Power of Diversity

I first met Bushra Ali around two years ago. We had both been asked to speak at an event being run by the then Chief Executive of the Leicestershire Aids Support Service. Bushra was on first and gave a personal account of how she had got in to law. I didn’t know anything about Bushra prior to our meeting on that day. She spoke of her background as a Pakistani female brought up in a predominately white area of North Wales in the 1970s and 1980s and how her father, a traditional Muslim man supported her to go away to university, taking her and all her worldly belongings to Manchester University to study law. This was a big deal in Pakistani terms. A young female who was allowed to live away from home, supported to get herself an education and little pressure by her parents to be married off at a tender age and fulfil a conventional housewife role. Bushra also spoke of her brilliant career progression, facing numerous barriers because of her gender and cultural background and how she overcame these to eventually set up her own law firm. Not only this but in 2018 she has been elected as the president of Leicester Law Society. She is one impressive lady.

Most of all, I remember her talking about when she first went to school at the age of 5. Until she went to school no one had picked up the fact that she was born with congenital cataracts. She was practically blind until she had operations to remove them. There were risks associated with the operation but thankfully the vision in her eyes was restored. Here was someone who had some idea what it was like not to be able to see. Someone who had empathy and compassion because of the fact that she had experienced barriers in her life. So, on a number of levels Bushra and I had some shared experiences. We exchanged contact details and I didn’t expect to hear from her, as I knew she would be a very busy woman.

However, it wasn’t long before Bushra invited me to speak at one of her “Connect” networking events. These are fairly small events with the emphasis on quality rather than the quantity of people who meet and exchange ideas and skills. They are wonderful events to be involved with.

So, during late summer Bushra informed me that she was organising an event called “Diversity in the Community.” Would I be interested in speaking at it? It sounded very interesting. I didn’t hesitate and took her up on her offer. The event took place on the evening of Friday 19th October 2018. I wasn’t quite sure how big the event was going to be or the content of it. A couple of weeks prior the event I asked Bushra what did she want me to talk about. A week later while I was in Gerona on holiday I got an urgent type of message through LinkedIn asking,

“Dear Haseeb, are you still getting my emails? Are you still coming to my event or has something changed?”

This conversation took place between 6.30 and 8.30 pm on 11th October. I assured Bushra that I was planning on coming but that I was on my hols. We exchanged around 6 messages before I signed off by saying to Bushra I would send her everything she needed from me the following week, when I was back at work. I realised how much this meant to Bushra and I really didn’t want to let her down. I was so impressed with her dedication and commitment not only to this event but others like it she has organised raising money for worthy causes.

On the evening of the Diversity in the Community event, Mary and I found the City Rooms. As soon as we arrived we were greeted by Bushra’s warm welcome. Pictures taken we were ushered upstairs and took our place at one of the top tables. On our table was sat a gentleman who, I guessed, was talking to his daughter or granddaughter. He told me his name was Mark and that he was with his daughter aged 9. Her name was Angel which is the English translation from Tai. Mark himself was from the UK and his wife from Thailand. I didn’t get the background story of how Mark met his wife that would have been interesting. Mark did tell me that he served in the army in the 1970s and 1980s before being discharged with a knee injury. He explained Angel had been invited to perform a dance just before I went up to speak. To my right was Lord Willy Bach, Leicestershire Police and Crime Commissioner. We were the two guest speakers. I hadn’t realised until a few days prior to the event that I was going to be the warm up act for Lord Bach. Criky I thought, I had better do a good job. While Lord Bach and I were chatting he remarked,

“I suppose you will be telling a few jokes. My speech is rather serious.”

I thought to myself that I clearly come across as a comedian. I think I will leave the stand up to my brother Toseef.

I really didn’t appreciate how prestigious this event was going to be. A couple of days before, I had spotted a post by Bushra commenting that the event had been sold out. Indeed the room was packed. I am sure there must have been around 150 people in the large function suite. The nerves were beginning to kick in.

It was around 7.30 pm when starters were served. Again, I wasn’t too sure what to expect. The Indian food served, however, were divine. The caterers had come all the way from Birmingham. Now I am pretty fussy about my Indian cuisine with the best restaurant in Leicester 3 doors down from me (my mum’s). But, this food was top drawer. What a treat.

