For our latest ‘Spotlight On…’ we spoke to Abdullah Rehman who is the Community Engagement Lead for the Bahu Trust. The Bahu Trust is a charity based in Balsall Heath that provide educational and community engagement opportunities for those living in Balsall Heath and the surrounding areas. During the Coronavirus pandemic the Bahu Trust have been on the frontline of the community response in Hall Green, providing support to those who have been adversely impacted by the virus and lockdown measures. During our chat with Abdullah he told us about some of the fantastic community work that has taken place across Balsall Heath during the pandemic, as well as the history of modern-day Balsall Heath and the changing role of the Mosque within communities across the country.
Abdullah was born and raised in Balsall Heath, the first generation of his family to grow up in the UK after his father and grandfather migrated to Birmingham for work. While Abdullah was growing up the remnants of the Second World War were visible everywhere in Balsall Heath, “there were smashed up roads and buildings, as kids there was an area of wasteland we used to play in. It was a rough and tough place to grow up with the scars of World War Two visible everywhere”. During Abdullah’s childhood Balsall Heath developed a reputation for crime; “my father owned a corner shop in the centre of Balsall Heath and it was like a lighthouse that covered the whole of the neighbourhood. From the shop window you could look out and see all the criminality taking place in plain sight”. Abdullah explained that many living in the area were scared to speak out about the crimes through fear of retaliation, “speaking out could impact your businesses or your safety. At the time there wasn’t community representation in the local police force so the police and local community didn’t know how to engage with each other.”
The situation remained the same for many years, until an influx of drugs into Balsall Heath saw an escalation in violent crime in the early 1990s. Following this the community decided to take a stand and in 1994 staged a series of peaceful protests across Balsall Heath. “The community decided that we loved Balsall Heath enough to fight for it, so we staged peaceful protests. At first there were 6 of us, 6 of us became 12, 12 turned into 100 and before we knew it the whole neighbourhood was picketing on the streets”. From these peaceful protests came a ‘Neighbourhood Street Watch’ whose mission was to keep the streets of Balsall Heath safe. The communities’ efforts did not go unnoticed and local and national news began to pay attention to the Balsall Heath community’s grassroots transformation of their neighbourhood. Birmingham City Council and the local Police force began working more closely with the community to enact further change.
Following the community action, the crime rate in Balsall Heath dropped by more than 30% and residents of Balsall Heath felt a new found sense of empowerment “we realised that when we came together as one big collective voice we could make change and amplify all our individual voices.” The Balsall Heath Forum was set up as a way for residents to ensure that the momentum from 1994 remained. The Forum at it’s peak was an important part of the community, there were 10 active resident’s groups that work with the forum from across Balsall Heath and the Forum led on a number of community initiatives and projects in the area. What took place in Balsall Heath would inspire David Cameron’s concept for the ‘Big Society’, a key platform his government encouraged when it came into power in 2010. Coproduction was at the heart of the regeneration of Balsall Heath following the community’s successful campaign to reduce the crime rate. Several key parts of Balsall Heath’s diverse community would come together to make the area a safer place. Abdullah describes this as being like a jigsaw puzzle, each part of the community representing an important part of a bigger picture. However, for Abdullah one key puzzle piece was missing in this and that was the Mosque. Abdullah is keen to stress that this is not a criticism of Mosques but rather a reflection on how Mosques have been perceived by the communities around them. Abdullah told us, “I don’t think people recognised that they could reach out to the Mosque for support, the Mosque was a place to worship and that was that. If people needed help or support they would contact the Forum or the Council but not think to come to the Masjid.”
Through his longstanding work in the community Abdullah was able to see how places of worship had an important role to play in ensuring that societies most vulnerable were protected. “When austerity hit we saw a real resurgence of places of faith and a change in role that they can play in communities, in particular Churches.” Abdullah spoke of a number of community initiatives that he and other key figures from organisations in Balsall Heath had been involved with alongside the Church. “I have worked with colleagues to use Church halls as a venue to provide advice surgeries; I have helped to set up foodbanks with one of the Churches in Balsall Heath, the Balsall Heath Church Centre on Mary Street. And while the Mosque has always supported these initiatives and worked with Churches I think in general Churches were ahead of the game. The vision was always there for Mosques to play a similar role, but we struggled to figure out what it would look like in practice.”
