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

Finding your voice, for the sake of others

From the fight for equality in apartheid South Africa to helping the visually impaired in Bradford

‘Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.’
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Life can so often be heart wrenchingly unfair as humanity rips lives, families, and communities apart through the lack of value for basic human rights. Often onlookers struggle to know how to respond, leaving injustice unchallenged. So, what compels someone to act? To stand in the gap and fight for the rights of others?

Gwyneth has a fire in her belly for justice and fully comprehends the power of both her voice and actions to fight inequality. From risking her life during the apartheid years in South Africa to teaching the visually impaired youth of Bradford, she has devoted her time and energy to making this world a fairer place. And she’s had fun doing so.

As she talks about her early life, the origins of her core values become clear. “I grew up in a suburb called Rivonia, the same one that Nelson Mandela was hiding in until being arrested. She says, “You’d be walking in the streets on a Saturday and there’d be people pointing guns at you. I didn’t know anything different, that’s what it was like. Although we did have domestic workers, I was always taught to respect all adults. It was clear that Sarah was in charge when my parents were away.”

She continues, “In fact I was more scared of Sarah than my mother, she was far more strict! However, I’d visit other family houses and the women who worked there were treated like dirt, and so I saw inequality from an early age.

She was taught by her parents to value everyone as equals. “All my life we were told ‘be true unto thyself’ and ‘treat others as thou wouldst be done to you.’ Although these words come from Christ’s teachings, she was never forced into religion. “My mum just believed there was a higher being and that all religions are the same.”

Within the context of the culture of South Africa at that time, she speaks of how her parents helped to liberate her thinking. With energy in her voice and a twinkle in her eye she says, “They were quite radical, liberal South Africans. Every weekend our home was like a big open house and all these young students hung out and discussed things in front of us. No subject was taboo; sex, religion, politics, you name it.” She continues, “We were probably politicised by these young students, as we listened and learned from all those conversations.”

It wasn’t just her home life that shaped her. “All my schooling was segregated, and so I grew up seeing discrimination written into law.” She recalls, “I fought against it any way I could, my view was ‘everyone is equal’ so I was always in trouble for questioning things.”

Another pivot in life came when her brother turned eighteen. He was conscripted into the army and sent to fight against ‘the communist danger’. She recalls with a mixture of incredulity and sadness, “My brother was one of those who would have been shooting domestic workers in townships if they were protesting against the government. A lot of his friends died in the fighting and there were also quite a lot of military suicides. He came back as an alcoholic.” Witnessing the effects of the apartheid on someone she loved compelled her further into action.

After studying fine art at university, she became a primary school teacher and began challenging students on their cultural norms, behind closed doors she was also helping the ‘End Conscription Campaign’, which was risky. “Anyone who was against F. W. Clerk’s government was seen as the enemy. People were being arrested off the streets and disappearing.”

Unless you have lived in an environment like this it’s hard to comprehend, but Gwynneth explains the lasting impact of this time on her life. “To this day I still don’t keep a personal diary because if meeting times or names were found, you’d be putting other people in danger. I also still carry a big bag with a toothbrush, toothpaste and a change of knickers, because those detained never got any warning, they’d just vanish off the street.” What fueled their dangerous choices? She explains, “We weren’t scared because we knew what we were doing was right.” This in itself is a challenging thought to anyone afraid to stand up for what’s right.

Her political activism eventually led to her fleeing for safety to the UK. “I had to phone my mother every morning so she knew that I was alive. I knew if I got detained I wouldn’t be able to teach again. Quite a few of my friends were in hiding and I was probably next on the list to be interrogated.”

She originally arrived in Nottingham in 1988. “I wasn’t allowed to teach because my African qualifications were not accepted, so my heritage made me seek out new opportunities.” So after working for the Nottinghamshire Royal Society for the Blind for many years she took the opportunity to become the Habilitation Officer with the visually impaired at Bradford Council, and moved to the city in 2011.

Speaking about her work she beams, “Although I worked against the apartheid system in South Africa, it’s the same fight. I’m still fighting for equality. I want to help these young people be proactive to fight for what is rightfully theirs.”

She continues to explain what the fight is actually about. “They’re very capable, independent people who can do so much, yet employers see their disability first and assume they can’t contribute. I encourage them to fight for their rights, but these young people are actually fighting a hierarchy that’s a really hard wall to break down.”

