East to West

The History of
Ugandan Asians

October 28, 2022 by Fiyaz Mughal

The Jewish community responded with generosity and practical support when we were expelled by Idi Amin in 1972.

The legacy of Idi Amin, Uganda’s mass-murdering dictator, lives on in many ways. For me personally, it is through the trauma that I suffered in childhood which has left me with the idea (akin to that felt by many Jews after their millennia of persecution) that I may need to move again, because of persecution.

For many decades, I became the wanderer — thinking that I needed to move when I felt danger, hatred or racism, a hallmark of a traumatised generation kicked out of Uganda penniless and with the threat of annihilation if they did not leave.

It has only been in the last few years that I realised the decades-long impacts of the trauma of dislocation and have been able to make a choice that Amin’s legacy of trauma will no longer be passed on through me. This strand will end with me as I have the agency to make that change.

I often reflect on a statement from a Jewish colleague who once told me, “The Nazis could take away all we had, but they could not take away what we had between our ears.” He meant the skills, resilience and intelligence that would allow many Jews to restart their lives after the Holocaust. That statement struck deep in me and has always resonated as a legacy of Amin’s ejection of the Ugandan Asians, of whom I am one. Even though I was just two when my family left Uganda, the fears of my parents were transmitted to me as a baby trying to explore whether the world was warm and protective or deeply threatening.

One word is striking, though, which binds Jews and British Asian communities of Ugandan heritage. That word is “resilience”.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the arrival of the Ugandan Asians after expulsion by Idi Amin. Yet few are aware of how deeply Christians and Jews helped my community in the autumn of 1972. This history needs to be told, especially since there is so much that umbilically connects Britain’s Jews with Britain’s Asians of Ugandan heritage.

In October 1972 the Board of Deputies of British Jews called the expulsion of the Ugandan Asians “abhorrent” and urged Britain’s Jews to provide accommodation, food and assistance to the African Asian refugees. Such calls were heeded by many, who became allies in the resettlement of Ugandan Asians. It was a call born from a deep connection between Jews and those persecuted because of their identities.

Two months ago, at the deeply moving Navrang Arts exhibition at Leicester Museum, I met a 50-something man of Ugandan Asian heritage looking at pictures of his father’s passport and travel documents. The immigration stamps showed his exit from Uganda. He had donated the documents to the exhibition which focused on the traumatic expulsion of Ugandan Asians, their previous lives in Uganda and how they felt as they spent their first winter in camps set aside for their resettlement. Many of the pictures showed Asians ill-equipped to deal with a British winter, their dark eyes looking at the camera with fear and apprehension at what lay ahead. Others show elderly Gujarati-speaking women huddled around a fire, worry lines and desperate faces showing that they did not have the strength to deal with such trauma at their age.

As I talked to the man looking at his father’s pictures, he said something that struck me. His father could not find work and it was a Jewish retailer in Leicester who gave him his first job, telling him he could empathise with the dislocation that his father felt. His father went on to open a successful business himself, and his son said to me, “Without that Jewish support, my father would have become depressed. The weather in England was cold, the nights were dark, he lost much in Uganda and all he had was his pride in work. No one gave him a chance but this Jewish man could see past his skin colour — he could see his value as a person. My father never knew Jews before, but all his life he never forgot them because they treated him like a human being, instead of a foreigner who was here to scrounge.”

This is far from a one-off. As I have travelled across the country collecting stories of the experiences of the first arrivals in 1972, I have repeatedly heard how Jews could empathise almost immediately with the plight of the Ugandan Asians. If they could not offer employment, they came round to see the newly-arrived families with food, love and warmth and, most of all, a welcoming smile in a cold, unusual and starkly different environment.
Over the last three years I have reflected much on my own trauma, of how for decades I felt slightly disconnected from the environment of this country, as though the trees, landscape and weather were somehow different to what made me comfortable.

Looking back, I now understand why. I was born in Africa, I felt the continent’s wind and I smelt smells that connected me to that earth. It took me nearly four decades to finally feel I was at home here in England. There are still days where I feel like heading south, the wanderer who looks for total peace, but those days are becoming fewer in number.

It is also interesting that Amin’s narrative around Jews sounds like today’s hard-left narrative. Through my research into the 1972 expulsion, I came across a statement highlighting what Amin thought about Jews. He said he was “not against Jews, but against Zionists”. In relation to a telegram that he sent to Kurt Waldheim, the then United Nations Secretary General, he said that it was being misinterpreted by the United States “probably by British and Zionist propaganda”.

Amin was a conspiracist who saw “Jewish (and British) influence” everywhere – a classic trope of antisemitism. It was thus only a small step for him to get involved in the 1976 hostage siege at Entebbe that saw Israeli commandos carry out a daring raid to rescue some 100 defenceless Israelis.

Amin was a narcissist, deeply wounded in childhood, and an openly antisemitic psychopath who regularly talked about “messages from God”. In a video made in 1973, Amin openly talked about the UK economy being controlled by Jews. The previous year he had defended the Holocaust. Amin saw global Jewry as a threat to Africans and his regime.

He ended up taking his conspiratorial anger out on the Ugandan Asians; if there was a Ugandan Jewish community it would have been targeted for expulsion, kidnapping or worse.
Jewish support and assistance for Ugandan Asians like me went further. In November 1972 a relief trust under the chairmanship of Lord Sainsbury was set up with donations from faith communities and £50,000 worth of UK government grants to help in the resettlement of the Ugandan Asians.

A public letter asking for support was signed by the Chief Rabbi, so that the new arrivals could have the basics in place for their survival.

This was at a time when the National Front were at their height, with demonstrations against the arrival of Ugandan Asians commonplace in cities like London and Leicester and in the Midlands where political support to keep people like me out was strong even within Parliamentary circles.

It would have been easy for the Chief Rabbi to carry on, business as usual. Yet he stood against the tide of public opinion so that people like me could be let in.

Over my personal journey, it has become clear that much of the documented Jewish assistance to Ugandan Asians has been lost. The stories, the newspaper references which have barely been researched and the assistance through community donations from synagogues to people like me have long been forgotten.

We are losing a strong thread, a cord that binds those of Ugandan Asian heritage to Britain’s Jews. That thread needs rekindling, for in that connection lies our common experiences, our desire for a safe home and our common humanity.