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The Other side of the District line

I am five weeks into my five month placement at the community centre Bromley by Bow and am enjoying lunch with my fellow fellows Kevin and Alex. They are both saying very smart things. I am extremely impressed by the amount of knowledge they can keep in their little human heads. The way Alex can articulate exactly what he wants to communicate with so many pretty words, all at a leisurely pace and with such ease. He manages to avoid coming across as domineering and makes my rushed blabbering feel valued and heard.

I am fascinated as Kevin takes us through various revolutionary movements (remembering dates!) establishing his argument through selecting relevant examples from the bank of knowledge in his head. My silly old brain likes to trip me up by forgetting basic verbs and involuntarily pressing reset at an inopportune moment. Theirs, however, seem like organised libraries of stories, facts and opinions that they cared about and thought of long enough to remember.

Golly.

As I listened intently, only stopping to think how cool it was that I got to hang out with such smart and interesting people and wondering whether this could be infectious, I suddenly realised it was about time I said something. Preferably something oozing with intellect and insight.

We were talking about the attitude towards Muslims within London after the Westminster attack which had happened the day before.

“Oh I can contribute to this,” I thought. “I mean I am of Muslim descent,” which obviously means I must have an opinion on the subject.

I piped up in my best “I know what I’m talking about” voice and explained as the self- appointed spokesman for the Muslim community that I didn’t think negative attitudes towards Muslims existed to the extent commonly publicised within London anymore.

While Alex and Kevin didn’t outrightly say I was being very very optimistic they didn’t need to. After a quick reminder of the Brexit vote… and some other very well publicised reality checks, I quickly felt quite silly and instantly regretted insensitively having voiced the same opinion to a colleague who wore a hijab earlier that day. Damn it Ayshah.

Anywho, it wasn’t till my daily reflection period (required of us as Year Here fellows) that I revisited my statement. As I sat gazing out of the window into the black nothingness of the underground, leaving behind the motorway side town and heading for the organic supermarkets, rowing clubs and yummy mummys of Chiswick, I searched for the roots of my desire to push such an optimistic attitude.

I live at home with my family in Chiswick. My father is Pakistani and my mother Northern Irish. We have not grown up in a large Muslim community such as Bow and so have not been influenced by the cultural behaviours and social structures that exist within these areas. Growing up in West London with our West London voices, friends and clothes it’s been easy for us to forget the colour of our skin and what this colour can carry. In our costumes we’ve been lucky to avoid negative attitudes or associations that often come hand in hand with a Muslim name and a brown face. The brush of the 9/11 attacks did not stroke our identities which makes me feel both grateful and guilty.

Now, it’s all quite close for comfort. With our mini feeds overflowing with opinions on Trump, Brexit and a new upcoming anti-racism protest every week, we’re just trying to figure out where we stand in this mess. Am I expected to attend anti-racism protests? Do people tread lightly around topics they might assume I find sensitive? Must I speak up for the Muslim community? Do I even count as a Muslim at all? I don’t want my Pakistani heritage to portray me as a victim any more than I want it to portray me as a villain. I just want to get on with it.

I believe I currently have a desire to disassociate myself as playing the role of any sort of victim. This, coupled with the coping mechanism which is the optimistic belief that everything will always inevitably improve, was the reason for my statement at lunch.

Anyway, less about me and more about me at the Bromley by Bow centre…

As a product of multiculturalism I guess it’s not surprising that I’m a fan! Since starting at BBBC I have cherished the cultural mix that exists among their employees and community members. Bromley by Bow is the sort of place you’ll find a Mosque next door to a bingo hall. There is a high Bengali and Somali population who live alongside the remnants of what used to be a large white working class population.

At the Bromley by Bow centre I see positive social connections despite language barriers, religion, ethnicity and age on a daily basis. However, I have also been reminded of the challenges of integration and the height of the climb ahead.

I work on the East X Change project which consists of various classes for community members with the desired outcomes of combating social isolation and mental illness through forming relationships and improving general health and well-being. Encouraging integration is not one of the project outcomes but I’d love for it to be an embedded consideration.

