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In Service of the People - Dewan Shamsul Islam

In Service of the People - Dewan Shamsul Islam

Issue 95 August 2012

Burning with a desire to ensure his brothers got the education he never had, Shamsul came to Britain in 1958 to earn some money. Since then, his entrepreneurial spirit and generosity have made him a pillar of the community.


With an ancestry that ranges from Royal Mughal advisors and teachers to imams and farmers, the onus upon me to make something of my life was intense. My grandfather died at an early age leaving behind a widow and eight young children. In a male dominated society, my grandmother was forced to sell the vast lands my family had owned for generations in order to provide for her children. After years of prosperity  and we descended into poverty.


I was born in Moulvi Bazaar, Bangladesh on 2nd February 1931. I was the second eldest of seven boys and one girl. I attended only two years of primary school as we were short of money, so I had to work on the farm with my father, who was also an imam at the local mosque. Although my desire to learn had been stifled by the early termination of my schooling, I understood the duty I had to my family and ensured that at least some of my brothers studied to a higher level. With the help of Nurul, my immediate younger brother to whom I was especially close, I strove to help my family return to the high standards of achievement of the past. Three of my brothers later graduated from university, which made us all happy and proud.


At 25, I married Nurjahan, but she died of a sudden illness after only two years. We had been very happy and her death left me feeling incredibly lonely. In 1958, I received news that Britain was seeking migrant workers. So I departed for England on 17th February 1958 in search of a new life. I had heard  much about the riches that were to be found in the UK, but I left the country of my birth feeling nervous about heading for a land so far from home. 


The first thing I noticed was the weather—the cold hit me like a hammer blow, but I adapted quickly and began to appreciate the better sides of England. Looking back, I had never experienced racism, which is probably why I have felt so welcome and happy to settle here and make Britain my home. From the airport, I took a cab to meet one of only three people I knew in the UK—Abdul Khodor. He paid my taxi fare and booked me a ticket to Coventry where I worked in a factory for three years, earning £7 a week. I sent as much money as I could to Bangladesh, the bulk of which was intended for Tajul, my brother who was then studying in India.


The greatest difficulty I faced, bar the loneliness of being apart from my family, was not being able to speak, read or write English. At break times, the foreman would tap my shoulder, point at his watch and make eating gestures with his hand to indicate it was break time. Soon, a Bengali-English dictionary was sent by Tajul and while I worked in the day, I would spend the evenings teaching myself English.


In 1961, I leased a small grocery shop and moved into the flat above. I soon realised the urgency of owning and driving a car. I took five lessons at 20 pence each and passed my test. I was the first Bangladeshi in the region to hold a driving licence and own a car—this brought a sense of excitement and achievement that I had not felt in years. In 1963, Nurul and my cousin Abdul Goni joined me in Coventry.


My heart was elated at the reunion with my brother after five long years, but unfortunately, there was no work available in Coventry. I eventually found work for them some 40 miles away in a small town called Loughborough. A year later, I sold my shop and bought a house in Loughborough, and began work as a crane operator in an engine factory.


After eight years in the UK, I returned to Bangladesh in 1966 for a family reunion. I re-married and brought my wife, Nurun, to the UK with me. She was the first female migrant amongst the Bangladeshi community in Loughborough.


As the Muslim community in Loughborough grew, I saw an increasing need for a mosque. Prayer gatherings and Arabic studies for children were vital. I hired local churches and school halls for Eid prayers, and invited the men to pray jummah in my front room. I later initiated the building of a mosque.


Due to the lack of halal meat provision in Loughborough, I turned the front room of my house into a makeshift shop, selling meat and chicken during the weekends and some evenings. I made an agreement with the local abattoir and began this important service for the community, and remember customers travelling from neighbouring towns and cities for halal meat. In 1970, I purchased a shop for £7,000 and named it Shah Jalal Stores, after a famous Bangladeshi pioneer. As the community grew, people of all ethnicities came to my shop. I attracted a lot of customers, many of whom were homesick students and workers. I always sought to welcome them, remembering my own situation when I had first arrived in England. The memory of Abdul Khodor’s kindness inspired me to reach out to the community, and to search far and wide to source their diverse


national foods. My wife and I would invite them to our home for meals. Sadly, Nurun died in 2000. She was my life-partner for over 30 years. Shamsun, my wife now, is also very generous and my grandchildren travel miles for her biriyani.


As the train station was near my store, newly arrived migrants and students from all corners of the world would come in search of me, and I would help them settle into their homes, drop them off to university, or help them find jobs. The people formed a real sense of attachment to me, and 40 years later, I am serving the children and grandchildren of my very first customers who would pass on name and address to their family and friends abroad starting the same journey that they had under gone.


The entire wealth of families was sold to fund flights for workers and education fees for students. I remember a young student who came here with his wife and baby. He did not have enough money to rent accommodation and so I offered them a small house I owned at a fraction of the rent. Even then, the student struggled, and at the end of his education, he owed me six months’ rent, which I waived. But two years later, he paid and I felt a great sense of joy knowing that he was doing well.


Some 30 years after my arrival to UK, marking the 18th anniversary of my store in 1988, I changed its name to British Islamic Stores. I noticed how the (non-Muslim) British people practised Islam more than in some Muslim nations.


Britain had social justice, kindness, and an infrastructure designed to help empower its people. I saw Islam in the British way of life, and I wanted to reflect my passion for Britain in my store. Long before the Muslim identity debate even began, I knew full well my place. I loved Britain, this was my home and I was proud of it. As my brothers and I settled down with our families in Loughborough, our dreams and aspirations found a wider scope.


Our greatest hope was for our children to be in higher education, and serve their community well. Our children were the first in the Bangladeshi community of Loughborough to go in to university. My nephew was the first to graduate and he became a barrister. This was a moment of great joy for me and his father Nurul, as well as the whole extended family. He was a great inspiration for a whole generation of the community. I am grateful to God that our children have achieved so much; I never really worried about their future as I firmly believed and constantly prayed for God to guide them and help them become good people.


Now, at the age of 81, I still find myself busy serving customers and making time to enjoy the company of my 19 grandchildren, the eldest of who—Seema—was born 19 years ago. She is set to study at Cambridge University.


I pray and hope she and others will lead fulfilling lives and be mindful of their duties to others, and hope they will serve people more than we were capable of. I feel content in my life and believe I achieved the little I could within my capacity. I remain grateful to God for His never-ending kindness.


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