures are around. You can’t see the young person; you can’t liaise with their parents. You can’t get your teeth into it; so it’s not very fulfilling with the work I am doing and the way I am doing at the moment.’
It has been very difficult not see his family members too. To make up for not seeing them, he has been calling them more often. He has been trying to keep a daily routine, exercise daily, goes for a walk and get some sunlight which keeps him sane and healthy.
Him and his wife are now working from home. By giving each other some space by working in separate rooms, they were able to make the most of their home environment and time during work hours. They would then take a break together to catch up and motivate each other.
The lockdown has changed the way he thinks about his working environment in the office. He is feeling very anxious just thinking about going back to work.
COVID AND COMMUNITY
‘My nephew was diagnosed with coronavirus. He lives with my mum... He has paralysis. Everyone in my mum’s house had coronavirus symptoms…I am 99% sure my nephew had it and my family members had it. I’ve heard from my extended family members and friends who have been affected. A physio of mine passed away. That is really sad. I’ve got a distant relative in hospital in the ICU.’
He hopes that this virus will make people care about the climate and people’s health more. He feels that:
‘Air is cleaner. You can smell fresh air. People can look up and see the sky. But we are living in a capitalist world. After all that we are going to business as usual. We might be getting the biggest economic shock since the Spanish Flu in 1918. Again the people who are going to suffer the most are the poor and the least well off and ethnic minority.’
Every Ramadan, he would break fast with friends and families. This Ramadan has been very unusual for him and his wife. They can’t socialise with others. It is just him and his partner.
Rujina Begum is a nurse at North Middlesex Hospital, London. She cared for the first Covid positive baby in Britain. Here is her story on Brit-Bangla COVID.
RUJINA ’S EARLY LIFE:
Rujina lives with her husband and 15 year old son in a housing association accommodation in Tower Hamlets. Rujina is 40 years old. She describes her background as being very traditional. When she was growing up in the borough, she mostly spoke Bengali/Sylhetti at home. She went to Mulberry Girls School where she spoke English with her friends and class mates. She says:
‘My parents never really encouraged me to study and get a career. They weren't really clued up with all these things. I drifted throughout my teenage years. It was only when I had my son, who was born premature and he was in the Neo-Natal Unit, that I first realised that something existed where pre-mature babies were born and looked after... This is something I didn't mind doing.’
After giving birth, she was a full time mother and housewife. Once her son went to school, she felt she was able to concentrate on her passion to be a nurse. She knew she could not pursue a career until she had completed her maths GCSE. She retook the subject. Straight after finishing it she went on to do an access course in nursing. Having obtained a distinction in the course, she pursued her career by doing children’s nursing degree which she eventually completed in summer 2017. She was later offered a job at Middlesex Hospital where she developed her practice. She was comfortable and happy at work until the beginning of the crisis.
COVID POSITIVE BABIES
At first it was just a rumour she heard on the news. Before Rujina was trained on how to use the mask and PPE, she heard about the first positive Covid baby admitted into her unit.
‘I panicked because firstly, I have not had my mask fitted nor had training on PPE. And now, before we completed our training, we have to deal with it…Luckily I was not allocated the baby. On the following shift I had my mask fitted and I felt pretty confident…The reality kicked in when I was allocated to look after the Covid positive baby. It was like - Oh my god, I can’t get this wrong. If I get this wrong, a lot of people can be sick - myself, colleagues and my family - so I had to be very careful. That was a huge responsibility.’
Rujina fed and gave attention to the baby. She also had to balance it with handing the baby as less frequently as possible. She panicked when she tried to take off the PPE after handing the baby. She made sure she washed her hands at least five times. She then observed that more Covid positive babies were coming into her unit because their mothers were tested positive. These babies were kept in self-isolation for 14 days.
Whilst Rujina was looking after the baby, she received a text message from her school friend that her mother passed away due to Covid-19 two days after she was taken to hospital. Rujina felt very emotional when she found out about the news just when she was looking after the positive baby. She was under a lot of pressure.
HOME LIFE UNDER COVID
During the lockdown Rujina’s son was studying from home. He needed a lot of attention. Their son had a routine when he was in school. His tuitions are now online for Arabic and maths. Her husband is working from home. Although both of them are safe at home Rujina has to go to work every day and do the shopping twice a week. She is also worried that she may bring Covid-19 from work.
Before the lockdown, she would hardly see her husband because she would work in the evening; and he would work during the day. Now, she would see them both at home when she is back after a long night shift. In terms of having a family life, she is happier at home. But there are other worries too:
‘I’ve been worried about my grand parents who have underlying problems. I also have to worry about my own mother because I do her shopping. I had to make a decision whether to visit her in order to take her to hospital and other essential places, or bring her to my house to get her to lockdown with us. I've decided to keep her at my place…’
Rujina’s mother had fallen ill. Rujina took her to the hospital to see whether she caught the virus. It was not confirmed that she was positive; yet she had to self-isolate and then Rujina self-isolated for 14 days. When Rujina self-isolated, she felt it helped her mentally to recover from work stress. Her work was getting too much for her.
RAMADAN UNDER COVID-19
Rujina says that Ramadan has been a blessing in disguise. Muslims were able to stay at home, fast, pray and not have to think about waking up early in the morning for work. She is doing more night shifts because she finds it easier during this period. Panick buying is also over. Rujina feels that it’s sad that they can’t go to the local mosques and pray. But she recognises that these are extraodinary times.