Classes include a Somali women’s dance group, grannies club and soft furnishings club. These classes must be commended for their role in forming important relationships between women who would be potentially at risk of a lonely existence within a foreign land.

The elderly Bengali women who attend the grannies club have been meeting for years and the relationships formed are important and must be respected, maintained and encouraged.

The same goes for the Somali dance group. I took part in this class a couple of weeks back. On entering the room and approaching the woman sat down around a table, the sense of intimidation I felt wasn’t dissimilar from the feeling I used to get at school when walking past the cool older girls. While I completely respect these groups, am I insensitive to wonder if these groups should be allowed to be so subtly exclusive and segregated and should the classes be more obviously open to everyone?

The thought popped up again when I witnessed George (fake name for tattooed white man) who has joined a group of BME ladies in the project room on a Thursday afternoon to do some sewing and garment making. At the beginning of the class there were some polite nods and acknowledgements sent his way, but it wasn’t long before the ladies were nattering away about something that sounded truly shocking and scandalous but alas… George and I would never know the gossip as they refused to speak English.

This has lead me to question what role, if any, do community centres have in the difficult job of facilitating, encouraging and enforcing diversity?

I have been reminded of some pretty obvious factors that hinder integration that I had previously never thought of or fully appreciated. These are factors I might have overlooked when plotting my ‘save the world through unity’ projects previously. I have been reminded that behind the emotive social campaigns and optimistic advertisements that seek to change perceptions and “unite” us, are people who are very, very different. People who in times of need, and doing what is only human nature, take comfort in their familiar and comforting roots. People are not ingredients in my big pot of innovation potion, but complex individuals who (especially in Bromley by Bow), live within restrictive and even desperate realities.

The regulars at BBBC don’t have the luxury of considering how diverse their social situation is when they have languages to learn, mouths to feed, and jobs to find. Getting ‘pally’ with their neighbours from different ethnic roots whom they might struggle to communicate with, and if not, struggle to find something in common to discuss, is understandably not high on their agenda. It has made me question whether promoting diversity can even be made a priority within these circumstances at all.

One of my favorite aspects of my job at Bromley by Bow is helping out in the digital drop-in sessions where people come to learn basic computer skills. Not only do I get to witness middle aged men beam with pride after learning how to send an emoji, but I’m in a room of diverse individuals all faced with the same huge cyber hurdle. They are just trying to figure out why there are three different search engines that all do the same thing and why there are five different internet explorer options just when you think you might have remembered where the bookmark option is. It might seem daft but I get very excited by the concept and potential in this mixed bunch coming together through their joint cyber struggle to keep up with the kids.

In terms of generating integration, every hurdle is going to be a different height dependent on the circumstances of the situation and therefore so is every success. This makes measuring or setting a benchmark for successful multiculturalism pretty tricky. It’s no doubt a long and potentially uncomfortable process but I think it’s important that we push for open frameworks where seeds might be planted. Let’s spend a little less time publicising the glossy concept of a unity where Imams and Priests exchange Christmas gifts and more time honestly acknowledging the difficulties we face and creating the bases and attitudes for constructive conversations. Maybe then we can begin to build community cohesion through the bricks of understanding, compromise, trust and tolerance.

All in all I have thoroughly enjoyed my experience at the BBBC so far. I have been able to spend time with a truly diverse mix of people. I have met individuals from a community full of personality, humour, contradictions, hardships and untapped assets. Characters; that growing up were missing from the screens I watched and the pages that I read.

I would be lying if I said that my brown skin and Pakistani name didn’t come in handy when forming relationships at the Bromley by Bow centre. Whether it’s a conversation topic or a question starter, the classic “where are you ACTUALLY from,” is no longer a question I associate with being asked by curious white folk but one I am asked by curious old Somali ladies who then go on to tell me they that they thought I looked more Iranian but could tell I had Pakistani blood due to my character… I haven’t figured out if this is a compliment or an insult yet …

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