We slowly became a force for change
Written interview response received on 30 March 2021
My name is Helal Uddin Abbas, I was born in Sylhet, Bangladesh. My family lived in Tower Hamlets since 1972. I went to a local school in the borough and worked in both voluntary & statutory establishments. I have been an active member of many local organisations, including the Labour Party.
When I first came to Tower Hamlets, there were many visible barriers for the BAME communities. For example, most of the public services were inaccessible for our community, which included racist housing policies and young Bangladeshi people not being able to access youth provisions etc. Racist attacks were a part of everyday life for many of us as the police and locals failed to offer protection, hence a local police station was opened in Brick Lane, to encourage reporting.
In 1976, my family had no choice but to squat a house in Nelson Street. It was a boarded-up house with no services (water, electricity or gas). The quality of the living conditions was poor. We were often harassed and threatened with evictions. Responsible authorities provided very little or no protection. I left our squatted house in 1978/79 and moved to a shared short-life house owned by a co-operative in Spelman Street.
There were some non-Bangladeshi white squatters around. But they rarely experienced anything like the poor housing conditions of migrant communities. The Bangladeshi community was leading a parallel life. This was due to racial discrimination and inadequate connection with mainstream services. One of the reasons our community faced barriers in accessing local services, I believe, was due to a lack of political representations.
The East End at the time was very much an unequal place with denial of rights for the BAME community and privileged services for the white community. The legitimate rights of our communities were denied until Bangladeshi youth groups started to get organised. We slowly became a force for change, from the mid-1980s onward. Both the former GLC and the local council operated racist housing policies. Many families, including my own, were denied access to safe public housing. We lived in overcrowded, poor quality private sector housing.
Some of the families were attacked by white racists. We faced a lot of hostilities and resentment from the host community. Often, our community had to organise patrols to protect families and children from racist attacks as the police took little or no interest in taking action against perpetrators of racist attacks on our people. The local authorities, at a local level, were disinterested in the housing challenges the Bangladeshi community faced. There was a great deal of mutual support between squatters, with assistance from some of our white anti-racist colleagues. A number of self-help groups were set up in Spitalfields, Parfett Street, Nelson Street, Varden Street, Adelina Grove and Commercial Street.
I started as a volunteer with a youth & community project soon after leaving school and later trained as a youth worker. In the early ‘80s I became a youth & community worker, followed by my appointment as a youth officer with the former ILEA, and then director of a national leadership training programme. Now, I work as a grants manager with an award winning anti-poverty and equality charitable trust.
In terms of voluntary work, I served on the committees of a number voluntary organisations, including being the secretary of Bengali Housing Action Group and the secretary, and later, chair of Spitalfields Housing Association.
It was our community organising and the collective voice that got the GLC to start talking to the squatters, followed by Tower Hamlets Council and then the police, who started to respond to the needs of the Bangladeshi community in the East End.
I think squatting was the best way for us to secure our basic housing needs at the time. The conditions were extremely poor. I was a squatter. We broke the law. Some people are embarrassed to talk about the past struggles and discrimination our people faced as they are now successful. In the past, we were squatting not out of choice, but out of desperation. The quality of housing that we squatted in was not fit for human habitation.
I remember when Prince Charles came to visit Brick Lane, they immediately slapped ‘dangerous structure’ notices on every building and charged the poor Asian and Jewish landlords. They did not want our future King to see how appalling and decaying the conditions of the people living in the area were.
One of the good things about squatting at Nelson Street was the comradeship that existed between squatters and the communities. We saw a common need and the common need to help each other. Our unity won us many demands and eventually resulted in much fairer housing policies. However, it is still not an even playing field when it comes to social housing for BAME communities, we only have to remember the Grenfell Tower fire of 2017.
I think social housing is still an issue. One of the things that we need to do is to show our communities how to ask for the necessities from the housing associations. I was involved in the Bengali Housing Action Group then I became very closely involved with the Sylhet Housing Co-operative. This was one of the very few BAME housing associations that were not eaten by the bigger sharks. It is especially important that we use this organisation and the housing associations within the oral history project. I hope this will complement some of the work and history of the Bangladesh struggles of how we got to here, recorded for future generations.
The lived experience of poor housing, education and anti-racist activities encouraged me to get involved in politics. I was elected in 1985 as one of the young councillors in Tower Hamlets and I eventually became Leader of Tower Hamlets Council in 2001.