The theme of ‘finding your voice’ returns as this time she talks about the cost involved in doing so. “Teenagers today with Instagram and all the rubbish they have thrown at them, they want to be like their mates. It’s very difficult to be different, so people want to hide their disability.”  She continues, “There’s something important about finding your voice in life. You can’t change who you are, you have to stand up and be counted. I know that for some young people I work with it will never happen because they haven’t got to the stage where they own their disability, for other people, they will jump up and run with it.”

It’s a journey she herself has experienced. “I myself have a hidden disability of dyslexia. I’m an African. I’m a white. I’m an African of European descent. I’ve lived in England for too long now, but I’m not English. When I go home to South Africa I don’t fit in there either now. So I’ve had to make a life within the culture I live in.” She speaks warmly of how the people of Bradford have become like an extended family to her. “I feel more comfortable when I am outnumbered by Black and Asian people rather than in white communities, and because many of the families I work with are second generation Asians they feel the same about fitting in as I do. So it’s like we’re in this together somehow and I often get called ‘auntie’ by the families I know.”

Speaking of her future, she says “I’ve learned so much from the people of Bradford about respect, about working together. I know statistically that Bradford is the youngest growing city within the UK, and we all need to really work together to make sure that all the children here have the best life, to do the best they can and fulfill whatever potential they have.”

She concludes, “I suppose, I own who I am.  I’m proud of who I am and throughout my life I want to inspire others to be who they are, to ask the difficult questions and not be shy, because otherwise they’re not going to achieve things in life. I’ll always see the best in people and encourage them to see the best in themselves.” These are challenging concepts for us all, no matter what fight we’re in.

Story & photos by Tom Harmer

People Library

A Vital Connection

Discovering strength through community.

As you speak with Shaida from Keighley, you quickly get a strong sense of her resilience and fortitude as she shares her journey through the many challenges she has faced in forty years of life. She overcame a debilitating illness, journeyed through twelve pregnancies and now has five children ranging from five to twenty-one years old. She has fought hard to raise and protect her family whilst living within an inner city environment; one which she says has had high levels of drug crime, exploitation of young people, littered streets and a general atmosphere of apathy from many residents towards the local surroundings.

For many people, pressures and circumstances like this would get the better of them, yet Shaida has discovered something she says is “vital to life” – this is the incredible difference that community support groups make to life.

There’s a wonderful wisdom that tumbles out of Shaida as she passionately shares about community; that life is meant to be lived within community, that caring for the unseen in our neighbourhoods is rewarding and that without community her own challenges would have been a lot tougher.

Married at 17 and with her first child at 19, she says “I felt very much thrown into the deep end. I was a young mum and I felt lots of uncertainty about raising my son.” It was during this time that she came across a mums group run from the Keighley Association for Women and Children’s Centre (KAWACC). Shaida found a welcoming environment in which she could build friendships, listen and share. “I didn’t feel alone as a young mum anymore. It gave me this enhanced confidence to face life and it also opened up some opportunities for me.”

Over the next ten years KAWACC became a home away from home for Shaida; a ‘grounding community’ woven together from the rich tapestry of her local neighbourhood. “I just loved being there. I couldn’t stay away and soon began volunteering to help others, which then led onto loads of opportunities for courses – things like hairstyling, reflexology and supported exercise for the elderly. Eventually I ended up on the board where I helped to shape the community work and I was involved for many years.”

In 2004, life took another twist when her daughter was born prematurely and was hospitalised for five months. “Her lungs were not mature enough to breathe,” recalls Shaida. ”My grandma also died only two weeks after she was born. It was such a challenging time for me.”

Her daughter had only been home a week when the health visitor spotted that she was still struggling to breathe and was rushed back into hospital, needing an oxygen mask to survive. Shaida spent a week by her bedside and unknowingly picked up an infection. “I started getting severe pains, but no one could figure out why. I wanted to be strong for my new baby and family but within a few weeks I began losing my mobility and ended up in hospital myself with a spine infection.”

“It was such a tough time for me. In the hospital, I struggled to get to my daughter’s ward and couldn’t even lift her in my arms to comfort her. I remember this real feeling of guilt for that. I felt like a child again, I was helpless.” 

Fortunately they both recovered, but she remembers being exhausted on returning home with all the responsibilities of motherhood to a newborn and her other kids and simply wanted to stay home and sleep. “I suppose there was an element of denial and embarrassment about what I’d gone through, so I just carried on without opening up to anyone.”

