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Monday, May 27, 2024

Trailblazing Bengali councillor sets a new course for Leeds

It might appear to be shocking for some people that a city with a rich and diverse culture had never had a Bengali councillor before.

Abdul Hannan is glowing as he recalls the memory of his parents, who inspire him to this day.

His father, Forman Ali, was one of the first generation of immigrants from Bangladesh to come to Leeds in the early 1960s, to help plug the gaps in the UK’s labour market.

He would graft 7am-to-7pm shifts in the local steelworks, while sharing a house with up to 13 other workers.

More than 60 years later, Abdul Hannan, the fourth of seven children, is now Leeds’ first ever elected city councillor of Bengali heritage, having been voted in for Labour in Headingley and Hyde Park last month.

Cllr Abdul Hannan. Image: Leeds City Council

For the ebullient 51 year-old, it is a badge of honour.

“I feel very proud of it and it’s a momentous occasion, not just for myself but for this wonderful city,” he smiles.

“As a community we have so much to offer in terms of our heritage and culture and we have a lot of energy as well.

“If that first generation had not come, this country would have been very different, because there was nobody to kickstart the economy otherwise.

“They sacrificed a lot in the ’60s. There were no workplace ethics, there was no health-and-safety and they had to deal with racism on a regular basis. There was a culture clash.

“Sadly my dad died in his late 60s because he was a labourer and he worked in tough conditions. He lost his hearing, his eyesight and he ended up with Parkinson’s. He sacrificed all of that so Leeds is where it is today, and I’m very proud of that and what he did.”

A youth and community worker for over 30 years, Cllr Abdul Hannan,  now runs The Cardigan Community Centre, which is close to Burley Park. The charity helps disadvantaged local people, young and old, with a variety of issues.

His journey to success and into politics has been far from straightforward, however.

He left secondary school in the mid-80s with few qualifications. Racism was “rife” he says, with staff either unable or unwilling to deal with it. The education system and the teaching methods of the time left him feeling marginalised.

Like so many others from ethnic minority backgrounds, he endured some frightening experiences in his youth.

“I briefly lived in London for a bit, because my sister was living there,” Cllr Abdul Hannan says.

“It was in the ’80s when the National Front was quite strong. I was attacked physically on several occasions. I didn’t feel safe or valued.

“When I moved back to Leeds, aged 15, I started campaigning for more youth provision and community initiatives in Harehills, because I didn’t want young people to go through the experiences I’d had in school.

“That led to me becoming a community activist and I championed deprived communities and people’s right to be heard.”

It’s fair to say Abdul Hannan’s family have left their mark on the city.

His father was involved in the creation of the Shahjalal Mosque in Harehills, while cllr Abdul Hannan himself is behind the naming of Banstead Park in east Leeds.

“In 1981 the old back-to-back houses there were getting demolished and the council decided the space would be a park,” he says, taking up the remarkable claim to fame.

“They said the children at Harehills Middle School and Harehills Primary School could suggest names. I was in the first year at middle school.

“I suggested Banstead Park because of Banstead Street, which is adjacent to the park.

“One day the headmaster said, ‘I need to speak to you’ and I thought, ‘Oh what have I done?’ because normally the only time you’d see him is if you were in trouble.

“It turned out that of the 900 children, my name and suggestion had come out of the hat first.

“There were seven other pupils who’d suggested it too and the Yorkshire Evening Post came along and took photos of us and we all got a prize.”

While he appears to have inherited his father’s industriousness, Cllr Abdul Hannan, who’s now a father-of-four, credits his mother for teaching him to look out for those less fortunate.

“Her way of thinking was that you may have something that others don’t,” he explains.

“She’s inspired me to be the person I am today. She had one simple principle, which was respect and care.”

A Labour Party member since the late 1990s, Cllr Abdul Hannan cites the climate emergency and protecting green spaces among his priorities for Headingley and Hyde Park.

For Leeds to only now have its first political representative from the Bengali community feels a long time in coming. Indeed, according to the 2021 census, there are almost 6,000 people of Bangladeshi origin in the city.

“It’s very much overdue, Cllr Abdul Hannan agrees. “And I believe I am the first, but I won’t be the last.”

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