Md Kala Miah

We found some peace

Interviewed on 9 March 2020
At Stepney Community Trust
By Kamrul Islam, Community Participant

My name is Muhammad Kala Miah. I was born in Golapganj Thana, Sylhet, Bangladesh. I first came to England in 1963 through an employment voucher issued by the British government. When I first came to this country, for us Bangladeshis, the country was very cold. The people of Bangladesh here suffered a great deal. Although it was impossible to handle the cold, we had to cope.

We faced many other problems. White racists tried to attack us a lot and used to beat us up. Two or four of us used to be together, and we could not go out after 4 or 5 pm. The white kids used to attack us, so we used to live and go about our ways very carefully.
I came to this country alone at the age of eighteen or nineteen. At that time, I was not married. When I first came to England, I lived in East London in the Brick Lane area. I forgot the name of the road, but it was off Princelet Street.

After staying there for a while, I went to live in North London. I lived there for five or six years working in an engineering factory. They made parts for planes and ships.
I used to visit and socialise in Aldgate and East London, where I knew many people. After a few years in north London, I came back to live in Aldgate. Then I got a job at the Ford Motor Company, where I worked for eighteen years. On the day when I went for the interview, there were twenty-seven others. Only two of us got the job, me and someone else.

After I left my employment at Ford Motor Company, I went into business in the Brick Lane area. I established my own factory with sixty machines and set up a cash and carry business. At that time, people suffered a lot and faced lots of problems. They had very little cash and could not find safe places to live.

There were a lot of empty houses and many people squatted in them. I myself got into squatting first in the same road as I used to live. We also helped a lot of people with housing needs. There used to be people who had the knowledge and could speak well, so we used to seek their help.

Many of the squatted properties came into our hands, which we tried to control. Then we realised that it was no use just squatting. So, we explored developing a community cooperative to manage our housing needs. At that time Soyful Alom, a brother of Bodrul Alom, was there. He tried very hard and invited a lot of people to join, and there were also many people with me. Many of them are no longer around, like Azhar Ali who passed away.

We got together and founded the Sylhet Housing Co-operative. The first chair of the body was Soyful Alom. After that, they made me the chair and we made further developments. We prepared about thirty-seven houses, distributed the properties and started to live in them.

We improved the properties, had regular meetings to address the needs of everyone. I also got a house myself. Soyful Alom got a house and his father also got a house. It’s a long story – onek diner kotha – and remembering them is very difficult.

After establishing the Sylhet Housing Co-operative, we found some peace and much-needed facilities. But after a while, we realised that it was not possible for us to effectively maintain and operate the Co-op. We then merged it with the CDS Co-operative, and we are still together as a merged body.

We suffered a lot before the Sylhet Co-operative was set up, which is a very long story. It is not possible to remember them all, but we surely suffered a lot.

The house that we lived in was a ‘bhanga ghor’ – broken house – and rainwater used to slip through. We had to live in that condition and repaired damages as much as we could. We had to suffer. It’s a long history.

When your life becomes comfortable, you can forget the period of your suffering. As for myself, because now my life is more comfortable, I have forgotten about the sorrows of my past. I cannot tell you everything because I have forgotten many things. We suffered a lot.

We could not go out after 4 or 5 in the afternoon due to white racists. When we did go out, we used to go in groups of four or five of us. Then the whites could not attack us.

I fought many wars with the whites and made cases against them. I was the first Asian person advertised in the media that fought wars against the whites and even went to court. I beat eight people at one time, and the police made a court case against me. But they could not do anything to me as the court could not see how one person could beat up so many.

When the white racists used to find us alone, they would attack us. At that time, I used to work at Ford Motor Company. They used to call us Paki. They would say there is a Paki going, stop the Paki, beat the Paki, and start fights in that way. At that time, our people did not want to engage in any trouble. They wanted to save their lives and get safely home. The white racists used to come and surround us.

I used to take the train from Stepney Green Station to go to work. One day, while I was inside the house, there was a hit on our window. I remember [it] was a strong one. I came out, but no one else from the house came out due to fear. When I opened the door, they threw bricks at me, but the bricks did not hit me. There were some empty bottles near some small children. I took one in my hand and started to fight. I hit one of them very strongly, and the bottle broke. We fought a moving battle towards the station. I beat about eight people that day. But if they had managed to beat me, I wouldn’t have had any bones left in my body that day.

But they couldn’t beat me as I hit them, and the bottle broke. But when we got outside the station, still fighting, I regained my consciousness and tried to see if there was anyone with me. No one was there, and they didn’t come out of the house out of fear. Then I realised that someone had called the police. The police surrounded the guy that I beat and said, to me, you beat that guy. I told the police, no sir, they came drunk and started on us.
The police didn’t listen to me and took me and kept me for one night. Then they let me go, but I had to attend court on another day. When I went to court, many wondered what would happen to me. The judge asked me why I beat them. I told the judge I did not beat them. They fought each other with bottles. The judge asked whether it was believable that one person beat up eight people. He thought that was not possible. That’s what the judge said at that time. He said that we couldn’t believe that one person can beat up eight people and not take that into account.

I started squatting around 1968. We did not need anyone to tell us about squatting. When you use your brains, you know about squatting. When you see houses closed and the windows boarded up and no one lives there, then you know they can be squatted. Others were squatting. Ten to twenty houses in a street were being squatted. Like Parfett Street, Myrdle Street, Romford Street, they had many closed and boarded up properties. Whoever got a chance, they broke open the properties, moved in and started to live there. That’s how it happened.

When I started squatting, there were already people squatting. Quite a lot of people were squatting but they were not the majority. Some people were squatting, and everybody could see that, so we thought, so what if we did the same? Let’s go and stay in the squats as well. That’s how it started, and a lot of people did it.

We developed the co-operative by coming together in a united way, that’s how we started the co-operative. When I started squatting in 1968, I was not married then, but there were families that we helped to become established.

The houses that we squatted in were in very bad condition. In Romford Street, where Samuel Lewis Housing Trust took over, all the properties there were squatted. In Parfett Street, many houses were squatted.

Most of the efforts to set up the Sylhet Housing Co-op was made by Soyful. I don’t know everything and couldn’t do everything. I was with him. After that, they also made me chair of Sylhet Housing Co-op. The houses were in very bad condition and had a lot of damp everywhere. No one used to live there before the squatters moved in. People squatted in those properties and worked and modernised them. They painted them, made them beautiful and did all kinds of things so they could live in them.