The majority of Sunderland’s Bangladeshi community trace their roots back to the village of Syedpur in Bangladesh. According to Abdur Rouf, the residents of Syedpur are descendants of a pious Muslim saint, who settled in the region 750 years ago. Taking his name, the majority of people from Syedpur are named Syed. This name can be traced back to Hasan Ibn Ali and Husayn Ibn Ali, sons of the Prophet’s daughter Fatimah. Therefore, the people of Syedpur claim direct descent from the Prophet Mohammed.
Though they now live in Sunderland, people from Syedpur’s childhood memories contrast starkly with their current lives in Sunderland. They attended schools where they learned Islamic education and were subject to strict discipline. While they walked to school in the dry season, when the rainy season came, they had to get to school by boat. Outside of school, children would play games such as football, badminton, volleyball and a traditional game in the Indian subcontinent called Kabaddi. Kabaddi is a contact sport played by two teams, who take turns attacking and defending. When attacking, one player must hold their breath and attempt to tag players in the opposing team, before returning to their own half without inhaling.
Syedpur relies on agriculture, and some remember helping their families grow rise and raise cows. Many people’s parents didn’t have jobs as they lived self-sufficiently on the produce they grew. However, during the 1950s and 60s, some people’s fathers began working in the British shipping industry. Through this work, they came to live in Britain, seeking the better economic conditions there, though others came directly from Bangladesh to the UK. During this time, their wives and children continued to live in Bangladesh, while they sought work in the factories of the midlands.
Journeys to the UK
Sunderland’s Bangladeshi community began immigrating to the UK in the 1950s. While some had worked in the British shipping industry and settled in the UK, others came directly to Britain, at first establishing themselves in the midlands. Queen Elizabeth II toured the Indian subcontinent in 1961, visiting the capital of Bangladesh, Dhaka, which was then still part of East Pakistan. Due to a shortage of labour in British industries, workers from the commonwealth were encouraged to migrate to the UK. Syed Abdus Salam worked in the manufacturing industries in places such as Birmingham and Kidderminster. Salam trained and became skilled in making metal chains.
Some Bangladeshis found their way to the UK in more unusual circumstances. Syed Jamal Miah’s cousin worked on British ships during World War Two. The ship he worked on was torpedoed near the North American coat, and everyone on-board was killed apart from him. He was cast adrift, holding on to a piece of wood from the wreckage. After 14 days, he was found and rescued. By this point in a coma, he was submerged in hot water to heat his body up, and after several days, awoke from his coma. Once he had recovered, he moved to the UK.
Later into the 60s and 70s, Bangladeshi people moved around the UK, establishing themselves further North. Telling of how friendly and welcoming people were, Saddiq Miah talks of the love he was shown by people in Yorkshire and remembers his childhood as the ‘golden years’.
The journeys often involved culture shocks for many of the Bangladeshis. Abdul Amin remembers that he first travelled to the capital of Bangladesh, Dhaka, before flying to Heathrow. In Dhaka, Amin remembers seeing white people for the first time. On his flight to the UK, Abdur Rouf remembers sitting next to an air hostess. Having never seen women wearing tights before, he wondered why her legs were black!
However, Bangladeshis began looking to open their own businesses towards the end of the 60s. To do this, they looked for locations where living costs were low. They saw Sunderland as a place where there were good opportunities for opening businesses and improving their standard of living.
In 1971, Bangladesh, which was then known as East Pakistan, went to war with West Pakistan. Some of Sunderland’s resident lived through this war. Abdul Rofiq recalls being told by his parents that the Pakistani army was coming to kill them and that they had to hide. Syed Shohirul Bari remembers that everyone would gather around the radio to hear news about the war. Access to media was limited, meaning people often did not know what was happening. Bari remembers one young person who went to war. Contact was lost with him and no one knew whether was alive or dead. When he returned from the war, he was treated like a hero.
Bangladeshis who had already travelled to the UK were committed to doing whatever they could to fight for independence. Siddiq Miah remembers his father and their friends made sure everyone signed up to pledge that they would die for their country. Siddiq, and others across the UK such as Tafazzal Hussain, would ensure that people donated their wages in the UK to the war effort. An Action Committee was founded, in order to help direct funds from the UK to support the war effort. There was also a protest at Hyde Park in London, which several members of Sunderland’s Bangladeshi community attended.
