The New Britons: How Uganda's dispossessed became model citizens

Twenty-five years ago yesterday, the first Ugandan Asians expelled by Idi Amin flew into Stansted Airport. Nearly 30,000 found sanctuary here, establishing thriving communities that have transformed the cultural and economic landscape. Kathy Marks reports on Britain's biggest immigrant success story.
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The Independent Online
They stepped off the plane from Entebbe, penniless, bewildered and frightened, clutching their British passports. In Uganda, they had been part of a prosperous middle class. At a stroke, they lost all their possessions and were uprooted from a country they had lived in for generations.

Six weeks earlier, on 6 August, 1972, President Amin had ordered out Uganda's 60,000 Asians, giving them 90 days to leave. In a speech to troops at Tororo barracks, he accused them of sabotaging the economy and failing to integrate.

After prevaricating in the hope that Amin could be persuaded to recant, the British government, under Edward Heath, agreed to accept 30,000 British passport holders. They were allowed to take only pounds 50 out of Uganda.

In their adopted homeland, the Ugandan Asians encountered acts of extraordinary kindness. Ordinary people opened up their homes, gave them jobs, taught them English. But these favoured children of the Empire also met with racism and hostility. Only a few years earlier, Enoch Powell's "rivers of blood" speech had stoked fears that Britain was being swamped by immigrants.

In Smithfield, London, meat porters marched in protest at Britain becoming a "dumping ground". In Leicester, newspaper advertisements advised the "settlers" to go elsewhere, declaring the city "full up".

In the event, Leicester was one of the places where Asians settled in numbers, together with Birmingham, Manchester and the London boroughs of Brent and Ealing.

Starting from scratch, they overcame racism and the cultural divide to set up corner shops that provided the springboard for their financial security. The shops have become part of the British landscape, and in some cases expanded into business empires. In Leicester, Ugandan Asians now employ 11 per cent of the population. With their entrepreneurial skills, work ethic and high regard for education, they are held up asmodel immigrants.

For Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, the journalist and author, this is part of the myth that has grown up around her people. "Once we were pariahs; now we are paragons," she said. "I feel extremely proud of what we have achieved, but we were not blameless victims.

"There is a reluctance to face the fact that we behaved appallingly towards black Africans in Uganda. It also concerns me that we have not used our economic power to gain access to positions of influence, in politics, for instance. doors remain closed to us."

But Ugandan Asianshave been successful in almost every other area of life. The second generation - the sons and daughters of the corner-shop owners - has spread its wings, going into computers, accountancy, law and medicine.

Twenty-five years on, their identity remains splintered. "We are basically gypsies," said John de Souza, who works for Manubhai Madhvani, the industrialist. "We still have a strong attachment to both India and Africa as well as a lot of affection for Britain. We are a displaced, mixed-up sort of people."

`Expulsions were a blessing in disguise'

Lata Patel, who recently finished a term as mayor of Brent Council, was almost destitute when she arrived in Britain with her husband-to-be in October 1972. She was a 16-year-old schoolgirl when she left Uganda. "We came here with practically nothing," she said.

She got a job as an insurance clerk, but soon joined her husband at the Heron petrol station group. They now run their own petrol stations, and Mrs Patel has been a Brent councillor since1986. "For me, the expulsions have been a blessing in disguise," she said.

`The people extended a welcoming hand'

Manubhai Madhvani, head of a family business conglomerate in Uganda, was imprisoned by Amin for three weeks in 1972. After the expulsions, he set up his own company in London, dealing in glass, property, technology and electronics.

Mr Madhvani is now one of the richest Asians in Britain. He set up the British-Asian Uganda Trust earlier this year, to mark the 25th anniversary. "We came here full of anxiety," he said. "The people extended a welcoming hand, enabling us to make this country our home."