‘It’s not all celebratory’: five Birmingham residents on the Commonwealth

·5 min read

The eyes of the world have been on Birmingham as the city hosts the Commonwealth Games. But in one of the most diverse cities in the world, questions have been raised about what the Commonwealth means in the 21st century. As the event enters its final day, five Birmingham residents reflect on what it means to them:

Kashee Mistry, 23, accountant from Solihull

My grandparents moved here in the 1960s from Kenya. They were born in India and moved to Kenya for work, as many people moved across to other British empire countries for jobs.

The Commonwealth Games is an exciting event, there’s a lot of celebration around it, as there should be. But if you think about the history of the Commonwealth and why it came about, for me, it’s not all celebratory. When people from Commonwealth countries started moving to Britain after the war, they weren’t accepted, they weren’t embraced.

Birmingham was the place where Enoch Powell made his “Rivers of Blood” speech and that was directly criticising some of the mass immigration from the Commonwealth. I think those parts of history should be remembered, we shouldn’t just ignore them because they’re uncomfortable and they don’t fit with our values today.

I know that I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the British empire. But while I was at university and I was studying the empire for the first time – because we’re not taught about it in schools – I learnt about its brutal dark past, all the violence and subjugation, and how the legacy of that is the Commonwealth.

I’m so excited that the games are in Birmingham, but they were only in Scotland four years ago. How often are they in smaller, less well-known Commonwealth countries?

Kamani Anderson, 23, master’s student

I grew up in south Birmingham in Balsall Heath, but I’m from the Caribbean community. The majority of us are from Handsworth and Lozells, which is where everyone moved when they came over here in the 60s onwards.

The city has never had a great reputation. Everything from how it looks, to the accent, people have always got their opinions of Birmingham. But the city is absolutely buzzing at the moment, I’ve never seen anything like it, and I feel like it deserves it so, so much.

The Caribbean is the powerhouse of world athletics. I think there is a sense of that diaspora pride, especially in a place like Birmingham, which has the one of the largest Jamaican communities in England.

But they’ve taken the actual Commonwealth out of the games, in my opinion. The political and historical aspects have been taken away.

We saw in the opening ceremony a celebration of how diverse Birmingham is. Almost a majority of the population is non-white and most of those communities are from Commonwealth countries, particularly India, Pakistan, Jamaica. But we don’t talk about why, what brought us here, why we’re here and everything that we went through as those communities.

Zafar Hussain, 36, owner of Shababs restaurant in the balti triangle

My father came over to Birmingham from Kashmir in Pakistan in 1961 to work in the factories. The plan then was just to work a couple of years and to go back to Kashmir, but then my mother was allowed to join him. My eldest brother, who started this restaurant off with my dad in 1987, was born in Pakistan, and that’s how Shababs came about.

It was the Balti bandwagon back in the early 90s – Ladypool Road was crammed with balti houses next door to each other. The restaurant has pretty much been part of my life from day one.

The Commonwealth Games is definitely brilliant for the hospitality industry – it’s a boost that we really need after Covid. It’s something to lift everyone up and get people together again.

Saima Razzaq, 37, head of diversity and inclusion at Birmingham Pride

I’d say it’s a complicated relationship that I have with the Commonwealth. The fact that we’ve got such a major sporting event in Birmingham is really exciting.

But there are still a lot of countries where our existence is illegal. We’ve still got a long way to go, but I think we should recognise the progress being made within Commonwealth countries. Last year, Pakistan had its first ever national Transgender Day. In India in 2018, the discriminatory section 377 was repealed.

We need a nuanced conversation. Sometimes, it’s a case of: “We’re so great over here and they are so bad.” Actually, we need to work with communities to make them understand that a lot of these laws came in at the hands of colonialism.

My family migrated here in the 70s from Kashmir – they moved to Pakistan from India before partition. Migrating to the UK hasn’t been easy for my family. It has caused a lot of trauma that is still embedded within the ecosystem of our family. I’m here now, and I’ve got a positive story, but a lot of people have suffered for me to be living this lifestyle.

Shuranjeet Singh, 26, community organiser in Handsworth

My family moved to Handsworth in Birmingham in the late 1960s/early 1970s. They moved from Punjab in India to work in the factories and foundries up in Smethwick and down in Hockley in Birmingham.

We’re very lucky to have the Commonwealth Games here in Birmingham, but I would have really liked to have seen more of an effort by the city to confront its relationship with the Commonwealth. A small feature on a particular programme or project, that to me is not good enough.

Having any kind of massive sporting event in a city is really important for local economies and communities. I think my main question is about legacy. How is this going to impact communities moving forwards?

You’ve just introduced a whole load of people to triathlon, for example – will they have any opportunities to actually develop those skills? Or is it that this is something that’s happening, and it will just leave?

It’s so important for young people in Birmingham to see their city in the limelight. Birmingham gets quite a negative reputation, so having the games here is very positive for young people to see things happening here.