Rina Chandarana with her Nani, who was expelled from Uganda in 1971 and after coming to the UK, worked in the British Rail industry. Image: Rina Chandarana/chandandradha.com

In August 1972, Idi Amin, the leader of Uganda, having overthrown the elected government of Milton Obote, gave the order that Asian people living in Uganda had 90 days to leave the country.

This triggered the mass movement of almost 80,000 Ugandan Asians, seeking refuge in countries all over the world, as they boarded planes being permitted to carry no more than 20kg of their belongings, over 28,000 came to Britain to start new lives, leaving families, friends, businesses, and possessions behind.

As Ugandan Asians living in the UK commemorate and reflect upon 50 years since their expulsion, South Asian Heritage Month and children of real-life survivors tell their ancestral tales of what once haunted this generation of immigrants that came to Britain to start their new lives.

Starting off as a Ugandan Refugee and going on to acquire the title of Britain’s top Asian officer, former Assistant Commissioner CBE Tarique Ghaffur tells Asian Sunday:

“Joining the UK Police Service was a direct consequence of all our family leaving Uganda as penniless refugees, as the eldest son in the family I had to stop education and start paid work.

“The following 34 years of motivation, effort, dedication, and strong work ethic allowed me to reach the very top of my profession as Assistant Commissioner of Metropolitan Police London at Scotland Yard,” he says, reflecting on his career in which he retired in 2008.

Ghaffur commemorates the historic mark “I know similarly many refugees who came from Uganda have put aside adversity and made an amazing contribution to business, professions, and politics within the United Kingdom. Uganda’s loss was Britain’s gain”. 

Rina Chandarana, the Founder of Chand and Radha, Indian-inspired health, wellness and home brand shares her family journey of leaving India and settling in Uganda and then re-settled in England after the expulsion. 

“My Grandfather worked as a manager in Lugazi’s sugar cane factory and like so many other Gujaratis, had come to Uganda for better economic opportunities.

 “My Dad had just moved to the UK prior to the South Asian Ugandan expulsion. However soon after, his mom and siblings fled Uganda too. Some siblings were placed in army barracks until suitable housing was found elsewhere” Rina tells Asian Sunday.

“My Nani moved to London from Uganda in the 1960s prior to Indians being kicked out and she knew little English but needed to find a job to support her three children. She found work in the British Rail’s canteen, peeling potatoes and cleaning toilets”.

Rina remembers her grandmother as always being dressed in a saree, a traditional dress for Indian women, but when she was moved to Liverpool Street Station for work, she faced a culture shock, when was told she couldn’t wear her saree, but showed resilience, as Rina recalls her Nani’s reply “I told them to give me the overall and I wore my saree underneath”.

“Despite my family relocating from India to Africa, to England and now to North America, we have maintained our rich heritage and continue to share stories about the migration of our ancestors.

“One trait that I think many immigrants’ parents share is their ability to move forward and their resiliency. They don’t hide the fact that they have been through difficulties but use these experiences to teach their children and grandchildren how to overcome adversities” says Rina. 

Rina’s paternal grandmother Radha Raja, whom she called ‘Ba’, was born around 1912 and moved from Gujrat to Uganda as a teenager. Image: Rina Chandarana/RF Publishing.

Born in Nairobi in 1955, Tahra Safdar came to the UK, from Uganda in 1971, as a young girl, her son Imran Safdar, a media personality recalls the recollection of past events and stories passed on through his mother’s trauma and her own version of events.

He told Asian Sunday: 

“My grandfather had a printing business in Kampala, which is the capital of Uganda, so they were born in Kenya, but because of the skillset, that lots of Sikh, Indian Muslims, and other British empire subjects from different backgrounds had they were encouraged by the British to move to other parts of the empire. 

“My grandfather set up an old-fashioned printing business as a lithographer, so he had little workshops in Kampala, and all of that, along with their possessions and life savings got left behind”.

He remembers distinctly being told when things erupted in Kampala in 1971 when Idi Amin’s soldiers took control, things went south rapidly and recounts a “deeply insulting moment” for his grandmother. 

“At the airport, my Nani had distributed the ‘zevar’, the gold bangles and gold jewellery, which were their life savings, to her three daughters, to hide under their long-sleeved shalwar kameez.

“After searching them, the soldiers abruptly confiscated the gold, which is such an important item for any mother, it is a matter of their dignity which was stripped and was deeply insulting” Imran recalls the events verbatim.

He adds “After the expulsion, my grandmother became the main breadwinner, as my grandfather’s mental health immediately deteriorated after the expulsion, he became a shadow of his former self, so my grandmother went from a comfortable lower middle-class housewife in Kampala to a struggling working-class mother here, with little children”. 

His grandmother found work locally in the textile industry in West Yorkshire, as his mother, Tahra’s aspirations of going to medical school were brought to a halt, she became an ordinary sewing mill worker, studying whenever she could and eventually after 20 years in textiles, she trained as a nurse in the UK. 

Reflecting on the time period in which his family arrived in the UK against a backdrop of racism “From the National front to Enoch Powell’s River of Blood speech, there was an undercurrent of racism that was prevalent in them. This left them cautious and in fear for their future”. 

As he repeats the phrase many elder migrants throughout the 70s would utter in their mother tongue Punjabi “they are going to get rid of us one day”.