East to West

The History of
Ugandan Asians

Ugandan Asian refugees at Plasterdown Camp. Dartmoor, Devon, 1972.

March 6, 2023 by Fiyaz Mughal

‘Trauma’ – a word that you hear much about today. But what is ‘trauma’? I refer back to the statement that the informed trauma specialist, Dr Mate Gabor, said. “Trauma is not what happens to you. Trauma is what happens inside you as a result of what happens to you”.  How true this statement is.

What happened to me in 1972, has lived with me to this day and age. I am now 51 and never realised how important early childhood impacts were, until the lightbulb moment when I trained to be  a therapist. The fact that feelings, deep seated emotions, fears and wants are all set so early in the development of a child and which cause us to react in ways much later in our adulthood.

What many people don’t tell you is what early childhood trauma does to you later in your life. For some like me, it made me drawn to situations of high stress, anxiety and elevated stress. Why  wouldn’t it? I was already attuned to it from an early age. However, what I did not know was that my parents who fled Uganda in 1972 because of the persecution of the Ugandan Asians,  were to  then put me in another traumatised state. They had no choice about being expelled by the brutal dictator Idi Amin and my parents did all they could to help me survive in 1972.

Of that I am eternally grateful. Arriving in the cold of winter, I can only imagine the sights and sounds of what my family met in the colourless walls of RAF Stradishall and in the fears and hopes  that were contained in that camp. All I can say is that I still have problems with the ‘grey’ cloudy environment of the United Kingdom to this day. Going from the colour of Uganda to the grey  clouds of winter, no doubt left a lasting impact on my formative neuronal networks in that fateful year. I just don’t do grey!

Yet, it was a later decision that further consolidated the trauma, partly driven by a value system nailed into the Asian psyche, which said that the world revolved around a ‘good education’ and that  emotions came secondary to this. After leaving RAF Stradishall camp in 1973, my parents took a job in Kenya and wanted to go back to the beauty and sunshine of East Africa. After a coup against  Daniel Arap Moi in 1983, they decided that they had had enough of the political instability of Africa and moved the family back to the U.K. In making the choice to move my brother and me from  Kenya in 1983, the change was never explained, nor contained and neither did my parents work through the changing set of emotions, that I felt. Like many parents of the time, they felt that if you  were warm, fed and watered, you were going to be fine. How emotionally simple the world looked like just forty years ago.

In fact, within months or arriving, my father was to leave for Saudi Arabia for 20 years. My mother coped alone – though the word ‘coped’ does not describe the pain, loneliness and aggravation  she suffered as a lone Asian female, struggling to bring up her children in a country that was still not welcoming for people of colour. So, she sent my brother and I to a boarding school in Kent. It  might as well have been like sending us to Mars; the cultural, racial and religious differences were so stark to what we had been brought up with, that it was a matter of time before the stresses of  change became internalised. Internalised into a giant boot that kicked me down, because I was not good enough, not able to be happy and ‘just not like the others’. The trauma of 1972 became the traumas of 1983, 1984, 1985…….

Part of the trauma that I have felt was never feeling at home in the U.K. I felt like an outsider, never really accepted and someone on the borders of society. This was not helped by the racism that I  endured from the twenties through to my mid-forties. That racism led to years of harassment from far right activists and Islamist activists, with one person even being jailed for over 5 years of  persistent online harassment against me. Yet, in the distress, pain and agony of all of this, those who targeted me failed to realise that the trauma that affected me early in my life made me think  the clearest when I was under stress; that I had adapted to a clarity of thought and mind when under duress and that I had Amin to partly thank for that. However, where there is a benefit, there is  a drawback and when the clarity of thought faded, the resonance of being an outsider kicked in and with that – emotional pain.

What I have come to learn though, is that the brain is plastic enough to change. To adapt with a speed that is beyond our wildest of imaginations though this change needs a personal realisation that change is possible, painful, but ultimately possible. In doing so, the body, psychology and even our moods adapt to a new reset.