In celebration of World Day for Cultural Diversity, Herminder Channa (Regional Director for Midlands academies) shares her family story of coming to the UK and what her family's experience meant to her growing up, and how this has shaped who she is today.
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
(J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring)
The year was 1972, and the month was October. My mother recalls how cold it was when they landed at Stansted Airport. The rain felt harsh, and the snow was several feet high; this was the first time my mother had seen snow. Given only 72 hours to leave her country of birth, after Edi Amin issued the order to expel Indians from Uganda, with only the clothes on their backs, leaving behind their homes, possessions, and way of life, my maternal side of the family began to board the coaches bound for Lincoln Army Camps for refugees.
Family and friends were left behind, warm climates forgotten, casava fields beyond the eye could see a distant memory, forced to give up a way of life and, without a manual, begin another life in a new country with nothing but faith, optimism, resilience, hope and gratitude at their disposal.
My Dad, who had arrived in the UK a year earlier growing up, would share stories of the most significant human mass migration ever when, in 1947, India was divided into India and Pakistan. My grandfather and paternal family left their homes, possessions, and families to cross a “man-made” border, changing the course of history and their way of life. Those who had once lived peacefully side by side, had become strangers. Dad recalls that his faith, optimism and hope that things would improve were his families guiding light through the difficult times of partition.
Growing up, I only partially processed these events and their significant impact on my family. I remember thinking about how I would feel if I had to leave my home, school, or friend and go to a place I didn’t know; I would feel scared and sad. However, my parents, who I am sure did get upset, never let it show. They said, “Be grateful for another day and do as much as you can with it.”
I am one of three girls born in the late 70s in the Black Country which is in the West Midlands. The Black Country received its name in the mid-nineteenth century due to the smoke from the many thousands of ironworking/steelwork foundries and forges and 30ft thick coal seams. I remember my dad and uncles all going to work in the foundries – that is mainly because of all the black soot that used to end up in the houses. I could see this work was hard, and every morning my dad and uncles would leave the house happy because “they had a job to go to.”
As a large extended family and Dad being the eldest, there were financial commitments back in Africa and India, which he took responsibility for. Hard work, teamwork and a sense of responsibility to look after and provide for the family were driven by a sense of purpose and duty. This sense of purpose and duty was visible in the family’s elders. There was a profound need to share and ensure everyone in the family had enough. We were often told to remember “Nishkam seva – selfless service.” The elders constantly reminded us that “helping those that need help is not a choice, but our duty.”
My parents were instrumental in ensuring their girls understood the importance of receiving a “free” education and the responsibility that came with it – acquiring knowledge was seen as a gift, and more importantly, the application of that knowledge had to be used to serve society and for the betterment of humankind. It would have been a wasted education if it was not used for this purpose. This carried with it a debt which had to be repaid. My parents rarely asked how we scored on a test or performed in exams. They were more interested in what we were learning and how we used it.
Filling out forms for family members, reading letters, helping to cook at the guruwara, working out food quantity measurements, going to the post office to pay bills and doing the shopping within a fixed budget and volunteering at the Saturday Punjabi school was how my family measured the impact of our education.
Being called racist names, discriminated against and told to return to where I had come from were frequent occurrences growing up. When I went home and told my parents, they would ask us to be patient and be kind to that person. This was not always easy to hear. Later in life, it became clear that my parents were habitually bound to being in “chardi kalla” – applying a mindset of optimism and hoping that humankind would begin to see that what connects was stronger than the existing misunderstandings between us.
Being raised in a Sikh household, the guiding practices of adopting wise thinking and reasoning, with a humble heart (Man Neeva Mat Uchi) and adopting a mindset of optimism and hope (Chardi Kalla), have had a profound impact on who I continue to become. I watched my mum and dad making the best of all opportunities and accepting setbacks as learning for the next time.
My faith, my culture and upbringing are rooted in the understanding that we are here to serve humanity, accepting change is constant and challenges are a part of life. They are not to be shied away from but must be embraced and worked through. I thank my parents for this life lesson. Their ability to work through challenges and apply a mindset of gratitude and optimism to all that came their way continues to govern my response to all situations.