Pakistan to UK: A First-Generation Experience

DESIblitz spoke to a first-generation Pakistani who moved to the UK, delving into their experience and any possible challenges.

"the house I was living in had 17 other people living in it."

There was a large surge of migrants entering the UK during the partition between India and Pakistan in 1947.

A large proportion of people became displaced.

Since then, first-generation Pakistanis have settled into various cities primarily to find work and a peaceful lifestyle.

Birmingham, Bradford and Manchester are just a few cities with a large Pakistani population.

With the support of travel agents in Karachi and other cities such as Mirpur, they aided the migrants on their quest to come to the UK.

Pakistani Migration to the UK in the 1950s

Pakistan to UK A First-Generation Experience - 1950s

Following the Second World War, the breakup of the British Empire and the construction of the Mangla Dam in Pakistan, many South Asians were displaced. 

It is estimated that about 100,000 people were displaced from the Mangla Dam area during the early 1960s.

However, the villagers were not left completely in the dark and abandoned by their home country as many from Punjab were given land whilst others were given cash.

Friends and relatives then took the initiative to use the compensation money to come to Britain and find work.

Statistics show that in 1951 there were 5,000 Pakistanis and Bangladeshis in Britain.

The majority of settlers filled manual jobs, working in steel mills and the textile industry.

It became prevalent that life in the UK was hard to adapt to as many were unable to progress in their employment as they struggled to interact with others.

Nevertheless, many participated in Western society and political standing.

In comparison to the 50s, as it stands, Pakistanis are the second largest ethnic minority group in the UK, according to the BBC.

Moreover, ideals have evolved in terms of opinions of women being in work. Not only this, but the larger community have become wealthier and more educated.

In comparison to the 1960s, the ideals of women wearing hijabs have drastically changed.

According to Mariah Idrissi, the first Muslim hijab-wearing model in the UK, she says:

“Some people forget that South Asians in the UK went through a real struggle and the word ‘p**i’ evolved around the 1960s. 

“People don’t realise that word can be a big deal… [My mum] grew up in Birmingham as a Pakistani and got p**i-bashed every day.

“As soon as school finished it was like a race. 

“She’d have to run home because if she was caught outside where all the kids were hanging out, she was gonna get beaten up.”

In the modern day, Pakistanis are welcomed as valued members of society. Their culture is celebrated and racism is not tolerated.

In terms of modern-day ideas, they do collide with first-generational ideas and values to some extent.

For instance, Pakistanis living in Yorkshire and Lancashire identify themselves as Muslims before identifying themselves as Pakistanis.

Compared to this, “first-generation British Pakistanis identify themselves by their caste and region rather than by their religion or country of origin”.

DESIblitz spoke to Mohammed Sulaiman about how he adapted to life in the UK.

He also detailed comparisons between his homeland in Kashmir to when he migrated to the UK. 

Mohammed Sulaiman came to the UK in the 1950s yet he vividly remembers his youth.

Noticeably, he is a reserved man who keeps his cards close to his chest. It is a testament to how he lived in the UK, a foreign land with a different culture.

What was life like living in Pakistan?

When I was younger, during the partition time, it was a very difficult time.

A lot of people were poor going without food. It wasn’t easy, there were no jobs. 

Why did you move to the UK?

It all started when my Taya Ji, my father’s elder brother, married three times and had no children.

He asked my father if he could have me as his child as support.

So, my father gave me to my uncle for 14 years and he took care of me. My education, my dress code, my food.

Every day we were together. That was the best time ever. 

How did you find settling into the UK?

I was only 17 when I came to England.

In 1957, it was difficult as the house I was living in had 17 other people living in it. People were sleeping in shifts. So everyone could have a few hours of sleep.

It wasn’t hard, I sort of enjoyed looking after old people. I was the youngest of the 17.

Were there any challenges you faced?

No, everyone was enjoying my company. I was only a child.

They would all have a joke with me.

Later, my Taya Ji who adopted me, came to England in his traditional dress and was surprised I was working like a slave in the house.

