Pakistani boy who came with nothing becomes the Mayor

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The prospects of a new life in Britain were hardly inviting for young Afzal Khan when he arrived, aged 12 and with no grasp of English, to face the limitations of life in a two-up, two-down terrace in rural Lancashire.

The prospects of a new life in Britain were hardly inviting for young Afzal Khan when he arrived, aged 12 and with no grasp of English, to face the limitations of life in a two-up, two-down terrace in rural Lancashire.

His parents had settled in Brierfield, a mill village between Burnley and Nelson where the way ahead for most British Pakistani boys was a job at the Smith & Nephew cotton mill.

And so it was for Afzal. The pay was poor, although an improvement on Jhelum, a Punjabi trading post built for the dispatch of cargoes between India and England, which his parents had left behind.

Then in the late 1980s, came the moment which changed his story of immigrant struggle into one of achievement and inspiration. Leaving the mill at 6am one morning, after another eight-hour night shift, he looked back at the Ribble Valley, saw the tiles of the old mill roof and, in his own words, asked himself: "Do I want to spend the rest of my life here?"

He quit the mill aged 20, went back into education and began a route to professional and civic life that this week saw him appointed as the first Asian Lord Mayor of Manchester.

Mr Khan, now 47, said his appointment reflected the diversity of Manchester's ethnicity and demonstrated the contribution immigrants can make. "They can provide a city with an infusion of energy and creativity," he said.

His story demonstrates how easily first and second generation British Asian immigrant boys, whose academic performance remains generally poor, can become disenchanted. "I had given up on ever mastering English," he said, describing how he drifted out of the education system without a GCSE after four years at Mansfield High School.

He said: "It was a difficult adjustment to make at a critical age after a primary education in Pakistan and I didn't even bother sitting the exams because I was fatalistic about it. I was being uprooted from one culture and dropped into another."

His parents had followed members of the family to Brierfield's cotton mill, the obvious place to start a salaried job as a labourer. "I also developed a skill as a weaver as there were new weaving machines, so I stayed a number of years," he said.

The transformation of his prospects did not take long. They began with O levels in English and Maths at Burnley College, then A levels at Abraham Moss College in Manchester, where he set uphome with his wife, Shkeela, a dentist, and their three children.

Other jobs helped him pay his way. He became a bus driver and a youth worker in the Cheetham Hill district, a first stop for many immigrants. Then he became a police officer with the Greater Manchester force. During his many years in the police, he was trained to deal with riots and spent time at the central court retention centre.

He left the force after being refused six months' unpaid leave to study for a law degree. Mr Khan said: "They said it was force policy not to permit it. I told them they were making a mistake." He got hisdegree, became a solicitor and, eventually, was appointed a senior partner at a Manchester practice.

Mr Khan has a reputation for taking firm stands on ethnicity. He has supported the idea of celebrating Englishness through a patron saint as a way of enforcing community cohesion and, although he is a former assistant secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, he has not adhered to its policy of boycotting National Holocaust Day Remembrance services.

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