On the 16th December 1971, Pakistan surrendered, and in 1972, the UN recognised Bangladesh as an independent nation. Rofiq tells of his pride when Bangladesh gained independence. He says that the Pakistani army did terrible things to the Bangladeshi people, but that Allah protected Bangladesh and granted it victory.
The Liberation War
Life in Sunderland
1960s - 70s
In 1965, Komol Ali Miah was one of the first Bangladeshi men to arrive in Sunderland. He paved the way for others by opening up the first Indian restaurant in the city, the Delhi Durbar. Mohammed Abdul Motin Miah arrived in the late 1960s, taking over the Delhi Durbar as manager once Komol Miah returned to Bangladesh. After establishing themselves in Sunderland, the Bangladeshi community began opening more restaurants and takeaways, such as Melting Pot, Curry Centre, Curry Express, and Moti Raj. They invited their friends and relatives to help run the businesses; other Bangladeshis to arrive in Sunderland around this time were: Aklu Miah, Roshid Miah, and Komol Miah’s nephew, Gedda Ullah.
When Bangladeshis first arrived in Sunderland, there was very little provision for them, and it was often difficult to meet their religious and cultural needs. There was no Mosque and it was difficult to find halal food. People would travel to Newcastle in order to buy halal meat and to attend the Mosque.
Visa laws were relaxed in the 1970s, meaning that more people were able to come from Bangladesh to work in the UK. Now that several businesses had been opened in Sunderland, the community needed people to work in their businesses. Syed Abdus Salam says that he told his relatives to ‘leave Birmingham, leave Kidderminster, and come to Sunderland for a better life’. However, Syed Jamal Miah explains that the community faced a lot of obstacles in opening businesses; not all of them were successful and this formed one of the main challenges for the community.
Shiekh Siddiq Miah tells of how the community began to open up more restaurants throughout the 70s. He and Geda Ullah opened up the Rose of India, and began inviting relatives from outside of Sunderland to work in it, such as Abdul Latif.
While initially the community consisted solely of men, during the 70s, some of the community brought their wives and children to live in Sunderland with them, while others returned to Bangladesh to get married.
During the 1970s, Bangladeshi children began going to school in Sunderland. This proved to be a culture shock for both the Bangladeshi community and the teachers in the school. Though some Bangladeshi women had moved to Sunderland in the 1970s, the Bangladeshi community remained predominately male. Some teachers were concerned that many children would live in one house with no female role models. There were also concerns that the Bangladeshi children’s education could suffer, as the Bangladeshi men were preoccupied with running businesses. To help with the children’s education, a special language unit was established.
Sunderland’s Bangladeshi community have played huge part in popularising the Indian takeaway. From the 1970s onwards, Indian takeaways have become extremely popular, with an estimated 65-75% of Indian takeaways being owned by Bangladeshis. The takeaways opened in Sunderland were some of the first and paved the way for their spread across the UK.
1980s - 90s
The community continued to expand during the 1980s, with more Bangladeshis from outside of Syedpur moving to Sunderland. Tafazzal Hussain moved to Sunderland in 1980 and attempted to open a business. However, this was not successful and he left in 1982, though he returned later and successfully opened a restaurant named Tandoori Nights. The challenge of opening and running successful businesses was faced by the Bangladeshi community from their early years in Sunderland. Steve Woodward, a teacher who worked with the community, speaks of how the community had attempted to keep opening takeaways in order to provide jobs for the younger generation, but that the number of takeaways eventually reached saturation point. Employment opportunities for the community have continued to be a problem.
The second generation also began growing up in the 80s. Their life experiences starkly contrast with those of their parents. Solman Syed speaks of growing up in Pennywell. Though it could sometimes be a difficult area to live in, he has fond memories of his childhood, saying he wishes he could go back to school as he loved it. He tells of the love and respect that existed between the teachers and children.
However, the relationship between the Bangladeshi community and the rest of Sunderland was not always harmonious. One of Solman’s first memories is a petrol bomb coming through the window of the family home. At times he would also experience racism at school, which sometimes led to fights.
