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Dacca to Dundee - A Journey That Redefined a Life

Based at Dudhope Multicultural Centre, the Bharatiya Ashram is a unique cultural organisation that promotes all cultures from the perspective of people belonging to the ethnic minority communities of Scotland. They have kindly allowed us to reproduce this feature from their newsletter, 'Community Companion'. Mr Abu Karim narrates his journey to Dundee from Dacca in 1970, when he was only 19 years. He describes his excitement, happiness and fear as he travelled many miles to reach his home away from home…

Mr Abu Karim

The year was 1970. I was 19 years old and I had applied to Dundee College of Technology to study Jute Technology as this was the qualification that would put me on a fast track to become a Jute Mill manager. My acceptance letter came from Mr Gordon (Head of the Department). Bangladesh was not a country then and it was known as East Pakistan. The independence war started on 26 March 1971 and I took part in the freedom movement. Therefore, I had to put my plan to study abroad on hold till the end of the war. On 16 December 1971, East Pakistan got freedom from West Pakistan and a new country called Bangladesh was born. Soon after the war, I started to arrange my passport and foreign exchange. Being a new country the Bangladeshi passport had not yet been created. However, with the help of one of my father's friends I managed to obtain a travel permit on an A4-size paper. I still have it with me and it could probably be of some historic value now. Foreign exchange was a scarce resource but without it the UK Embassy would not grant a student visa. However, I managed to arrange it after making multiple visits to the Education Department and I was one of the first group of students to manage foreign exchange to study abroad. I was granted £150 per year for college fees and £48 per month as maintenance and I was ready to fly to the UK. My cousin, Humayun, planned my journey meticulously and made it impossible for me to get lost! He arranged my itinerary - Dhaka (It was spelt Dacca then) - London - Glasgow - Dundee, all the way by plane. He booked a hotel in London for an overnight stay which also included a taxi from the hotel to Heathrow airport.

My father, my cousin, Belu Bhai and my uncle, Salam Khalu came to drop me at the airport. It was my first journey by plane so obviously it was quite overwhelming and I don't remember how many times I bid farewell to my family. I flew by the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC). On the place I met Zubair from my hometown Bogra who was going to study at the same college. The plane stopped at Bombay for a break. I felt home­sick and posted a letter from Bombay airport. The plane then stopped at Kuwait Airport to refuel. On 13 September 1972 in the evening we arrived at Heathrow Airport. The immigration officer was very helpful. On my way out I noticed that the signposts were so clear at showing directions. It felt like they were speaking to me and there was no chance of getting lost even if you wanted to. While I was coming out of the airport and thinking of going to the hotel by taxi, Zubair's brother-in-law Mr Maleq arrived to pick him up. He took us both to his house for dinner and then drove me to my hotel. In the hotel I noticed a bathtub in the bathroom - something I had never used before. It took me a good few minutes to figure out how to use the bath. It very relaxing and I imagined a similar bathroom in Dundee. My plane was at 9 am the next day. At 6.30 am I was lying in bed and thinking of getting up at 7.30 am as I had no idea about the distance from my hotel to Heathrow Airport. The hotel receptionist phoned and then knocked on my door to hurry me up as the taxi was on its way. My hotel booking included breakfast and a taxi so I asked him about my breakfast. He said something in English, which I understood vaguely, and rushed me out to the taxi. He paid the taxi driver and gave him instructions. I mumbled a few words (probably cursed him silently) but it made no impact on the receptionist as he understood none of it. The taxi rushed to the airport and I just managed to board the plane to Glasgow.

