Kazi Hurmotjan Begum

Our broken house was better

Kazi Hurmotjan Begum (Shafia)
Interviewed on 18 March 2021
At Stepney Community Trust
By Bodrul Alom

My name is Kazi Hurmotjan Begum, known as Shafia. I was born in Bangladesh. I belong to the Kazi clan (Khandani Bangsha). There was a bil (a fishing lake) owned by my paternal grandfather, known as Hatim Kazir Boro Bil. We heard that during the British rule they took it away.

We were nine sisters and four brothers. After dying not many of us are left. There are only one sister and me still alive, the rest are all dead. I have my children and there are also many children of my siblings. We were from a top clan family background.

I got married in 1972 at a very early age, so could not undertake much studies. I came to this country in 1975 with my husband and one child. In London, I first stayed in my sister’s house in Rampart Street, near Cannon Street Road for 2-3 months. They had one room and a kitchen. We stayed in a single bed, three of us. Then we squatted in a house in Varden Street.

As a child in Bangladesh, I did a lot and enjoyed many things. I got married at an early age and my husband was an older man. He was really good, peaceful and a man of fairness. He understood me and always showed kindness. Alhamdulillah, he was a good man.
When I first came to this country, I did not understand much or asked to find out. I went upstairs to the bathroom, got some water and went to the garden to wash. My husband told me, what are you doing, you can’t wash in the garden in this country. He took me to the bathroom, turned the tap on and got me to wash there.

My first experience in London was very bad. The white people used to look at us in a bad way. One day, I went out with my child and they threw bottles at us, which just missed their target. This was around 1978 or 1979. It was the time when Altab Ali got killed.
There are so many stories, so many bad things happened, oh Allah. That’s why I could not go out to study. My husband was scared to let me go out, he thought they would kill us. They used to beat us up so much and our people used to run away with their children. My child had to fight. I got in the middle of racism and fought hard and got a council house in 1992.

Terry Fitzpatrick gave us the squat in number twelve Vardan Street in 1975. I don’t remember whether he took any money in return. I don’t know anything about it. The property was in a very bad state. My girl was born at that time. After that, we had to admit her to the hospital. There was no electricity and gas in the house. Terry helped us get connected to electricity and gas. My daughter got ill suffering from the cold. At that time, we didn’t even know the name of central heating. There used to be paraffin heaters.
Number twelve Vardan Street property was very cold, everything was broken and draught came in all the time. My daughter was in a serious condition in hospital, and they kept her there until she got better. My eldest son also got ill from the condition of the house. He still suffers from Asthma. The hospital never cared about why my children got ill. They didn’t use to value the Bengalis.

The Bengali boys fought back and helped change the situation. The racists used to come to our houses to beat us up. Why do you think some of our children have become thieves and robbers? By engaging with them they have become like them. Why are there drug addicts in the community? When our young boys saw how the racists used to come inside the house to beat us up, they could not tolerate the torture of their parents in front of them. That’s why some Bengali boys have become like them.

I don’t think about my life as a squatter much. Whatever happened it was Allah’s blessings. Now he is keeping us in a nice house. I give thanks to Allah. One time, I didn’t even see a dining table. Didn’t see a sofa in the sitting room. There was no central heating. Allah has given us so many blessings. Do people ever think about the bad old days? Most people forget the bad and difficult days, but I don’t forget.
We were very close to some other squatters. Together, we did many things and made many changes. We lived well with our neighbours. We demonstrated together and campaigned for a housing association. But, later, we lost contact with them.

There are some people whose name I cannot remember anymore. But one was Jalal and another was Shiraj Bhai. There was another one with long hair. He used to go to meetings sometimes and I used to like that person. I don’t remember his name. It could be Muhammad Huq. There were others too, whose names I don’t remember. There was a councillor, and he was a good man. Many people struggled to change things. The racists didn’t use to treat us as human beings. They used to think we are not human beings. This was clear from the way they treated us and their behaviour towards us. Some white people were very good, and they helped us a lot. If they could, I am sure they would have cooked for us.

In my squat, there was one room. I used to mix with everyone. Guests and travellers used to often come around. We all sat on the double bed in our room. Those days things were freer, so people would come and pop in more often. Everyone used to go to each other’s houses to visit. We were a family, there were also single people. People used to visit each other.

We suffered a lot. We had to entertain guests in the bedroom, who sat on the bed. I had three children. We made a bunk bed for them, two daughters and one son. After my son was ill, my daughter also became ill, so we used to keep her in the cot. We could hardly find any space for praying, there was no space even for worshipping. At most, there were 2 or 3 feet of free space in the room. We used to pray in that space.

