People Library

Let Fear Fall Behind

There’s a deep sense of hope and conviction in those who not only overcome barriers in life, but are then fueled by a desire to build a better future and continue to excel in their pursuits. These people carry a belief that anything is possible if you’ve got the courage and commitment to sacrifice time and energy to realise your dreams.

London born and Bradford raised Joshua Chima is an inspirational and humble young man and although he’s not comfortable with his journey being described as ‘barrier breaking’ he’s one of the few northern, working class, black people to graduate with a Law degree from Oxford University and it’s been a journey that’s required a lot of focus and determination.

Shortly after starting his degree, Joshua found himself in the midst of a media spotlight after a photo of him and his friends went viral, hitting the mainstream newspapers. “It was insane, this was my first week” he recalls.

Joshua and nine other black undergraduates had recreated a famous photo from 1987 that featured Boris Johnson and David Cameron while they were students. “It was a cool, funny photo we’d taken to share with our friends back home, explaining further he says “As if to say ‘Look at them then, and look at us now. If we can get here, you guys can too’.”

The photo was intended to break the stereotypical view of an Oxbridge student and show that everyone has a right to study there no matter their socio-economic or cultural background. “It certainly wasn’t to make a big political statement, but it just blew up.” says Joshua.

“I come from humble beginnings – It was just me and my mum living together in inner-city Manningham, we were very close” he explains. “Bradford was very segregated in terms of areas, the outskirts had a lot more white and the inner-city had a huge Asian community, so I was one of a few black people I knew at the time, but I learnt a lot of cultural things from my neighbours and friends and just knew it as Bradford.”

His mum previously lived in Zambia as a successful senior teacher at an international school before taking a teaching opportunity in the UK.  However, on arrival she found she wasn’t allowed to work because of her immigration status and that none of her qualifications were recognised, which led to both limited financial resources and work opportunities.

Hehas fond childhood memories though, and was too young to be aware of the struggles his mum faced. “I remember when we had the ‘big freeze’ thing. I was about seven years old, and my mum moved our bed through to the kitchen so we could use the stove as heating,” he says with a smile. ”I remember it was cold but at the time I wasn’t worried, I found it really fun. It was only later that I realised we couldn’t afford the heating.”

Joshua facing camera outside his former secondary School "St Bede's" in Bradford.

Refusing to be held back by her circumstances, his mum led by example. “She wanted to teach again, so self funded her whole education; GCSE’s, college, University and now finishing her PhD, she will soon start lecturing at the university.”  It’s been a long journey but his mum always said, ‘I’m doing this to encourage you. You need to be aspirational in life and know your current situation will not be forever.’

Her tenacity was mirrored in their applications for becoming UK citizens, which took seventeen years in total. Joshua was registered as a citizen at six years old (2008) but his mum’s decision took another eight years (2016) and he remembers during those years that his mum’s friends were frightened they could get separated if she was deported whilst waiting for a decision.

As Joshua shares his story, you realise the huge influence his mother has had. “She’s my hero,” he says. “When I think about everything she’s overcome and had to work through, what I’m facing now is not significant.” Speaking about the source of her strength, Joshua says, “Her faith probably. She’s a very prayerful lady. I think that’s a big part of her resilience and also for me, God has been a huge part of my life too,” and describes how prayer sustained them through the years of immigration process.

Her philosophy on life and love for education was also formative for Joshua’s future. During primary school she worked through revision books with him in the evenings, and when it came to his rebellious years during secondary school “She’d tell teachers they didn’t need her permission to hold me back in detention and always supported them when I got told off. I thought ‘what’s her problem?’.”

At the time Joshua hated it, but looking back he realises it kept him on the straight and narrow and had a huge impact on his life. “Some of my friends from school are in prison now.” he says solemnly.

Another key character building experience has been his passion for music and approach to learning it. “Piano was my console when I was young and I’d spend hours learning how to play pieces of music. I used to record myself and other people thought it sounded great, but all I could hear were the mistakes. So I’d keep practising until I got it perfect.”

He continues, “There’s a lot of frustration in that process. You try it, you fail, you try it, you fail until you finally get it, then you can’t stop playing and it feels amazing. The work pays off and you get a sense of completion and you realise that actually it wasn’t that hard. What looked impossible before, is now possible and looks effortless.”

These principles of persistence and dedication have definitely contributed to his Oxford application process. He spent the month leading up to his LNAT (Law National Admissions Test) practising past papers. Each paper took two hours and he completed one every night, for a month. “It was just hell, horrible, but my score improved and when I did the test I got a good score.”

He was also wise enough to ask for help. “When I applied to Oxford I felt very alone, because I didn’t know anyone who could help, so I had to develop those connections.” At 16, Joshua reached out to law firms in Leeds for work experience and then leveraged those connections for advice. He also spoke to members of The Bradford Club. “They were in their eighties, but a lot of them went to Oxford and they also offered to help me prepare.”

