We came for work and education, the sky was clouded. But it got better - and is getting better for all of us

The largest survey of Britain's ethnic minorities charts changing society. Rebecca Fowler reports
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The Independent Online
The first image that struck Ruhun Chowdhury, 29, when she stepped off a plane from Bangladesh with just a smattering of English, were the grey skies and the silence. But she was determined to begin a new life with her relatives, who had dreamed of a land of education and employment.

Mrs Chowdhury is one of 3.2 million people in Britain who have struggled to keep their culture while pursuing their dream, according to the largest study of ethnic minorities in Britain, published yesterday by the Office for National Statistics.

Alongside a quarter of all Bangladeshis living in Britain, Mrs Chowdhury's home is in Tower Hamlets, east London. She has a house near Brick Lane which bustles with traders selling familiar Asian fruits, fish and spices and wholesalers displaying brightly coloured fabrics.

Mrs Chowdhury said: "We came in February 1980 for work and for education. The sky was clouded, it was so dark, and I thought, this is England. Of course it got better, and it's getting better for all of us."

Unlike the majority of the Bangladeshi community, she has quickly mastered English. She said: "I know language is power. I can get what I want, I can fight for things. A lot of women in this area can't do that. They're living in a closed community where they worry what the neighbours will say if they even come out of the house on their own."

She added: "Many of these women come from rural villages in Bangladesh, where only the boys would be educated. If a woman goes out there's still a feeling she's no good, she's learning, she getting smart."

When Mrs Chowdhury first started visiting Bangladeshi families, urging them to send their daughters to school to learn English, they would tell her she was destroying their culture and slam the door in her face.

A decade on, she is optimistic of change. Now, even the most traditional people stand and listen to what she has to say.

For many the change is coming gradually. Mrs Chowdhury held up an intricate piece of needlework depicting traditional Bangladeshi stories, embroidered by a group of 25-year- old women who are learning English while they sew.

But for the women's position to improve, the men are also being forced to adapt to Western culture.

Like most Bangladeshi women, Mrs Chowdhury married young. Although she was unusual in gaining a degree at teacher training college, she was only 21 when she married, the average age for her culture, compared with 27 for white women and 33 for black Carib-bean women.

At the Modern Saree Centre on Brick Lane, Ruhul Amin proudly displayed his collection of wedding gowns in bright red silk threaded with gold, which cost pounds 385 each. Trade is booming, with at least one wedding party coming into the shop every week.

Mr Amin said he is one of the the younger generation of husbands who are encouraging their wives to learn English and make the most of the education on offer to them.

He said: "It's a good thing for everyone to have independence, men and women. It allows us to take care of ourselves and to enjoy a better standard of living and a sense of freedom."

Mrs Chowdhury said that many parents now accept thatan education is the best way forward for both their sons and their daughters to gain jobs. Black, Pakistani and Bangla-deshi people have the highest unemployment rate according to the report.

For those who have achieved the dream of an education and a career, in spite of prejudices from their own culture and the culture they have become part of, the dream has become a part of reality.

Ruhun said: "We sent six girls to Oxford from Tower Hamlets last year, and the girls are progressing faster than anyone. But I also look at the women who produced this needlework, and I know how talented they are too. They just never had the opportunities."

The picture that emerges from the report, of the changing face of multi- cultural Britain, is a complex one. The experiences of various groups also vary enormously as they face different problems.

Carol Summerfield, editor of the report, said: "There are often bigger differences between the various ethnic minority groups than between the ethnic minority population as a whole and the white population."

For those who have worked to build a place in Britain, especially the women, the future is getting brighter, according to Polamanzial Uddin, the former deputy leader of Tower Hamlets.

She said: "We have lots and lots to be proud of. The fact that we've been able to make a home here, to work here, and to learn here, despite the racism, facing a new language and culture - that really means something."

Snapshots of life for Britain's ethnic minorities

The survey by the Office for National Statistics is the most wide- ranging study of ethnic minority groups in the UK.

Its findings show that:

In spring 1995, 3.2 million people belonged to an ethnic minority - slightly under 6 per cent of the population and up from just over three million four years earlier.

One in eight black households in England and Wales was burgled in 1993 - twice the proportion in both the Pakistani/Bangladeshi and white groups.

More than half of black Caribbean children were living in a single-parent family in 1991.

Black and Pakistani/Bangladeshi people had the highest unemployment rates - 24 per cent and 27 per cent respectively - compared with 12 per cent for Indians and just 8 per cent for whites in 1995.

The ethnic minority population is concentrated in certain areas, with 25 per cent of all Bangladeshis in Britain living in the London borough of Tower Hamlets.

South Asian groups - Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis - have much higher proportions of married couples than any other ethnic group.

Bangladeshi women are on average 21 years old on marriage, compared with 33 for black Caribbean women and 27 for whites.

Cohabitation varies widely, with black Caribbean males far more likely to be cohabiting than their white counterparts.

Ability to speak English varies, with only one in 10 Bangladeshi women between 50 and 74 able to do so and less than two-thirds of the Bangladeshi community as a whole being English-speakers.

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