I realised that had the hotel receptionist not shown the urgency, I would have missed the plane so I took back all the curses and felt grateful for his action. I was allotted a window seat and with a clear sky the view of Scottish hills below was mesmerising, just like being in a dream. The flight arrived at Glasgow Airport at about 10.30 am but my plane to Dundee was at 6 pm! Imagine, I waited all day at the airport to catch my plane to Dundee which was only 100 miles away. This was thanks to my extremely cautious and caring cousin. All day, I walked around the airport and appreciated the views of distant hills. At about 6 pm, I was looking for my plane and then I heard someone shout "Abu Karim!" from the runway beside a six or maybe eight-seater plane. It looked like a minivan, waiting for passengers. The guy took my luggage, someone shut the door and I was on the final lap of my journey to Dundee. Thirty minutes later at 6.30 pm, I was in Dundee where a new chapter of my life was about to start.

At Dundee Airport a kind passenger offered to drop me at my cousin Anis's place located at 1 Wolsely Street, Dundee. I had written to Anis about a month ago on my plan to arrive but I was not sure if he had received the letter. It was a dark street as the close of the block had no light. I was in a state of shock and by the time I gathered my thoughts, the gentleman left my luggage and drove off. I could not even thank him. I guess he was surprised too and escaped fearing his safety. There I was, alone on the street, thinking of my next move when I saw a man appear out of the close. His name was Abul Bhai, a student from Bangladesh. He assured me that I was at the right place and took me to his flat. He said that I was very lucky to have found him in time as he was just about to leave for work at a jute mill where his other flatmates also worked during the night. I came to know that most young students would come to work full time at the jute mill during the summer months.

Once alone in the flat, I ate food from the kitchen and went straight to sleep. I was too tired to think about what lay ahead for me in Dundee. The next morning I met Anis and one of his flatmates Abedin Bhai. Anis did not get my letter. The flat had three rooms with a scullery. The bath in the bathroom but neglected due to non-availability of hot water and to have a shower and bath one had to use a public shower place which cost 10 pence per shower. Anis and his flatmates who had come back from their night shift at the mill went to sleep whilst I took the opportunity to do a bit of exploring myself.

The flat was situated at the corner of Dundonald Street and Wolsely Street. There was a small post office-cum-grocery store just below the flat. It was tidier than any small shop I knew in Bangladesh. There was a self-service co-op shop just beside the post office which was a new experience for me. The street along the post office was Dundonald Street and the next road was Court Street. This street was a pleasant surprise for me as it was a steep uphill and from one end of the road you could see only the sky, unlike from the place I had come from where the land was flat. After exploring the area my mood was uplifted unlike the previous night.

My friend Zubair reached Dundee after a few days and we rented a flat at Dundonald Street for £4.00 a week, luckily with a toilet inside, but no sink. These flats were built around the middle of the 19th century to accommodate jute mill workers. Many of them had a common toilet on the corner of the staircase of each floor for the occupiers of two adjacent flats. We had two rooms and a scullery with space for only one person to cook. I was surprised to see the gas lights still in use on the streets. Our close had an automated gas light. The gas lights, dark building for jute workers and the streets paved with cobblestone resembled a shot from the Victorian era.

There were jute mills in every area of Dundee. Most of the people of Dundee worked in the jute mills or in weaving factories, the unemployment rate was very low and they spent a good amount of time in pubs and bookies. All pubs were very busy during the weekend and there were pubs around the corner of every housing estate. The pubs used to close at 10 pm and most shops closed at 5.30 pm. A common hangout for locals of all ages and very popular among Dundonians was Dens market. It was only a minute's walk from our flat. The shops in the market mostly sold used goods and the cafeteria had local food like pea-buster (mashed peas and chips), mince and tatties, bridies, pies, etc. In the middle of the market, there was a prize bingo stand. The most interesting element of Dundee for me was the conversation among the locals. They weren't afraid to drop in the 'F' word into any conversation at any given opportunity. It took me some time to make sense of some of the dialect and certain phrases for example, "ye widnae ken" meaning "you wouldn't know", "bonny lassie" meaning “beautiful girl”, "hae tae" meaning "you two".