Joshua smiling at camera

No-one knew that he was applying for Oxford, not even his mum “It was a form of protection. I didn’t want anyone to discourage me, because I had this thought ‘people like me’ (working class and black) don’t go to places like that.”

Opening up about why he felt this way, he shares how one of his mum’s friends responded after he told her he wanted to be a lawyer ‘You’ll never get a job like that’ she said ‘black people don’t get jobs like that!’

“At the time it was annoying hearing it,” he says. “But in hindsight I can appreciate why she may have felt that way because of her experiences with discrimination and that she was trying to prepare me for the harshness of reality that comes with being an immigrant.”

On his interview day in Oxford Joshua found himself sitting round a horseshoe table with thirty other applicants. “I remember thinking ‘wow, there’s only six places’ and being really nervous, but I then decided to suppress those feelings and remind myself that I was good enough and ended up enjoying the interview.”

After he was offered a place, Joshua says “That’s when hell started.” His mum was obviously thrilled, but teachers and parents of friends told him that he ‘didn’t have the class to fit in’ or that ‘he’d never be good enough’ or questioned ‘why you?’. “I was shocked,” he says. “I thought, ‘what’s wrong with these people?’” However, he ignored the negativity and gained grades beyond what he needed.

The Oxford experience didn’t disappoint. “I had the best time ever. The buildings were inspiring and everyone came from all across the world and had lived such different lives to me. It’s like a completely different world, they have a specific way of behaving, like there’s a culture code. I just went in with an open mindset.”

“I feel like I’m one of the first black people from my background to break through. Each year the intake is around 3,000. In my year there were only 106 black students, however the majority of those were from London and the south, so the northern, working class representation isn’t there yet.”

During his time at Oxford Joshua made a commitment to represent his heritage and rose through the ranks of the famous Oxford Union debating society. He ended up as Treasurer (second to the top) where he pioneered the first ever ‘Black History Month’ panel and ‘Social Access’ event the society had ever held.

Now that he’s graduated, Joshua is going into corporate law and says, “I don’t want to become someone that makes loads of money but does nothing to help society, which is why I’m also drawn to public service. I want to have a voice that represents people from my background.”

He continues, “Law engages me intellectually and it governs every bit of everything we do as a society. I’m very interested in the broader picture of how law incentivises people to behave and influences how societies run. Also public international law and the broader big picture of politics, how governments interact with other governments – I find that very interesting and it’s got the potential to improve people’s lives.”

Joshua is humble about his achievements to date and likes to inspire others. During the pandemic he started a CIC (Community Interest Company) called ‘The Opportunity Directory’ after several other working class Oxford hopefuls reached out for advice on LinkedIn. “I’ve done this whole journey and if I can help other people, I will. The main thing is to take down the blockers people believe. The ceiling’s in their mind and I want to encourage them to see beyond that.”

“When goals feel unobtainable, you have to focus and figure out how to get there, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Keep reminding yourself, ‘If this is what I want to do, then why can’t I do it.’ Fear is always there, I still struggle with it now, but sometimes you just need to let it walk with you, and eventually it’ll fall behind.”

Joshua in City Park Bradford with a fountain and City Hall behind him.

“There is still racism in the UK,” Joshua says. “But it’s subtle and easy to deny that it exists, which makes it hard to fight against. On a surface level things have changed and we have laws against discrimination, but people hang on to unconscious bias and don’t recognise it. So even though the laws are there, the behaviour and actions of the people haven’t caught up yet,”

When asked what needs to change, he says “This sounds like such a basic thing, but seeing people as people is what’s needed rather than making assumptions. Just see me as an individual human being, like a blank canvas.”

He summarises, “Coming from Bradford gave me a sense of individuality at Oxford because most people were from the south. I’m also proud to come from Bradford, it’s what’s shaped me into the person I am today.”

Joshua firmly believes in the importance of representation across all areas of society. “I’ve met people from wealthy backgrounds at Oxford that genuinely care about places like Bradford, but they just don’t understand it because they’ve not grown up here.”

Which is why stories like Joshua’s are so important for others to hear and be inspired by, stories that celebrate strength of belief, dedication and challenging the status quo. “If more people from more diverse backgrounds go to places like Oxford, so long as they don’t forget where they come from they will drive change because they’re driving from their experiences.”

Story and photography by Tom Harmer

People Library

Out of sight, out of mind.

“There’s good and bad in us all, but Gypsy Travellers get painted with the one brush…”

A huge part of our identities as human beings is our individual culture and heritage, it shapes what we value and influences our approach to life. As time passes and society evolves these cultural identities are often challenged and threatened, each generation is given the responsibility to protect, teach and uphold them for the future.

