Osman Yousefzada On How Coronavirus Has Devastated “Forgotten Voices” In The BAME Community

Published by Vogue UK.
4 June 2020

Photograph of Writer Osman Yousefzada by Ophelia Wynne
Photograph: Ophelia Wynne
In March 2017, a notification popped up on my WhatsApp feed: “Salam Bro, we are famous!... For the wrong reasons.” It was followed by a link to an article in the Daily Mail, with the headline “So How DID Birmingham Become The Jihadi Capital of Britain?”

The piece was referring to the working-class, inner-city area I grew up in: Balsall Heath, Birmingham, England. I prefer to think of it as similar in atmosphere to the Netflix TV show, Unorthodox – full of tight-knit, insular communities who migrate to a place and perhaps feel that they have to hold onto the values they arrived with, even if those values have since been fossilised.

At one time, Balsall Heath was one of the largest red-light districts in England. There were hundreds of women working here up to the mid-’90s, some of them doing business on the street where I lived. When the sun set, the streets would come alive with heels clicking, kerb crawlers, pimps. In the aftermath, we waded through the debris of used condoms and syringes to get to school in the morning.

Our community comes from the Afghan border region of Pakistan, sometimes called the frontier. It’s an ultra-conservative area which came under the Taliban influence for a while. It was a patriarchal system: the men came to England in the 1960s, invited to work as cheap labour in the foundries.  They were a class of very low-skilled workers, most of whom couldn’t read or write. The women followed in the 1970s, and they gave birth to their children. But, by the time the 1980s came around, the deindustrialisation of the north had begun. A community who came to do manual jobs, which were fast disappearing, found they couldn’t retrain. Many of them didn’t speak English, and they were illiterate – they couldn’t exactly go and find work in a call centre. They wanted to work but the only alternative, when the factories closed down, was to live off benefits. The economic situation in general was quite desperate.

The community became more insular. These people feel British, and are happy to be here, but they have never really assimilated. Up to the late ’80s, you would regularly see neo-Nazi slogans spray-painted on walls and bridges: “Pakis, go home”. A distant relative, who lived across the street, was beaten up so badly by white supremacists on his way home from a nightshift that he never left his house again. Another uncle, my Dad’s friend (we call everyone uncles and aunts) used to tell me stories about how he was spat on, on his way to work. At the factory, he couldn’t use the main toilets in the building. They were only for the white employees. Instead, he had to go outside. Still, in 2017, a wall near our home had the words “No Pakis” spray-painted on it, accompanied by a swastika.

As the coronavirus has spread, I have seen Birmingham, and particularly the BAME communities where I grew up, become some of the hardest hit in the country. Four people have died on the street where my mum lives, and nearly 70 people have passed away within our close community. This week, a report by Public Health England confirmed what we have all known for weeks: that people from ethnic minorities are at a far higher risk of dying from coronavirus. The report says people of Bangladeshi ethnicity, for instance, have twice as high a risk of death than people of white ethnicity. There are many reasons for this, but fundamentally, it comes back to poverty. For families in my community, three generations all live under one roof because they have to – they’re all on Universal Credit. There was a shooting two weeks ago a few streets down – stuff like that just happens regularly, predominately over drug turf wars. Last week, the local chippie was robbed at gunpoint. Living there is not a choice.

I have seen the ravaging effects of the coronavirus first hand. My mother and my three sisters all became extremely ill in March. Mum got ill first. She had already been in and out of hospital for the last few months with a chest infection, and then again with low kidney function – the “underlying health issues” that plague BAME communities. Then, she had a fall in the kitchen, and developed breathing problems. I called for an ambulance and they took her in, but they wouldn’t let me go with her. By this point, all my sisters were unwell too, some more than others, coughing and spluttering. I sat down with the doctors in a cordoned area, post Mum’s admittance, and it felt like a TV programme, where they take you aside to tell you the bad news. They wouldn’t let me see her: it was the first day the hospital had gone into full lockdown mode. I sat opposite the doctor in her scrubs. Looking back on it now, consoling someone from two metres apart felt so unnatural, but it was soon going to be the new normal. She nodded, and tried to answer my long list of questions, with my sisters and brother on speaker phone. At the end, she concluded: “We will do our best, but we aren’t hopeful.”