He told off the owner of the house, “You’re using Sulaiman to do all the housework, he should be going to college to learn English”.

Therefore he assigned a man to take me to college every evening for 5 days. I did this for 18 months to learn English.

Did you speak mainly English or Urdu?

I could speak English but you needed experience to speak it. I passed my matric exam in 1967, in the second division. 

I could read and write English but I wasn’t very good at speaking. That’s why my Taya Ji wanted me to go to college to learn English.

It was only difficult as there was a long walk there [to college] and a walk back.

I would leave there at 7 pm and get home at 10 pm.

Did you feel a different culture when you came to the UK?

Culture didn’t bother me, as at that time I was getting on with my own personal things.

I didn’t focus on what other people did or how they lived.

I never worried about those things. I would do what I need to do and get on with it. 

What was the first job you had in the UK?

The first job I had was a domestic electrician in a factory. I worked in a warehouse, that was my job.

“I was paid £4 and 18 shillings for 44 hours.”

It was a mile away from our house. We used to walk there and walk back home. I found no difficulties doing this.

Did you find living in the UK was easier than living in Pakistan?

It wasn’t easier or difficult, it was different.

In Pakistan, you have your family and your own village. Here, you are living with strangers. 

But, when my adopted father came he took me out of the house and gave me to my next Taya. There were only four men. I was staying with him.

I didn’t worry about what was going on around me. I kept myself to myself and did my thing to as best of my ability. 

Has anything stuck with you from your Taya over the years?

My Taya always used to say, “Never tell lies and always be truthful” and “Don’t worry about anything, you should feel and believe in your faith.

“Whatever happens will happen as it is the will of God.

“You will live with what you have been given, this is from God and he will make it better.”

He told me to remain a good boy, get on with life and continue working and helping in the house.

Did you have any friends when you came to the UK?

Yes, I had a couple of friends that worked with me.

They were from the same district in Mirpur. They happened to be working at the same company.

I didn’t have any white friends.

At the time they used to get on with their own lives and so did we. We kept ourselves to ourselves. There were no altercations at the time.

Have you ever felt any racism?

Pakistan to UK A First-Generation Experience - racism

I don’t think it was a matter of racism. It’s an issue that one person doesn’t understand another. They don’t know anything about them. 

They fear that people are different. Are they better than us or worse than us? These are the sorts of things they were obsessed with. 

But, it doesn’t bother me. There’s either the good or the bad. 

I don’t take any notice. 

When I left the factory job, I went to get a job on the buses because I could read and write reports. The first time I failed it because my spelling wasn’t very good. 

They said my handwriting was alright, but there were a lot of mistakes in spelling.

I said: “Yes sir, I attend evening classes, I promise to be better.”

He said: “If you promise to keep up with your school and take lessons you can start next week.”

“So I got a job on the buses for £9 a week. That was 1961. I was happy, worked 38 years not a day missed. No incidents.”

When I retired in 2000, my chief pulled out my record sheet and it was blank.

No incidents were reported about my character, I never missed a job, and I didn’t mistreat the passenger or do a silly thing like that. I put my trust in my God and he took care of me.

They rewarded me with a golden watch, at that time it was worth £500.

How did you feel when you were getting to the age of marriage?

Pakistan to UK A First-Generation Experience - marriage

To be honest, I never thought about marriage.

My elder brother was married to my Mamu’s daughter. He had two daughters, one for my brother and one for me. 

This was going on between the elders and my Taya Ji.  He said:

“No, Sulaiman will marry to who I say, forget about the other sister.”

I stayed quiet, and let the brothers sort it out.  I just carried on. 

In 1961, when my Taya Ji died in a road accident before he died he sent a letter to my father saying Sulaiman was ready for marriage and I would send him home to get married. 

The letter was sent, but at that time it took weeks to get there. The letter was received the same day I sent my Taya Ji’s body home.

It read: “Make sure he gets married to Mumtaz, because of Zanam. She has no children and Mumtaz is the only one who can take care of her.”

