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Thursday, December 7, 2023

From Bangladesh to Bradford, the story of Manningham’s Abu Saleh

Abu Saleh arrived in England as an accomplished young man with academic prowess. In a time of rampant discrimination, Mr Saleh worked hard to provide for himself and his family.

In December 1965, a young graduate arrived at Heathrow Airport from Bangladesh, ready to start his new life in Britain.

In the cold English snow, Abu Saleh made his way from London to Bradford, to meet an old university friend who made good on his promise of helping Mr Saleh migrate from Bangladesh.

Mr Saleh, was born in District Mymensingh during the time of the British Raj, now known as Sherpur Town. Mr Saleh comes from a good family, being the son of a well-respected lecturer who set up a school in the region.

The eighty-four-year-old has a wife, Selima, and three children and works full-time as a community centre manager in Manningham, commuting four days a week from his home in Leeds.

Mr Saleh moved from Bangladesh to England in 1965.

The community centre manager studied economics and politics at undergraduate level and then completed a postgraduate degree in Arabic at the University of Dhaka.

He said: “I met a friend in the student residence during my master’s, he was top of class and worked in the city and was related to an MP in the region.

“When we started talking, he mentioned how he was going to go work in England to be close to some of his relatives. I asked him ‘can I come with you?’ He said, ‘Not now but when I get clearance over there, I will bring you over’.

“I didn’t take him seriously, I thought he would forget about me, as people do when they move away. I was prepared to do a teaching qualification in Bangladesh but then I received a letter from him one year later.”

He was invited to stay in a house share in Bradford. After finishing his final exams, Mr Saleh swiftly packed his bags and boarded the plane. He told his parents that he would study in England for a few years and return home, but he never did.

From London, the undergraduate found his way to 1 Cornwall Terrace, Manningham, less than 500 feet away from where he currently works. He was welcomed by his friend with open arms and a coal fire to keep warm.

The young graduate applied for a place at a university in London to continue his further education career but for one reason or another, did not get in.

Mr Saleh has an undergraduate and master’s degree.

During this time, he maintained himself by applying for a benefit from the unemployment office. He said: “I registered my name and they started giving me money. I told the office worker, ‘How come? I’m unemployed and you are giving me money?’ I was able to then tell my parents that I didn’t need any money from them.

“It was a strange time for me, as I had read about England during my studies, but I didn’t know much about the country.”

Mr Saleh understood English when he arrived but wanted to become an expert in the language, so he went to the local college to take a class. “I was asked what class I wanted to take, to which I said ‘any, I just want to mix with the people’, Mr Saleh added.

At the time, Bradford was the woollen textile capital of the world, so it is no surprise that a textile class was recommended to him. Being the only Asian person on the course, the community worker was subject to racism and abuse from his peers. “I had to find a way to survive the racism that I received. I never heard the types of things they were saying before.

“I had one friend, from Ireland, who was tall and strong with a heavy accent. We became friends. I started driving lessons and bought a car. He said to me ‘Don’t worry Abu, you are my friend. If anyone says anything, don’t worry. I will look after you.

“After that, when I went to classes and football nobody bothered me. Life became so normal.”

Mr Saleh works at BEAP Community partnership in Manningham.

The textile student would help people translate letters and send them back home, so much so that people would turn up on his doorstep every weekend. One man that he interpreted for, returned the favour and helped Mr Saleh find a job in a textile mill.

He worked on the spinning machines for a while before being caught reading The Times on the job.

The line manager wanted to fire him, but because of his excellent grasp of Bengali and English, he was promoted to look after the non-English speakers in the mill.

Two years later, Mr Saleh saw an advertisement in the local paper for a bilingual course at Bradford College. Wanting to refresh his English again, he applied. Instead of giving him a place on the course, the head of the department saw his outstanding transcript and offered him a job as a tutor.

Mr Saleh said: “I was flabbergasted. I applied to be a student on the course, and I ended up as a tutor.”

He was a tutor at the college for four years, teaching Bengali to English and English to Bengali. One of the aims of the course was to help bilingual people get jobs in the council, banks, and offices. Mr Saleh said: “We wanted to get people into jobs, so we got the students to do work experience for a couple of weeks for free and then they would be offered a paid job most of the time.

The first job Mr Saleh got in England was as a mill worker.

“A lot of the students were highly successful, having qualifications, even master’s degrees from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India but they were desperate in England because of the communication barrier from not speaking English well.

“We started with thirty-three students and one-by-one we got jobs for them, which was successful and so rewarding.”

After funding for the programme ran out, Mr Saleh, got a job as a community worker in a community centre in Leicester in the late 1970s. He had a five-year contract in Birmingham, working in a community that served people from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Somalia.

The community worker married his wife in 1971 and they grew their family to two daughters and a son. His eldest daughter is a teacher, and his younger daughter lives in New Zealand as a qualified physiotherapist. His son, who has a PhD, works in pharmacology in the faculty of medicine at Imperial College London.

In 2008, Mr Saleh landed a job at BEAP Partnership as the community centre’s manager. Mr Saleh lived in Keighley and Bradford for some time but moved to Leeds to be closer to his eldest daughter.

Working within the heart of Manningham, Mr Saleh has seen much progress in the area, which includes being accepted as someone of Bangladeshi heritage. The academic says racism was rife when he arrived, which he continued to experience for more than five decades, but he admits that is now changing and there does seem to be more inclusion today.

“Being right next to Bantams Stadium, we used to get racist abuse all of the time from football fans. Things have changed and people don’t do that anymore. Thanks to the work of Humayun, the chief executive of BEAP, we get to go to the games and take our women and young people as well.”

Another thing the community centre manager is happy to see is the development of a new sports complex within the BEAP community partnership. The father of three didn’t believe that he would see the development of the new sports complex, which is due to be completed next year, in his lifetime. He is looking forward to having an updated space where people can come together as a community and take part in sports.

Mr Saleh may be 84, but he has no plans to quit working just yet, saying that he “gets bored” sitting idle. Asian Standard salutes your spirit and contribution to the community Mr Saleh.

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