8.30 soon swung around after some chitter chatter with the other guests who were lovely. The tone was light hearted and jovial. Angel went up and performed her Tai dance to the delight of the audience. Rapturous applause and I was on.

I had been thinking about what I was going to say all week. I hadn’t written anything down and there was no PowerPoint presentation. So I delivered from the hip.

I started by telling everyone that my introduction to the world was passed on to me by my father who I love dearly…he told me that I would never be accepted in to British society, be truly seen as English, that I needed to work twice as hard as anyone else to make it in life and that I should get myself a Pakistani passport…and that was said to me a couple of days after I was born. Laughter and applause. I then told everyone that growing up within two cultures was confusing. As a child my father refused to celebrate Christmas telling me,

“No son, we are Muslims…but, you must write all of your classmates a Christmas card. That is a good thing to do.”

So, my speech touched on my personal life as well as the more serious topic of valuing diversity. I recounted a telephone call at work I received earlier in that week from a Muslim colleague who is a physiotherapist. She had a query on the uniform policy,

“The uniform policy states that if you are a female who for religious reasons needs to where a scarf, it says, it needs to be plain and a dark colour. I where a yellow or orange scarf but they are dark yellow or orange. Yet, my manager says I have to wear blue or black. However, the policy doesn’t state a colour.”

I told the audience that my response to my colleague went something like this,

“Well, what you won’t know as you have not met me is that I am blind. As far as I am concerned I really don’t care what colour scarf you where.”

This was met with much laughter and applause from the guests. I went on to talk about the many judgements that are made by people based on external appearances. While I too have unconscious biases, being blind I’m not able to judge others on how they look. Although 99.9% of our DNA as human beings are the same (we breathe, eat, sleep, bleed the same, and we have the same emotions), we often choose to focus our differences on the 0.1% of variation which are the external physical factors such as skin colour and other physical features.

My speech was only 10 minutes in duration but it seemed to go down very well. We had mains which was again exquisite and then some more entertainment from a young girl of 11, called Neeve, who sang “Hallelujah”. She was just brilliant. A lovely voice. It sounds silly but I really felt emotional. Neeve and her mum Cindy had approached me before she sang to buy one of my books. I didn’t expect such a beautiful singing voice to emerge from such a young person. It was truly wonderful to be surprised in that way. While she sang I thought of the amazing opportunities she will have ahead of her. Hopefully all the great work carried out by Bushra and others in the room will pave the way for Neeve’s generation to flourish without any obstacles or barriers. No talent should go unrecognised or go to waste.

Then, Lord Willy Bach delivered an excellent talk about the work he is doing as Police and Crime Commissioner to open up opportunities for people with protected characteristics within the Police Force in Leicestershire. And, then there was more entertainment. More singing and then for me the highlight of the evening was to listen to an exceptional young lawyer play the tabla. His name is Rishii Chowdhury and runs his own arts company, despite being a full time lawyer. His performance was simply mesmerising. I played conventional drums when I was a teenager and played in a band down in London for a few years. However, the tabla has always fascinated me. I have never played them nor remember what they looked like. I was very lucky in that at the end of the evening I approached Rishii who kindly let me feel the tabla drums and have a little play on them. Maybe we might get a chance to jam some time. You can hear some of his rendition here from a performance back in 2015:

There were also other performances during the evening which were also wonderful, showing off the diverse talents we have in our rich city. I managed to sell a number of my books and gave 40% of the proceeds to the Zinthiya Trust who provide support to women who have faced domestic violence and other disadvantages in life:

https://mychoice.leicester.gov.uk/Services/2201/Zinthiya-Trust#content

I got to meet Bushra’s parents towards the end of the evening. Such humble and lovely people. In fact, I met many wonderful people who approached me during the event. I hope to keep in contact with them all one way or another.

I really hope there are other similar events organised by Bushra in the not too distant future bringing together people and talents from all walks of life. It was a truly inspirational evening Thanks Bushra on behalf of everyone who came…

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1 Comment

  1. Wow this is the best blog I ever read it brings emotions… laugh.. and Pride.. We proud of you Haseeb Ahmed I loved every single words from your blog….. Congrats I look forward to read more In the near future.. Well done bro x

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