Abdullah came into post at the Bahu Trust 2 years ago in a role funded by Islamic Help, an international aid organisation that runs hundreds of projects around the world. “Although Islamic Help have a number of international projects they recognise that help starts at home and had funded my job to work in the B11 and B12 postcodes with deprived communities in Highgate and Sparkbrook.” In his role as Community Engagement Lead Abdullah was already providing help and support to a diverse community comprised of a number of religions and backgrounds but was thinking about how he could extend this work.
Before lockdown measures were officially announced Abdullah and the Trust were receiving request for support from families struggling financially “it was around the time of panic buying, we had lots of calls from vulnerable families who couldn’t afford to shop and were going to supermarkets and finding that the shelves were empty”. Abdullah and the Trust knew they needed to do something to help and used their connections in the community to provide food parcels and essential items to families in need. “For the first time people of all ethnicities and backgrounds were calling the Mosque for support” Abdullah informed us.
As soon as lockdown measures were formally put in place the Trust enlisted a team of volunteers who extended the work that Abdullah had began earlier in March. “I want to stress that this work has been a community effort, I am just one part of a wider team of individuals who have come together to help.” The support that the Trust and Mosque have provided has stretched beyond Balsall Heath to as far as Wolverhampton after Penn Hospital based in Wolverhampton reached out to them for food parcels for NHS staff who were struggling. At the time of our interview the Mosque and Trust had delivered over 2000 food parcels to those in need during the pandemic.
Abdullah was keen to highlight the important role that young people from the Mosque have played in doing this work. “People give the younger generation a hard time but through the pandemic we have seen the best in them. They really stepped up to make sure that the older and more vulnerable members of the Mosque could shield while they delivered food parcels. It was a mix of boys and girls who have been supporting our efforts.” This group of young people includes Zain Sultan, Kiren Shafiq, Aqeel Abbasi, Saba Yasin, Alia Ahmed, Kamran Shezad, Muhammad Tasadiq, and Mohammed Arif. The work of the Trust and their volunteers has been recognised by the Lord Mayor of Birmingham who wrote a letter of thanks to Abdullah.
Not only has the COVID-19 response helped the Trust engage with the wider communities it has also helped to raise the profile of the Mosque, by providing support to people of all faiths and backgrounds they have helped to challenge divisions that currently exists within Britain. “I delivered a food parcel to one woman who broke down in tears at her doorstep. She told me that she felt terrible because for so long she had thought negatively of Islam. I took the opportunity to talk to her about Islam and I explained that at Sultan Bahu Mosque we see humanity as one and spread a message of love.” Before working with the Bahu Trust Abdullah was an outreach officer for Tell MAMA UK, a charity set up to monitor and tackle anti-Muslim hate crimes in the UK. During our chat we spoke of how engagements from faith based organisations such as that of Sultan Bahu Mosque are an important tool in fighting prejudices within society.
Abdullah is confident that following the coronavirus pandemic Mosque’s across Birmingham will continue to establish their new role as a source of support for communities of all backgrounds in the city, “It has been a terrible time but one that has provided us with an opportunity to establish our place within the wider community. The last missing piece of the puzzle!”
When Abdullah is not at work you will find him volunteering for a number of Islamic Helps international causes. One such cause that has become a passion for Abdullah is the Eco Village for young orphans Islamic Help have set up in Tanzania; “I have fallen in love with Tanzania and the Eco Village project, they have transformed a desert into a forest and it is a fantastic achievement.” Earlier this month Abdullah took part in charity bike ride to raise money for the project. Cycling is also a big part of Abdullah’s life, helping him to unwind, “I recently started cycling it helps me to relax, I will get on my bike, cycle to a quite spot and read a book. I have also recently got into reading too”. Family is also a major part of Abdullah’s life outside of work “I make sure to spend as much time as I can with my daughters and son.”
We want to say a big thank you to Abdullah for taking part in this feature. If you know a great community initiative that we should feature contact Natalie Tichareva on Natalie.Tichareva@accordgroup.org.uk