There were cultural differences and routines in everyday life that contrasted with others in Sunderland: Solman’s mother Mohibun Nessa would keep live chickens in order to kill them herself to ensure the meat was halal; the family unit was much larger than the immediate family, and uncles, aunties and cousins were all close to each other; the Mosque played a central role in everyday social and religious life. Yet Solman thinks it was easier to practice religious activities and preserve Bangladeshi traditions then that it is now.
Syeda Khalid and Rehena Sultana remember that there was little to do in Sunderland when they were young. There were few schemes or organisations that enabled the Bangladeshi youths to integrate with the rest of Sunderland. Another barrier to integration was the strictness and protectiveness of parents. Syeda tells of how when fights broke out, racial slurs would be used and peer pressure led to white children siding with other white children during fights.
Research by the Commission for Racial Equality in 1989/90 revealed the need for a community centre to meet the needs of the Bangladeshi community. There was a feeling that the Bangladeshi community had been isolated from the rest of Sunderland, and that in order for the community to develop and overcome this isolation, a centre that provided cultural, social and educational activities should be established. However, there was some hostility towards the building of the centre. Tafazzal Hussain notes that some thought it was a waste of money, and that the Bangladeshi community was being given preferential treatment. However, the community fought for the centre to be built and in 1999, the centre was established. It first opened as Sunderland Bangladesh Community Centre, before changing its name to Sunderland Bangladesh International Centre in 2014, in order to recognise its inclusivity.
2000s - Present Day
The second and third generations of Sunderland’s Bangladeshi community live within a set of different identities. Religion is often what the community most strongly identify with, with Islam being central to their lives. However, though the community acknowledge their Bangladeshi roots, they often identify as British rather than Bangladeshi. They also feel that they belong to Sunderland and say they can’t imagine living anywhere else.
The younger members of Sunderland’s Bangladeshi community feel very integrated within Sunderland. Tafazzal Hussain believes this is largely due to them attending school and university here, and being forced to mix with people from a wide variety of backgrounds. This has made integration much easier for the younger members of the community than it was for the first Bangladeshis to arrive in Sunderland.
Yet there is a feeling within the Bangladeshi community that as integration has improved, racism – or intolerance towards Muslims - has grown worse. As the community has started to become more visible, to take part in more community activities, and younger generations live similar lives to their peers from different backgrounds, people have also become more intolerant. Sunderland’s Bangladeshi community have reported people shouting abuse at them, which is made worse when women wear the niqab. Some believe this is down to a negative portrayal of Muslims in the media.
The younger generations think that the elders don’t understand many of the problems facing them, such as gang culture, substance abuse and unemployment. Having lived within their own community and having faced many challenges to integration, younger generations feel that the older generation have been sheltered from many of the problems that face the wider population of Sunderland, problems which now affect younger members of the Bangladeshi community.
Syed Jamal Miah tells of how he is proud that the Bangladeshi community have lived in Sunderland, quietly getting on with their lives, raising families and running successful businesses. From this, the community has been able to offer opportunities to their children that they could not have had in Bangladesh.
Yet Sunderland’s Bangladeshi community still faces challenges. Unemployment in Sunderland stands at 8.5%, above the national average. Whereas before, jobs were provided by the takeaway and restaurants businesses, younger members of the community now want to pursue different career paths. While some – particularly the younger women – have managed to go to university and obtained graduate level employment, other people’s opportunities have been hampered by the problems afflicting Sunderland.
One of the aspirations of the older generation is that younger members of the community will become involved in British politics, locally and nationally. Sunderland has never had a Bangladeshi councillor, and political representation of the Black and Minority Ethnic community is low across the North East. There is a hope within the community that Sunderland’s younger Bangladeshis can represent the community politically, and contribute to the community work in Sunderland.
While there are many differences between life in Sunderland and Bangladesh, one aspect that unites both is the strong sense of community. As people within the community have retired and gained more free time for themselves, they have turned their attention to strengthening their community. Tafazzal Hussain was invited to Buckingham Palace in recognition of the work he has done for Sunderland’s community. Many of the elders of the community hope that Sunderland’s younger Bangladeshis continue to uphold the sense of community shared between Sunderland and Bangladesh.