Julie Begum, 52, is an East Ender and a co-founder of the Swadhinata Trust, one of the first organisations specialising in promoting Bengali culture and history among young people.
From her childhood growing up in a climate of fear to an adulthood marked by grassroots activism, her story is one of channeling trauma into productive activism.
She fought back against the threat of violence she faced growing up, which saw her brother stabbed and murmurs of dog faeces being shoved through people’s letterboxes, by dedicating her life to changing her community for the better.
When she realised there was very little awareness in Britain of British Bangladeshi history, she acted to change that, founding The Swadhinata Trust in 2000.
‘If I’m not challenging the injustices that I see then I’m part of the problem,’ says Begum. ‘I am not a passive person and I don’t want to be a passive person.’
We meet on a cold, sunny autumn day on the benches outside a bastion of grassroots activism; the Oxford House in Bethnal Green. She is warm and conversational, both of us huddling into our respective sweaters in the icy autumn wind.
The outright violence that Begum faced growing up at the working class Digby Estate in Globe Town is difficult to comprehend for many people now.
‘We [people of colour] were hated,’ she says. ‘The council housing estates weren’t as diverse as they are now so if you were different you really stood out.’
They were scared to go outside for fear of being attacked. Her brother was stabbed. They would simply patch up their wounds and ‘get on with it’.
When Altab Ali was murdered in 1978, Begum was ten years old; the threat of racist violence was just ‘something you grow up with’.
Despite the constant threat of far right violence, there were also nice neighbours who lived in her primarily white block.
‘There was Pauline who was a teaching assistant so she would walk us to school [for their protection]. There was Aunty Kitty who lived in the same landing as me.’
Begum is warm and open, and speaks in the same, matter-of-fact way whether she is remembering her harrowing encounters with far right violence or the buoyant feeling of solidarity she found in the multiethnic, progressive hubs that also existed in the East End. But the latter would not happen until her late teens.
Nowadays, there are some remnants of this time period; the Altab Ali mural in Shadwell for instance. It is one thing to know about the far right climate at time in theory, but it is another to listen to someone’s daily, lived reality of it.
‘We grew up in a climate of fear. It was terrorism.’ says Begum with wide eyes.
‘You’re shocked now,’ she remarks dryly, ‘but it was normal for us.’
But it would be a mistake to mark Begum as a victim.
‘If you don’t want to be eaten alive you have to fight back. Of course it was difficult, but that was just what people did here around the East End.’
It was this notorious East End fighting spirit, as well as the grassroots social movements that swelled in the 80s and 90s that allowed her to channel her experiences into activism as she grew up.
She was a youth worker in her late teens and early twenties, working with women’s groups and international human rights groups. One of which, ‘International Solidarity’ was based at Oxford House.
‘You realise that yes, I’m a minority but we’re all minorities together,’ she says, talking about the wider community in East London.
‘You encounter people who are different and so you learn to fight back.’
Begum then trained to be a teacher, but soon became disillusioned with the public education system.
‘One of my placements had quite a racist environment; the school staff were very segregated, so black and white teachers were not working together, the divide was quite clear.’
She also could not create the social change she wanted within the rigid structures of public education, saying ‘I went into teaching because I thought that’s the way I can really make a difference to people’s lives – through education. And when I couldn’t do that, I left. I wanted to teach, but in a much more equitable place. And I didn’t want to teach in a racist environment.’
So she started teaching English as a second language to adults, often working with refugees and migrants, and has found her home in this type of work ever since.
Her motivation in creating Swadhinata Trust in 2000 was to focus on creating long-lasting awareness of British Bangladeshi culture and history.
‘It grew out of rave culture at the time, as we would hold meetings in places like Brick Lane, where raves would happen. That was deliberate because we wanted to inform and engage young people about Bangladeshi culture and heritage, and not just people from that background.’
Growing up as a British Bangladeshi East Ender, Begum became aware of how of the lack of awareness about the intertwined history between Britain and its former colonies.
‘My parents came here in the 60s because the UK needed more people to work here after WWII. Bangladesh, ‘East Pakistan’ at the time, was part of the Commonwealth so they came here on a Commonwealth work visa. And even since then, the cultural contributions of Bangladeshi people have not been very well recognised. Like the curry houses up and down the country; most of those are Bengali-run.’
Begum’s activism has always revolved around using education to counteract ignorance, showing people their commonalities despite surface differences.
‘By educating people about all our histories we can show that we are connected. We’re not as different as you think. And we all – not just white British people, not just British Bangladeshi people – can benefit from this education.’
Now, she is taking a back seat from frontline activism, instead focusing on enshrining those changes she campaigned for in the 80s and 90s into practice – creating systemic, generational change by collaborating with schools, youth groups and media organisations.
‘I’m more aware of my limitations. And working within those limitations, and I’m happy with that.’
She still lives in the East End, and drops by Globe Town on a regular basis to see her mother, and one of her brothers, who lives in the Cranbrook Estate.
Nowadays, she is happy to pass the torch of frontline activism onto younger generations.
‘There are movements like Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion, and that’s their cause to take up because they are reacting to injustices that they see. It’s a way of finding a common cause, connecting with the rest of the world, much like I did back then. It stops you from feeling isolated.’
Julie Begum’s life is a lesson not just in survival or resilience, but one in standing your ground and channelling traumatic experiences into positive action.
After her childhood experiences, it would have been a thoroughly natural reaction to get away from the place where it all happened. But that would have been completely against Begum’s nature. She chose to stay, because she knew could make her community better, and we are all collectively reaping the benefits.
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