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We Are All Brothers Here: Stories from the Bangladeshi Community

Sitting around the table at The Bangladeshi Centre in Sunderland, the elders tell us about their journeys to England. They were part of a wave of Bangladeshi men coming to Britain in the 1960s under the Ministry of Labour Voucher programme. Many worked their way here on the ships, arriving in the dock towns then spreading out across the country. Syed Ansaf Ali went to Amsterdam first but he wanted to come to England. When I ask why here, Omar, son of one of the elders, looked at us with a serious face, ‘He fancied the Queen’.  His face erupts in a smile. All the men laugh then speak amongst themselves in Bengali. There is warmth, an ease between the men. Abu Shama, the centre manager, pulls the conversation back to the topic. ‘England was familiar; the men were born when Bangladesh was India, under the rule of the King.’ English reserve was compatible with Islam. They also had cricket.

Initially the men didn’t plan to stay. They were young and out to see the world. Most planned to make their fortunes then return home to their families.  They came to Sunderland in the 1970s to help out Komol Miah and his thriving restaurant Delhi Darbah, which was the first Indian restaurant in Sunderland. Chain migration policies allowed each man to sponsor a friend or family member’s entry into the country.  ‘Why bring our whole village? We got lonely.’ Then after two decades of setting up businesses, a change in the immigration law made it easier for the men to bring their families to England – they decided to stay. The families came in 1986. Though the men were established here, it was not an easy transition; racism and tensions were rife. The children became the frontline between the cultures, but now, as parents themselves, they bring an understanding of both worlds.

The Bangladeshi community in Sunderland is currently made up of four thousand people, encompassing four generations. There is not one story that defines the community. Each question we ask gets multiple answers; the oral history has been passed on by many with each teller bending it to the ear of each listener. As is the way with family. All come from the same town, as Abu Shama says from ‘the same bloodline’. 

‘We are all brothers here’.

Text and captions by Dawn Felicia Knox & Paul Alexander Knox

'We Are All Brothers Here' was commissioned by Side Gallery as part of The Homelands Project* and is also featured in The Social.**

*THE HOMELANDS PROJECT: The North East has a number of long-standing ethnic minority communities – the South Shields Yemeni community dates from the end of C19th – but it was the UK governments asylum seeker dispersal policy in 2001 that began a radical cultural transformation in the region. With support from Baring Foundation and Arts Council England, Side Gallery has launched Homelands to generate new documentary production exploring the stories involved in this cultural shift. The new photography runs in parallel with work on Ambers new feature film, which is concerned with the same territory. Major photography-based multimedia commissions have been awarded to Peter Fryer & David Campbell, who are developing work in South Shields and Dean Chapman who is working with the Burmese Diaspora. Paul Alexander Knox and Ciara Leeming were awarded the two small scale commissions aimed at encouraging emerging photographers. 

**The Social: encountering photography, a month long international celebration of photography across the North East of England from 18 October – 16 November 2013.  The Social is an initiative of the North East Photography Network (NEPN) in partnership with the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art, Sunderland.