Once we got attacked in Vallance Road in 1979. I and another woman went there to go to a health clinic, which was in Underwood Road. We went there to get milk for the children. My friend had a baby so the two of us went there together. Hers was a daughter and mine, a son. I didn’t use to go anywhere alone due to fear but sometimes used to go outside with at least one other person. People used to be scared to go outside even during the day. When two of us were going, they threw bricks and bottles at us from the other side of the road. They were white skinheads. The target missed us by the grace of Allah and we survived.

Terry and a few others convinced us to get our names registered with Tower Hamlets Council. They helped us with that to enable us to vote. Where we stayed in Varden Street, the house had four rooms. In each room, lived separate groups of people. There was just one quite large kitchen, which we had to share between us. This, often, caused disagreeable feelings but nobody expressed them openly. We all used the kitchen to cook but nobody bothered to clean up the cooker afterwards. It felt dirty but we never got into any arguments.

I was a squatter there for nine years, from 1975 to 1984. There were two families, and the other occupants were single people. Beside us, a husband and wife took one room, a single person took another and Sulaiman, who lived with two of his nephews, stayed in the largest room. We were on the ground floor and in the next room to us lived a single guy. Mina and her husband and Suleman with two of his nephews lived upstairs. The kitchen was in the basement.

We did everything to ensure that no conflict developed. So, when one family was cooking in the kitchen in the basement we didn’t go there. When we were cooking, they didn’t use to come to the kitchen. There was a mutual understanding about how to use the common facilities but no formal agreement. We developed and followed a routine.
Mina’s husband, Salek, the poor guy used to get up at five in the morning to go to work at Ford Motor Company. He used to come back at 4 pm and used to finish eating by 5 pm. We used to go to the kitchen at 6 pm and finish our eating by 7 pm. By 9 pm we are all in our respective bedrooms. We didn’t see a TV for seven years. There was no telephone either.

Our toilet was outside. All the time, it was cold. We used paraffin heaters for heating indoor, which gave a paraffin smell. The electric heaters were too expensive. In Mina’s room, they couldn’t turn on the paraffin heater as it made her sick. She was all the time taking tablets for vomiting. Her child was very small. She used an electric heater instead.
Sometimes, people at our squat accused each other of doing this or that with respect to the use of electric heaters. But nothing serious ever happened in this regard. Most of us never used electric heaters but she used electric heaters because she couldn’t handle the smell of paraffin heaters.

In terms of getting involved in local politics at that time, I did not go to any council meetings. But my husband definitely did, otherwise, how could he have got his membership card. I looked after the children. My husband went to the council several times. He told me many times that there was a council meeting and he had to go there.
There are still friendships between some of us. We all go to each other family’s weddings and have our friendship. They also came to our children’s weddings. They spend money and we also spend money.

When I had three children, the Council rehoused us in Jubilee Street. From Vardan Street to Jubilee Street, Sambrook House. We got a three-bedroom, one sitting room property in Jubilee Street.

Some people may think the move was from ‘Kosto to Rokkha’ (from suffering to protection). But the attitudes of people we faced in the Jubilee Street area was bad. Sometimes I felt Varden Street was better.

At one time they set fire to some blankets outside our property. My children used to cry, and we used to come together in one room, I think around 1984. It’s better not to remember the times when we were in Jubilee Street. That place gave us so much suffering.

They also broke my window at Jubilee Street. We went to many demonstrations. Don’t remember the name. Fatima and Parvin and Mrs Matin also lived there.
I stayed there for about 7 years. The Bengali population in the area was very small at first but more moved in later. It was because of racism that we left that place. Our broken house in Vardan Street was better for us. I used to cry for Vardan Street. Even though it was a broken house, I had a lot of ‘maya’ (affection) for the place. Tears flow down my eyes when I go through that road. Vardan Street was very peaceful.

When I was a squatter, I worked in a school for 2-3 years from 1982 or ‘83. Between 9.30 am and 12 noon, in the nursery as a classroom assistant, and between 12 noon to 2 pm as a dinner lady. My work as a classroom assistant involved playing with the children and looking after them when others went to meetings.

The teachers and staff in the school were very good. They showed real affection towards me. They were not racists. At one time I made a mistake when I went to a school party for a teacher who was leaving. I went and sat in a space at the back usually reserved for the cleaners. A teacher came to me and said why are you sitting here. I said what’s wrong with this? The teacher said this is not your chair; it’s reserved for cleaners. You sit with the teachers. Then I realized that they were showing me the respect of a teacher. After my husband died, I became sick so could not work anymore due to ill health.