Then the decision became final, this was the brother’s wish and it’s settled.

I was told later, she kept her head down and didn’t say anything. 

“In 1963, I had a phone call, it was time to get married and I went to Pakistan.”

In a few days, we came to the UK. I brought my bride home. 

I didn’t know what was going on. I just sat there. People were saying, “sit here”,  “move there”, “do this”. I had no clue. 

I was given some Salami change, my father counted it and it came to 22 rupees. 

When we were in Karachi, we were walking in the field. I turned around and saw my wife in tears. That’s the time I realised I am a married man and that’s my wife.

So, I run back and go to hug her. At that time nobody did that sort of thing in public.

The women were saying, ‘busharam’ (shame). It didn’t bother me.

I came back to the UK, and my wife came a couple of months later.

I lived in my second Taya Ji’s house until I bought my house in 1964.

Did your wife struggle at all when she came to the UK?

She settled in well. I took good care of her.  

I tried to teach her how to drive, but at that time no Asian women were driving cars. It was forbidden. 

I wanted to also protect my wife. I believe it’s the husband’s responsibility to provide for the household, wife and children. 

A wife can stay home to take care of the house and give a good upbringing to the children.

She should teach the children how to be decent and honest people.

Do you feel the role of a man in a family has changed?

Yes, there is definitely a change. Not so much the men, but women’s attitudes have changed. There is so much negative publicity. 

I can see some women treat their men badly and do what they please. They are out of touch with culture and religion. 

They are too fixated with consumerism, superficial things and cosmetic work.

But you don’t need to have decent shoes or a handbag, there should be decency within yourself. That’s the value of Insaan. 

There’s no point having the luxury of the world, if you are a bad person. 

There are many women in my life. My mother, my sisters and my wife. 

I believe a woman should keep close to her child, especially in the first four years. 

A child can’t say much or do much. Everything you do and say is registered in their mind. Later in life, they remember it. I remember stories since I was an infant.

Parents should always be with their children, they shouldn’t give them to nannies or babysitters. They should give 100% time.

Children are neglected, as parents go to work and put them in nurseries. 

Money is not important, a child is. 

If the parents are quarrelling between themselves they don’t give time and effort to teach their children how to be.

Do you think parenthood is different from when you lived in Pakistan compared to the UK?

Pakistan to UK A First-Generation Experience -

Yes, when I was younger parents took good care of the children. 

The children are taught to do the chores, read the Qu’ran and walk to school every morning. 

However, in Western life, there is less of a focus on maintaining a deeper loving relationship with the children from what I’ve witnessed. 

It’s important to instill good values and rules but in the UK children are excited by superficial things that don’t add value to their life and morals. 

Parents should teach their children and be close to them.

“A difference between myself and living in the UK is that I don’t ask people for money.”

However, I will ask: “How much do you need?”

In 68 years people have borrowed money from me, and due to the upbringing I had in Pakistan my values and principles of charity and helping others have stuck with me.

Do you think there’s a difference in the value of money in Pakistan compared to the UK?

There is certainly a difference. In the UK, there are utility bills to pay, car tax, and house tax. So you need to be careful of your money. 

In Pakistan and other poor countries, people don’t worry about money because you don’t have to pay for anything. If you have food that’s good, but if you don’t you’ll just go without it. 

Over there life is easy as there are fewer restrictions, you live in your house. It’s nobody’s business if you’re sleeping or going hungry.

For Mohammed Sulaiman, he did not experience any major challenges when he arrived in the UK.

By keeping his head down he was able to carry on with life and not face any conflict. 

Perhaps the modern-day portrayal of Pakistanis in the UK has shrowded judgement and expectation. 

Newer events in the media have affected opinions and perhaps the real struggles lie with the experience of second-generation or third-generation Pakistanis.

Moreover, they may be different in perspective from a woman’s experience.

Kamilah is an experienced actress, radio presenter and qualified in Drama & Musical Theatre. She loves debating and her passions include arts, music, food poetry and singing.

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