Dublin-born Kathleen is full of warmth and strength. A Bradford resident and Irish Traveller, she’s incredibly proud of her heritage and aspires to uphold her culture and traditions, “It’s how I was brought up and how I brought my children up, and now I’m trying to get my grandchildren on the same track,” she says.

She traces her roots back to County Wexford in the Republic of Ireland, but Yorkshire has always been a massive part of her life. “I grew up on the roadside. We’d stay in Yorkshire in the winter, but then we’d move around all over the country in the summertime; the Midlands, Scotland, Wales, but we’d always come back to Leeds or Bradford in October, as long as it was Yorkshire.”

“There were no phones when I was growing up, so when my father decided it was time to shift, we’d just head to somewhere like Birmingham and find someone we knew,” She recalls the excitement of reuniting with friends from previous years and the joy of a community where “everybody mixed.”

Her upbringing was bursting with community, family, culture and food. “My mother always had a fire going, cooking outside in big black pots, hearty food such as bacon and cabbage, bacon ribs and stew,” she continues, “It’s all proper food and everybody would come over when they smelled our food,” she says, with a smile.

To this day, Kathleen carries on this value of generosity and hospitality, always preparing more than enough food to share with her community. “Anyone elderly we feed, I send dinner up and down everywhere. I don’t have a plate left because most of them don’t come back. So now I’ve bought them all plastic plates to send them up.” It’s clear that this camaraderie is a key influence in forming such close-knit Traveller communities.

There’s a deep sense of communal living in both Kathleen’s home and the site she lives on, she explains, “We’re strong on family values, everyone keeps an eye out for everyone’s child and we take care of the older people, we’d never send them to care homes.”

As the youngest of twelve children, with ten brothers and one sister, she speaks fondly of her own childhood. “Day to day it was just nice, you know, we weren’t playing computer games like today. I was like a tomboy and we played out all the time. It was a better way of life and it was a healthier way of life.”

As travelling communities begin to settle more, she feels the children are missing out on experiencing a variety of life, and explains, “It’s not good for children to be cooped up. When you live roadside you mix with different cultures, it helps to teach morals.”

By the age of eighteen, her parents had stopped travelling and chose to settle in London. “They haven’t been on the roadside since. When you’re settled it’s a different way of life but you never forget the traveller’s life. As long as you have food and water, you don’t need nothing else.”

Another cornerstone of the Gypsy Traveller community is the skill of self-reliance and problem solving. “Travellers are self-taught, you know what I mean, they don’t go to colleges. You just do whatever you put your mind to.  I want every traveller to have the chance to provide for themselves.”

She explains how boys begin working like men aged thirteen, and by seventeen they’re ready to go and do their own thing, “so long as they get a licence and a real motor they get up and go.”

For girls though, there were different expectations. “When I was growing up, girls didn’t leave home, they stayed at home to get married.” She reminisces, “When I got up in the morning, my routine was to make a cup of tea for my parents, then wash through the cans (milk churns) and windows outside. It was different to the boys, because I had to do the housework.”

Kathleen moved back to Yorkshire when she was nineteen years old to get married. Sadly, her husband died aged only twenty-eight, leaving her to raise their children on her own. “I’ve never considered getting re-married. I don’t think anyone would have looked down on me or anything because I was young and had young children, but they’ve got more respect for me now.”

Kathleen then explains the importance in the community of keeping loved ones’ memories alive and shares how they value life and death in equal parts. “We mention everyone we’ve lost everyday, so they’re not forgotten about. My brother died forty-five years ago and we talk about him every day.”

Once a year, Kathleen visits a cemetery in Ireland, underscoring these values. “It’s a respect thing. All our ancestors are buried there. People come from all over Ireland and England on one specific day, and we all stand by their graves – it’s like a blessing.” She continues, “Our people belong to us, when they die they’re more important than when they were alive.”

Bradford is renowned as a space of sanctuary and safety, welcoming communities across the world to make it their home. For centuries, the vibrant tapestry of Bradford has been woven together with the diverse threads of the Irish Traveller community, whether it has been a pit stop for those who embody a nomadic lifestyle, or somewhere to call home. When asked about her own experience, she says, “It’s like home. I’ve been here since I was 5, I’m 57 now, so 52 years I’ve lived between Leeds and Bradford.”

Kathleen lives on the Mary Street site in Bradford, designated for the Gyspy Traveller community. “We used to stop here years ago when I was about eight. It was a potato yard and it was all built up, all along here there were shops and public houses, whereas now it’s all gone and it’s industrial.”

