Nijam Uddin Mohammed recalls vividly his first day in Bradford: “Ninth of December 2008 – the most life-changing date of my life.” He remembers the eight-hour flight from Dubai to Manchester and the biting winter air when they landed. The hour-long coach journey up the M62, and his dad being confused about why people weren’t walking on the road, as they did in Bangladesh.
He also remembers being warmly welcomed by Bengalis, who brought curry to the £26-a-night Ibis hotel where they were staying. The 36-year-old was among the first group of Rohingya refugees to arrive in Bradford, where more than 300 of the “world’s most persecuted minority” now call home – their biggest community in Europe.
“I have seen the world in Bradford,” says Mohammed, who arrived in West Yorkshire under the International Organization for Migration’s Gateway Protection programme, having lived in the sprawling Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh since he was 10 years old. “When I was in the refugee camp, when my people were in Burma, we never had the freedom of movement, no school facility, no health facility, no job facility. All these things we are getting in Bradford. In one word, it is fundamental rights, so I feel it’s my home.”
He learned English at Bradford College, then studied a year of social sciences before dropping out to become a teaching assistant in a primary school. He now works as an interpreter for the NHS, supplementing his income as a taxi driver in the evenings.
But every waking hour, he says, has been spent recently worrying about the horror unfolding in Myanmar, where more than 420,000 men, women and children have fled in recent weeks in a military crackdown the UN has described as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.
His older sister, a mother of two, was forced to flee across the border to Bangladesh when the military junta raided her village, he says. His younger sister has lost her husband: “We don’t know if he’s alive or dead.” He gets daily updates from family members and friends but feels helpless to the crisis nearly 6,000 miles away.
“My people are running after food, running to save their lives, running for education – running for everything. How can I live in peace? I feel guilty. I cannot do anything for my people,” he says. “If this continues my people will disappear soon.”
He was one of 199 mainly Muslim Rohingya welcomed by Bradford council between 2008 and 2010, under its City of Sanctuary scheme. That number has risen by another hundred as families have grown and relatives outside the city gravitated towards the minarets of Bradford, where one in four of the population is Muslim. The Rohingya don’t have a community centre nor a neighbourhood to call their own, and they appear in the city’s Telegraph & Argus newspaper only when holding peaceful rallies in the city’s main square.
Councillor Hassan Khan, who helped settle them in nine years ago, said there were tensions initially between the Rohingya and other parts of the Muslim community but those have since disappeared. Hardly any of the newcomers could speak English, he recalls, and years in refugee camps had left some with tuberculosis and other illnesses.
A giant banner dominates the living room of Deen Mohammed Noori’s Victorian terrace home in Bradford’s Manningham area, with the message: “STOP GENOCIDE on Rohingya in Arakan, Burma!” The 32-year-old taxi driver, who arrived in Bradford in 2010, has been unable to work since the violence escalated at the end of August.
His aunt was killed this month when the Myanmar military stormed her village, he says, and other relatives have been missing for days. Life is on hold for him and his wife, and their living room has become the makeshift headquarters of the Arakan Rohingya Organisation UK, which has volunteers in Bangladesh’s overflowing refugee camps. “I’m helpless,” Noori says. “My village and others have been burned down. It’s hard for me here. I’m concerned about my whole nation, not only for my relatives.”
Noori and Mohammed believe the international community has been too slow to condemn Aung San Suu Kyi over her handling of the crisis. They want Britain – and Bradford – to use its influence abroad and offer sanctuary once again to those who have fled Myanmar during the latest crackdown.
Abdul Rahim Muhammad-Usmain, who came to Bradford in 2010, says he is immeasurably grateful to the West Yorkshire city for offering safe haven to the Rohingya, who he describes as “the other people, the homeless”. Nevertheless, he says he does not want to burden other countries with another influx of refugees. He dreams that one day they will be able to return to their homeland.
“We are still temporary. We need our home country. We need our own identity,” he says. “Even though we are living in Bradford, we don’t have our own identity. We need our own identity, we need our rights, our dignity.”