With limited adult contact, her health visitor became a highlight of the week and it was during one of these visits that Shaida was encouraged to try a Sure Start parent group held locally at the Highfield Community Centre. This ended up being the life-line that Shaida needed, a connection to other mothers within the community and providing much needed help and support during that time.

Also, around this time a women’s community basketball group began and Shaida found herself being drawn to it. It ended up becoming an essential part of her life and recovery. “To begin with I was a bit cautious. They used to play like it was rugby and I feared that I’d damage my spine, but I grew in courage and it soon became a highlight of my week. I loved going, it was ‘me time’ away from all my responsibilities.” That group of women continued to play together for over ten years.

Reminiscing, Shaida says, “When we choose to be open about what we’re going through, it opens up dialogue and allows others to also share their feelings. That connection with the community always leaves me feeling replenished.”

This ‘open dialogue’ is something she also witnessed through a Near Neighbours scheme – an initiative that brought together Eastern European, Asian and White communities from her neighbourhood to discuss problems they faced. “In such a mixed group of individuals it was wonderful to see how people began sharing openly. We soon realised that we all cared about the same things, we all wanted to see drastic change in our neighbourhood.”

The local drug culture was a common problem for people. “You could see exchanges openly happening in our streets,” says Shaida. “There were gang rings in the area, helicopters constantly overhead and kids were being groomed into those gangs, but there didn’t seem to be anything we could do apart from stopping our own kids from getting involved”

The other shared issues were litter on the streets, a lack of activities for youth, no work opportunities and a feeling that no-one cared for the environment they were all living in. This led to several litter picks throughout the area, and a greater unity and understanding between the different communities. “Sometimes it’s scary to talk, but unless people speak up the bad things will continue to happen,” she explains.

One of Shaida’s fondest memories of community cohesion was when she attended a two night multi-faith rural retreat to a bunkhouse in Malham. Individuals that would never normally meet shared activities, meals and cleaning rotas. She recalls that “getting out of the inner city into the countryside and working alongside people from different backgrounds and faith opened up so many barriers. We had open discussions about our differences and the whole thing emphasised womanhood over religion. There was such a calmness there which really nurtured me.”  Over the years, Shaida’s involvement at the Highfield Centre has moved from firstly accepting support, to then volunteering and she’s now working part-time as a staff member.

One area she really values is working alongside the elderly. “It’s sad. A lot of the elderly people are undervalued, they often don’t feel like anyone cares or their opinions don’t matter anymore, but they’ve got so much wisdom and experience to share. I find that I can relate to what they’re going through, I understand pain and what a feeling of helplessness is like. The isolation they often feel, how they may not want to leave home or get out of bed. I guess I have compassion for them because of what I’ve gone through over the years.”

Her experiences have led her to being a massive champion of community work and its benefits to all involved.  “We’ve recently set up a gardening group on Wednesday afternoons in a local council owned space, where we bring the young and old together. We’re going to turn an overgrown space into a garden with flowers and vegetables. I want us all to be able to sit around a table one day and eat a meal with some of what we’ve grown…the conversations are brilliant, it’s so therapeutic gardening together.”

For Shaida, community has been a place of refuge, a sanctuary in the midst of the challenges of life. It’s become home, a place where friendships are formed and lives are strengthened through connection. “I’ve personally felt so much compassion, care and value within groups I’ve been involved in,” she says. It’s these values of care, compassion, empathy, listening and valuing that Shaida continues to model through her work today.

Over the years, Shaida has witnessed the situation with gangs improving and there’s now a real drive on clearing litter within the community – so there have been lots of positive changes. “Bradford is a beautiful place,” she says. “There’s some horrible stuff that happens on the side but there’s a lot of good. The help I’ve seen communities provide through COVID has been incredible.”

She ends with this thought: “I find at the centres I portray myself as more confident than I am at home. I tell the ladies you are strong, beautiful, you can do this. By hearing and saying it to the others, it reinforces it to myself, like a ripple effect.” It’s that ripple effect of value, strength and compassion that we all need in our lives. And it starts when we step outside our homes and unite with others to build community.

People Library

Moments of connection

One man’s journey into dance and choreography, around the World and back again – always seeing the beauty and magic in both people and dance.

People Library

Finding ‘home’ in a City of Sanctuary

As a Rohingya Muslim and refugee from Myanmar, sixteen year old Rabea Sultana understands the power of her story and value of her freedom. The opportunity she received of UK citizenship and new life in Bradford is one she intends to use through her voice for the benefit of all humanity.