‘We are an underdog’: Meet the man documenting the Covid experience of the Bangladeshi community

Local activist Ripon Ray wants to strengthen community relations.
Photograph: courtesy Ripon Ray

The founder of the International Storytelling Centre once remarked: “We are all storytellers. We all live in a network of stories. There isn’t a stronger connection between people than storytelling.”

This observation perfectly embodies the universal appeal and resonance of storytelling, and is not all that surprising given the propensity to tell and listen to stories is virtually encoded into human DNA.

Throughout history we have harnessed the power of storytelling as a vehicle to try to bond with others, illustrated by the earliest cave paintings to the mundane thoughtless chatter of everyday office gossip.

And so it was that when Hackney resident Ripon Ray launched the BritBanglaCovid community project earlier this year, in order to document the experiences of the UK Bangladeshi community during the coronavirus pandemic, he immediately recognised the importance of storytelling to his mission.

Ray told the Citizen that placing storytelling at the heart of the project felt natural, as traditions of storytelling through poetry and folklore music have been intertwined in the fabric of Bengal culture for millennia.

He said: “Bangladeshis have a deep rooted oral tradition of telling folk stories, especially those who are from rural areas such as Sylhet in North Eastern Bangladesh.

“Rabindranath Tagore is one of the most famous Bengali writers. He was an expert poet, philosopher and composer and is particularly notable for being the first non-European in history to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913.

“Whilst he achieved great international renown, much of his work was influenced by the oral traditions of Bengal.”

Ray is an experienced community activist and debt advisor, who has long worked alongside and advocated for the Bangladeshi community.

In his day job, he oversees training and development for Toynbee Hall’s Debt Free London initiative.

He revealed that when the UK initially went into lockdown in March, he struggled to find purpose and motivation as a result of experiencing waves of shock, isolation and loneliness.

However, as he became increasingly cognisant of the unprecedented historical significance of the pandemic, he felt driven to document the experiences of Bangladeshis in the UK and how the pandemic was reshaping communal life.

Not only did he want to do this for the archival purposes of recording Bangladeshi diaspora history, but also to raise inter-community awareness and strengthen relations.

He says that so frequently “the Bangladeshi community’s experiences have been unheard by wider society, and it can feel like we are an underdog in British society”.

Over the last few years, growing incidences of xenophobic and Islamophobic rhetoric have meant that often, along with other racialised minority groups, the Bangladeshi community has been subject to marginalisation and stereotyping, resulting in them being misunderstood.

Ray believes that by recording the stories of the Bangladeshi community as testament to the important contribution it is making to British life during the pandemic – accounts he fears might otherwise be lost – he can play a part in combating any misinformation which continues to persist.

He started the BritBanglaCovid project in May and was clear that he wanted to capture a diversity of Bangladeshi voices, leading him to contact Bangladeshis the length and breadth of the country.

Over the last few months, thanks to Zoom, he has managed to interview people as far away as Cardiff and Birmingham, in addition those closer to home in places like Newham, Tower Hamlets and, of course, Hackney.

Ray says there has been a real variety in the lifestyles, ages and occupations of interviewees.

Participants have ranged from first-generation immigrants to third-generation Bangladeshi schoolchildren, who have only ever known life in the UK.

Interviewees have included NHS staff, social workers and restaurant workers.

To spread the word about the BritBanglaCovid project, Ray has drawn on personal connections in addition to approaching larger representative bodies and charities.

So far, he has managed to conduct detailed interviews with over 15 participants and counting. The project also has a dedicated website which documents these stories and shares important information about coronavirus with the Bangladeshi community.

Many of those interviewed told Ray that they were “very pleased someone is documenting their story”.

Ray launched the project with open-ended goals but feels everyone who has taken part so far has “become quite personally invested in the storytelling aspect”.

He says the project has allowed participants to reflect on their personal experiences of being members of the Bangladeshi diaspora in UK and the meaning of this aspect of their identity to them.

Many spoke of the experience of migrating to the UK, the hostile and suspicious reactions from settled communities when they first arrived, inequalities within British society, as well as intergenerational tension between different age groups of Bangladeshis.

In documenting these experiences, Ray has found the BritBanglaCovid project has gone far beyond simply documenting the community’s current experience of the pandemic, and has inadvertently recorded an important but often overlooked section of British history during the second half of 20th century.

One participant, who grew up in East London during the 1970s recounted his experiences of racism and rejection by existing communities during the first wave of Bangladeshi migration, saying: “Before the 1970s and 1980s, you had a very hierarchical society where the white working class and Irish were lumped together in the East End.

“When I was growing up there was racial tension. I still remember when the British National Party had won the election in the Isle of Dogs.”

Another woman who first migrated to Britain in 1984 to join her husband also spoke about racial discrimination where her family lived on Brick Lane: “English and Irish folks used to disturb us. They would bring their dogs to frighten us if the kids made noise [in the property]. They would bring their dogs!”

Younger participants reflected on the tensions and divisions between their generation and older generations, with Ray recounting that, for one interviewee, “growing up in East London, he was torn between three different cultures: mum and dad’s culture, which involved learning Arabic and Bengali, the English culture, and the East End”.

Others used the opportunity to reflect on the inequality that Bangladeshi communities have faced since moving to the UK, particularly in light of the entrenched disparities in housing and employment that Covid has unmasked.

A young man who now works as an NHS doctor used his interview to reflect on his experiences of deprivation growing up in Stepney Green and how he used his sense of social justice to propel him into entering the medical profession.

He said: “People of Tower Hamlets die seven years earlier than people a few tube stops down the Jubilee Line in Chelsea and Westminster. As a 15, 16-year-old, I thought to myself, ‘How come I will die seven years earlier than [those] on the other side of London. What makes them different?'”

Ray’s background in community-organising and debt advice meant he instantaneously recognised the vulnerability of the Bangladeshi community to coronavirus.

He observed higher rates of living in overcrowded, intergenerational households, and with many Bangladeshis being employed in frontline job roles or in the gig economy, calculated that they would be at greater risk of exposure.

His initial instinct sadly turned out to be correct, as we are now aware that minority communities have disproportionately borne the brunt of the pandemic.

Ray has decided to compile a report detailing the findings of the BritBanglaCovid project, which he hopes will assist local authorities and communal organisations in understanding the systemic inequalities which the Bangladeshi community faces.

He says the report will identify the community’s specific needs and make suggestions for initiatives and policies which could be implemented to combat disadvantage.

Next year marks the 50th anniversary of the creation of Bangladesh, and Ray is hoping that the project, with its inherent focus on storytelling, will also be an instrument for the diaspora community in Britain to reflect on the community’s achievements and the progress different generations of Bangladeshis have made since arriving in the UK.

At a time when society feels like it is becoming increasingly fractured, it is hard to think of a more universal medium to support dialogue and understanding between different groups than the ancient tradition of storytelling, and therein lies the magic of the BritBanglaCovid project.