“Since then they’ve opened up a sand quarry across the way, and a tip behind us.” Like many in Kathleen’s community, a prevailing sentiment of being overlooked persists. “No one can see us because we’re blocked in these walls and we’ve got enough cameras, we’re like being on ‘Big Brother’,” which seems to perpetuate her feeling of being out of sight and out of mind.

Explaining the history of where she lives, she says, “This site to start with was looked into for a housing estate and they said it wasn’t fit for humans to live, but yet they could make a traveller site on it – so what is the difference? The fact that this site is managed by environmental health tells me everything.”

She continues, “We’re full of sand twenty four seven, everybody on this site has got issues with their chest breathing. You can’t breathe in the night, it’s like you’re choking because of the sand” and then the additional impact of living behind a garbage facility, “we’ve got flies everywhere, it’s not nice when you’re eating.”  

She’s concerned, and so are other families and parents, for the future wellbeing of their children.There have been positive talks about moving the site and it probably will happen at some stage but not for a few years yet.

The multicultural nature of Bradford is one of the main reasons Kathleen has been able to call Bradford home for so long, because she feels more welcome here amongst other minority groups than in other parts of the country.

For example, the Asian community, “Indians and Pakistanis, they’re tret like us. They understand our way of life and we understand theirs. This town is full of lots of cultures and they’re more comfortable with us than, say, the white community. Some don’t understand us and just think ‘ah, it’s the stinking gypsies’.”

On one hand, society is becoming more accepting and inclusive of previously excluded minority groups, yet on the other it is seemingly trying to erase a way of life for the Traveller community. “We don’t want to change anything. We just want to get on with the life that we’ve always led,” Kathleen says.

A charity worker who works alongside Kathleen and the Gypsy Traveller community says, “In my 20-year career of working with some of the most marginalised communities, I can honestly say that the Gypsy Traveller community face the worst discrimination and racism. I would like to say that they have also been the most welcoming and inspiring to me in my work in challenging people’s inaccurate views and perceptions.”

Kathleen then shares numerous instances of discrimination and stereotyping she has encountered as an Irish Traveller and how she’s always had a feeling of being an unwanted outsider in society, “There’s good and bad in us all, but we all get painted with the one brush,” she says.

Unjust stereotypes brand Travellers as thieves that “live in a jungle and run around with no shoes on”. There is a real sense of persecution and fear within the community. Kathleen describes feelings of being unsafe and vulnerable as soon as she leaves the site, creating a feeling of never truly belonging.

She believes media representation is partly to blame for reinforcing stereotypes and failing to acknowledge the community’s positive actions. Her community’s charitable support for vulnerable people in society go unnoticed, such as large country-wide donations to food banks and children’s hospitals.

It’s disheartening that our positive efforts rarely receive recognition; the spotlight always seems to be on the negative aspects of our community,” says Kathleen. One shining light however is the boxer Tyson Fury. “He’s pushing all the limits and he knows where he comes from. Every traveller, it doesn’t matter what they’ve got, they don’t lose their morals, they want to keep their culture,” she says. “He’s just like us, he’s all about his family.”

Preserving Traveller tradition is important for Kathleen, particularly due to external influences threatening the continuity of her rich, cultural heritage, but at the same time Kathleen recognizes the need to modernise, specifically in education and work.

Kathleen says, “I never went to school when I was a child because I’m telling you we were roadside. Here today, gone tomorrow.” However, when she became a parent, ensuring her own children received an education became a priority. “I think everyone should have the right to read,” she says.

Another cultural shift Kathleen has been part of, is supporting her daughter into further education and now championing her choice to go to work. “It’s only in the last ten years this has happened,” Kathleen explains. “Before that women didn’t work, they didn’t leave home. They done what had to be done at home, like housework. They looked after the younger ones or whatever.” There are still many women in the community that don’t work, but more and more women are going out to find a vocation, and Kathleen feels it’s a good trend. 

As Kathleen passionately shares her life as a Traveller, although some aspects of culture are changing, it’s clear that nothing will ever change her identity. The strength of the community is in how they value and look after each other and pass on their traditions from generation to generation.

However, she feels the world around her is becoming less tolerant of her way of life, trying to brush this traditional way of living out of sight, and out of mind. “It’s a culture and I don’t think they’ll ever stop it, but they’re doing their best to try,” she continues “You can’t think you’re better than anyone else, we’re all the same. It’s not right to look down on someone else.”

Conversation must be had to create positive social change and support greater understanding of the Gypsy and Traveller communities and unite in the face of inequality. Bradford and our wider society have an opportunity to challenge perceptions and be open to understanding the Traveller way of life. Surely we can find a way to live alongside each other, celebrating our differences, looking at those with a different way of life and thinking about how society can champion their cherished traditions. 

Story co-written by People Library Mentee Nathan McGill and Storyteller/Mentor Tom Harmer

Photos by Nathan McGill