'It's not just the racists. We're to blame, too. We don't mix'

Leading 'parallel lives' is responsible for bad race relations in Stoneyholme, where both whites and Asians accept that they fail to integrate. Mary Braid reports
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The Independent Online

In the middle of the Coronation Street terraces of Stoneyholme, in Burnley, Lancashire, only one house stands festooned in tinsel and lights, ready for Christmas. "Everyone else is preparing for the end of Ramadan," laughs Margaret Meeks, 50, one of the few whites left in a rundown neighbourhood that is now home to Burnley's Bangladeshis.

Cultural differences never bothered Mrs Meeks. Her former white neighbours proved more delicate. Through the 1970s and 1980s, Mrs Meeks watched them move out of Stoneyholme as the Bangladeshis, who came to work in the cotton mills, moved in. The Cantle Report into the summer race riots that engulfed Bradford, Oldham and then Burnley, which was published last week, concluded that Asians and whites live in segregated communities, leading entirely separate lives.

The British National Party, crime and poverty have all been cited as catalysts for Burnley's own three days of violent confrontations between hundreds of white and Asian youths, which left Asian-run businesses in ruins and a white-managed pub fire-bombed. But according to Mrs Meeks, it was unprovoked "white flight" that created the original segregation.

"It was silly," she says. "They give up their homes just to move to whiter neighbourhoods. I can remember neighbours walking in and shutting the door if an Asian spoke to them. My nearest neighbour moved out because an Asian moved in next door. And yet he sponsored an Asian child overseas."

Mrs Meeks says she "always got on with the Asians". Her six children continued to attend local schools with Asian children long after the other white kids had been withdrawn. "I did eventually take them out because teachers were having to give too much attention to children who could not speak English. My kids were falling behind."

Mrs Meeks's sister caused a scandal when she married one of the new arrivals 30 years ago. "She changed her name from Joyce to Nasim and became a Muslim," says Mrs Meeks. The couple, still married, lives in the next street.

Sher Ali Miah, secretary of Stoneyholme's Bangladeshi Welfare Association, beams when he speaks of the Meeks, the whites who stayed put. "To an extent I agree that communities lead parallel lives, but we never asked indigenous people to move," he complains. Mr Miah, a former Labour councillor, says the gulf must be bridged but it must be a joint effort. He is furious with Home Secretary David Blunkett's suggestions that citizenship classes and English lessons for immigrants are what is required.

"The British Raj was on the Indian subcontinent for 200 years," he says. "Did they learn our language? Anyway it's a side issue. Racism starts with ignorance and lack of understanding." Mr Miah should know. It is only two weeks since he was shouted down as "a Taliban" by three white men in the local superstore. With the war in Afghanistan "anyone with a beard and a cap" is considered fair game.

Mrs Meek has also found herself curiously connected with the Taliban. One of Nasim's daughters is the ex-wife of Anwar Khan, the young Burnley man whom the Northern Alliance allege they captured fighting for the Taliban in Afghanistan. She agrees with Mr Miah that the war has not been good for local race relations. But she disagrees about English lessons. The only real gripe she has with her Asian neighbours centres on the status of women. And a better gasp of English, she believes, might be women's key to freedom in this tight little ghetto.

"The older women don't practise English because they never go out on their own," argues Mrs Meeks. "While my boys are still mates with the Asian boys from school, my girls never see their old Asian girlfriends. Once the Asian girls are married they never seem to go out. They really ought to give the women a little more leeway." It is a hard claim to verify. There are few Bangladeshi women on the street, and Mr Miah says that local woman are too busy with Ramadan to be interviewed.

A 10-minute walk away, at their Dilpasand fabric shop on Colne Road – the epicentre of the riots – Jan Ashraf, 36, and her sister Nusreen agree that Burnley's Asians and whites hardly mix. But they don't just blame white racists for the division. "We blame ourselves too," says Jan. "We just don't integrate. We have had a fruit shop on this road for 10 years and still don't know many neighbours."

Nusreen says they are too busy with their businesses to mix, and their own inner battles to reconcile their Pakistani parents' culture with the one they grew up in. Born and raised in Oldham, both went to predominantly white co-ed schools. But in their late teens, they were persuaded by their parents, after a deal of resistance, to enter into arranged marriages in Pakistan. "The trouble is that when you bring a man from Pakistan you have to bring him up with your children," laughs Nusreen.

When Jan returned from Pakistan, her new husband insisted she did not go out unless completely covered. She had never been covered before. "So I told him I would rather stay in," she says. "I did the rewiring and the DIY because our dad taught us all that." Eventually her husband gave in. But there have been years of culture clash. Nusreen says her daughter Mehreen, 12, will never be forced into an arranged marriage in the old country.

Nusreen believes greater integration would be good for Burnley but will resist any assault, following the Cantle Report, on religious schools. Mehreen attends an Islamic girls' school. "We believe in Islam and I want Mehreen to know more about it than I do," she says. "I also think boys are a distraction. My sons go to a Christian school, but boys can always get some kind of work even if it's driving a taxi. Girls need more. I want my daughter educated enough to be a doctor if that is what she wants."

Inner-cultural accommodation is as delicate for the women as the wider cultural integration being urged on Burnley. Neither woman completely covers up unless they're in Pakistan. But faces have to be covered for newspaper photographs. The sisters say elderly relatives would be angry to see their faces in the paper. And the sisters do not want to offend.

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