Mum was pumped with antibiotics, and they moved her into a Covid ward where, slowly, she began to improve. I could only imagine the isolation that mum felt – she doesn’t speak any English, so had no way to communicate with the NHS staff who were looking after her. She can’t read or write, not even in her mother tongue, which is Pashto, (one of two official languages of Afghanistan, and also spoken in the Frontier region of Pakistan). I managed to get a smartphone to her. She couldn’t use it, but with the help of the nurses we could speak to her on FaceTime.

Just as we got Mum out and back home, our eldest sister got worse. This turned into days and weeks of real touch-and-go moments. The doctors couldn’t get her off the ventilator in the ICU. They kept trying, and her stats would drop. She got better; she got worse. Again, no one was allowed to visit.  We tried to send recorded voice messages that her medical team could play to her: messages of strength, love, messages asking her to pull through. But the doctors said that she was too deeply sedated for these to have any effect. Once a day, we would get a call from a fourth-year medical student, giving us an update. “She’s still on active resuscitation.” Which meant that they hadn’t given up. Mum prayed, everyone prayed, and we were lucky: she has made a recovery, and is now at home.

What coronavirus has done is turned everything on its head. The nurses who are underpaid are life-saving heroes, the supermarket workers who stack shelves are key workers, the care workers are frontline defenders. Many are from BAME backgrounds. Forget the glitz and glamour of my world in London, of fashion. The dedication from these people has been amazing, and I am so grateful to the NHS staff for caring for my family. 

The extraordinary number of deaths in Birmingham, too, has made me think again about my identity. I don’t always feel like I belong here; but I don’t necessarily belong where my parents came from, either. I was born and raised here, I am British, and I see England as my home; but sometimes it doesn’t feel like it sees itself as my home. This also applies to my work. When I started out, there weren’t really many designers from BAME backgrounds. The fashion industry was very much about presenting and being part of an elite and exclusive club, and I felt I had to downplay or hide my background in order to be accepted. I had to be one of those Asians who puts on his best accent and tries to learn the codes.

While I’ve been very lucky to have always sold my clothes, allowing me to gradually build my brand from one collection to another, my core approach of fusing western tailoring with Asian cuts and construction was never really of interest as a story. It was always different aspects of my work that were picked up by the fashion press. Thankfully today, the industry has really changed and there are a lot of new designers from a multiplicity of different backgrounds. Yet, the Asian narrative is still not strong. I’m hoping that in the near future we’ll finally see more designers emerging from British-Asian backgrounds.

I have been reconnecting with my roots over the course of the last year, going back to Birmingham from my home in London almost every other weekend since my father died last year. I am very close to my mum, and she lives alone, so I go back out of a sense of love and duty. Life revolves around the mosque, though it had been many years since I had attended – I left Birmingham when I was 18 to study at university in London. But, when Dad died, there was a huge outpouring. My dad was a carpenter (my mum is a dressmaker) and he was one of the people who built the local mosque: the ablution areas; the areas where you pray; the Mehrab, which he made of bathroom tiles, and which denotes the direction of Mecca. The community is simple, and apart from the reading of scriptures rarely does a sermon happen for anyone who dies. But they did a sermon for my dad. Three thousand people came to pay their respects. There was this strong sense of community that I realised I’d missed.

Every weekend, before lockdown, I visited an elder on behalf of my mum (she had to nag me a bit). Before, I used to hate the formalities of conversations with the elders, the ritual of saying a proper hello, asking after their health, how their family is, or how someone’s mother or father is keeping, and so on. But now, I kind of cherish it, these niceties that reveal a well-oiled machine of community. I have realised the importance of keeping those ties together, reflecting on the fact that these are the forgotten voices who came from the Empire to actually build this country – who took those jobs in the foundries that no-one else wanted. These people, too, are the salt of England ­– and they are the ones who have shouldered the burden of this pandemic more heavily than anyone.

Writer’s note: I am thankful to Vogue for giving me the opportunity to tell this story. When I began to write this piece, Covid-19 was the global issue on which the world was focussed. Due to the tragic death of George Floyd, and the crucial actions of protestors, the world is now finally waking up to the real and ubiquitous issue of racism. I would like to take the opportunity to say that I stand with the black community at this critical time and to repeat that Black Lives Matter.

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