Whilst attending college, I also worked in Jute mills (Manhattan, Angus Works, Tay Spinning, etc) and pubs and night clubs (Cromrail, Tiffany’s, Baracuda, etc) and got used to the Dundee dialect. The college I attended for my diploma in Jute Technology later became Abertay University. There were only five students in my class: Zubair, Ahmed, Monzu, Islam, Jacob and myself. Our teachers were Mr Gordon (head), Mr Malcolm, Mr Cunnigham, Mr Reed, and Mr Anderson. The department itself was very simple. It had a small workshop to demonstrate the machinery used in jute mills. The teachers had the industrial experience but no significant academic background.

In 1975 when we finished our Diploma in Jute Technology, there was political turmoil in Bangladesh, and most students and I of that time tried to find a job but it was not easy. I went away to London in 1976 where l worked at ITT Semi-Conductors (an electronic semiconductors company producing microchips) in Foots Cray near London. I was missing Dundee so kept coming back whenever I had the opportunity. Eventually, I returned to Dundee permanently in 1980. Many of the senior students started up restaurant businesses as they could not find a suitable job. I also started a cafe and restaurant business which I did not like that much. Therefore, I did a degree in Electronic System Engineering. Eventually, I worked in Angus Council as a Development Officer (during that period I completed a Post Graduate Diploma in Housing from Stirling University. It was a three-year day-release class funded by the council). I also worked with voluntary organisations. From my experience, in the UK there is a huge opportunity to gain qualifications but finding a suitable job is a different ball game altogether. For ethnic minorities, it is even harder. The government tried its best to tackle discrimination through legislation and has been successful up to a certain level. In the social housing sector, I found no discrimination. The council and housing association allocated housing on need basis following their own policy in accordance with the legislation.

Since 1980, Dundee started to change rapidly. Jute factories started to close down as they could not compete with polypropylene. Places like Dens Road Market slowly started to die, bigger shopping complexes started to take their places. Housing grants were available to all flat owners to modernise their flats (it meant all flats got the luxury of an inside toilet, bath/shower, and a bigger kitchen). Dundee started to get posh. The people who used to attend the Arbroath caravan site in Dundee Fortnight (Dundee holiday usually at the end of July), they started to venture to Spain. All those F words and Dundee slang slowly disappeared from my world. However, sometimes when I take the bus 29 from Dundee City Centre to my home in Gowrie Park, I hear those conversations and that hits back to a period of feel-good nostalgia.

Now 48 years have passed since I came to Dundee. We were about 32 students altogether in the period 1970-1976 studying Jute Technology. Out of the 32, 24 students settled in Dundee. Our generation has truly struggled a lot to find suitable jobs and eventually, most of these individuals mentioned became self-employed. However, everyone took good care of their children's education. The 24 families produced 23 doctors, two dentists, and the rest working as lawyers, architects, accountants, academia and a few in other trades. My flatmate Zubair, along with a few of my other friends went back to Bangladesh by the end of 1979. In the 1990s the textile/garment industry was booming in Bangladesh and they managed to take advantage of it and became very wealthy. They supply garments from Bangladesh all over the world including the UK. Their contribution made Bangladesh one of the top three exporters of garments to the western world. During these 48 years, the UK has gone through a series of changes and the living standard of Dundee has improved vastly. However, the biggest change every migrant felt is the advancement of communication systems. When I arrived here, an international phone call had cost about £1.00 per hour (when an average mill worker earned about £22 per week) and it was not available readily, we had to book the call in advance. Now we get it almost free! Bangladesh does not seem that far away now! Suddenly the whole world has shrunk. The time I arrived. there was very limited Asian Food available and now we have plenty choice. However, if we are being honest, Dundee Fish & Chips would still be my go to destination. Dundee is built on hill and valley. It's a natural beauty that captured my mind many years ago and I still feel the same way about it now as I did back then. I will always find peace in it. Dundee has become in every sense of the word, my home away from home.

Written by Abu Karim

Sources and further reading

Community Companion newsletters -

Extracts from an interview with Abu Karim by Abertay University Archives -

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