The borough of Newham lies in the heart of London's East End. Tower Hamlets and Hackney are to the west and Barking and Redbridge to the east, in the direction of Essex. One of the five boroughs surrounding the 2010 Olympic site, Newham is made up of 20 electoral wards and in the 2005 Census had a population of over 246,000. Newham has a number of different ethnic communities. Over 61% of its population is from Black and Minority Ethnic communities and more than 100 languages are spoken. It has the second highest proportion of Asians in Britain and the second largest Bangladeshi population, following Tower Hamlets.
In 2007, when we did our research, Bangladeshis made up 9.6% of Newham’s population. In Little Ilford (one of Newham's electoral areas), Bangladeshis were the largest minority ethnic group (16.1%) and they were the second largest minority ethnic group in Beckton (7.9%) and Plaistow North (10.7%) and Manor Park (15.2%).
In the 2001 Census, over 24% of people in Newham described themselves as Muslims – the second largest proportion in England and Wales.
Mehjabin Islam : Newham v. Tower Hamlets
Like Jubair Ahmed, Mehjabin Islam came to live in Newham when she first migrated to London with her mother and siblings to be with her father. She lives in East Ham and told us she prefers the Bengali community in Newham to that of Tower Hamlets:
I find slight differences between Bengalis living in Tower Hamlets and those in Newham. If you go to Whitechapel market, you'll find it something like Bangladesh – the noise, the people. But Bengalis in Newham are not like them. Green Street is our main shopping area. During festivals like Eid, people come from every area for things such as gold, saris and churi [bangles].
Mehjabin particularly liked the different kinds of people living in Newham:
I have become very used to the environment in Newham… My neighbours are Pakistani, Sikh, and Sri Lankan. If you go to High Street North, you'll find a lot of Sri Lankans. We don't have any problems. Everyone is friendly; our neighbours are good. There is no problem between different communities to do with cultural practices. Everyone lives with each other in a very friendly way.
Ishtiaq Ahmed: diversity and racism
When Ishtiaq Ahmed first arrived in London, he lived in Brick Lane. He later moved to Newham and now lives in East Ham. He told us he liked living in an area with so many other minority communities. There was, though, sometimes conflict with local White British working-class people:
In Newham we have Pakistani, Gujarati, Tamil, Sikh, Chinese, Vietnamese, mixed-race people. We have no quarrel. We are good to each other. We all live happily together… There are problems in Canning Town, and in some other areas where Whites are in the majority. There is a class division with the Whites. The good-class Whites don't quarrel with the immigrants. The working-class generation, the racists, they create problems… They attack you in the street, break your windows. They do all these things because of jealousy… But I haven't faced these problems myself. One of the reasons for this is because I have always lived in good areas.
Rahela Chowdhury: moving to Newham
Like many Bengalis we spoke to, Rahela had moved east from Tower Hamlets to Newham. She told us that the living conditions in Newham were better than her previous home in Tower Hamlets. Since the 1980s, many Bengalis had bought their council flats in Tower Hamlets under the government's 'Right to Buy' scheme and had later sold them at enough profit to allow them to buy houses in Newham. Later, as these families became financially better off, they sold these houses and moved further east, to places like Redbridge:
In Tower Hamlets, people bought houses from the council cheaply. They lived in these houses for four or five years, then sold them at four or five times the price. Or they took out new mortgages and bought houses in Newham. After a few years, they sell these houses and move to Redbridge, a more expensive area. If you have money, you can go to an expensive area. Schools are better… The area is clean and neat… People prefer a comfortable life if they have money. That's why they move from one place to another.
She notes, too, that as the Bengali community in the area has grown, there has been less need for Bengalis to travel to Brick Lane for shopping:
Before, I would go to Brick Lane just to buy a carom board [a game]. But now I can get it from Green Street. We used to go to Brick Lane to buy fish, meat, clothes, or for cultural events… Now, because many Bengali families have moved to Newham, we find whatever we need in the local area.
Wahiduzzaman: moving up and east
Wahiduzzaman now lives in Little Ilford in Newham He moved to Little Ilford from Tower Hamlets in the 1980s. He told us:
When I left school and got my first job, I wanted to buy a house and in the 1980s it seemed that Newham was a better place than Tower Hamlets. There was a trend: many people from Tower Hamlets were moving - and still are moving - to Newham, Beckton, Redbridge, Barking… I think our family has done better because we moved.
He noted that those Bengalis who are becoming wealthier are moving east across the borough and into Essex, and that there has also been a shift towards investing money in Britain rather than Bangladesh:
When you have more money, you live in a better area. Redbridge or Ilford, say, are slightly better than Manor Park or Newham. The schools are better, people are moving to a better area because of this. In the past, many people invested more of their money back home than in London. Now everyone lives in the UK and they want to have a better car, a better house in a better area… So things have changed.
Shaleha Begum: Newham as a Bengali community.
Shahela Begum had lived in Essex, but moved to Newham with her family when her husband died in 1999. She now lives in Manor Park and told us why a local Bengali community was so important to her:
In Essex, all the people were white. Here in Newham it's like we're in Bangladesh – every Bangladeshi item is available. By the grace of Allah, we can find Bangladeshi things – even things that are not available in Bangladesh. We couldn't find anything in Essex - no prayer cloths, fish and meat, nothing. We used to come here to shop. It is Allah's blessing that we came here... We live in a safe place, we have everything within reach.
She spoke, too, of the increasing number of Bengalis coming to Newham:
Highly educated people are moving here from Tower Hamlets. It is their own homeland.