From Sylhet to Spitalfields: The Bengali squatters movement and organising today

Start: 2023-05-04 19:00:00 UTC British Summer Time (GMT+01:00)

End: 2023-05-04 21:00:00 UTC British Summer Time (GMT+01:00)

This is a virtual event

‘Claiming the city, claiming a home’

Join Shabna Begum in conversation with expert panellists,

relating this radical hidden history to the realities of organising today;

Thursday 4th May from 7pm - 9pm on Zoom.

Shabna Begum’s new book From Sylhet to Spitalfields explores the hidden history of the Bengali squatters’ movement in London’s 1970s East End. Confronted by state and street racism, the squatters movement refused dispersal and dispossession, and rejected whiteness as a proxy for who belonged. Connected to a long history of empire, colonialism and migration, the activists and home-makers who created this radical hidden history, secured a victory whose legacy ripples out to today.

On Thursday 4th May we will be hosting an interactive discussion on how the key themes, ideas and histories in this book relate to the struggles and realities of living, organising and forging home in the present day.

To contribute their invaluable insights, we will be joined by:

  • Shabna Begum - author of From Sylhet to Spitalfields and Runnymede Trust researcher.
  • Amina Ali - Tower Hamlets Councillor, trade unionist and political activist.
  • Samuel Burgum - researcher of urban movements, occupation, squatting, and trespass.
  • Sem Moema - London Assembly Housing Committee member and Hackney Councillor.
  • Maymuna Osman - organiser at Migrants Organise, with asylum accommodation focus.
  • Wilf Sullivan - Race Equality Officer at the TUC, with decades of organising experience.
  • Tasnima Uddin - Save Brick Lane organiser and co-founder of Nijjor Manush.

Full bio’s below.

To get the Zoom link, fill in the registration form on this page and click RSVP.

We look forward to seeing you at this unmissable event!

From Sylhet to Spitalfields

From Sylhet to Spitalfields explores the hidden history of the Bengali squatters’ movement. Faced with institutional discrimination in council housing and the existential threat of the National Front, hundreds of Bengali families in 1970s East London decided to squat, taking over entire streets and estates.

With the support of the Race Today collective, squatters formed the Bengali Housing Action Group (BHAG), which organised support and vigilante groups to keep the community safe. Using oral history interviews and archival research, this book looks at the Bengali community’s contribution to this little-known episode of East End history, and how it can inform present-day housing struggles.

*Get a 10% discount for the book when you attend this event*

Panel bios:

We’re joined by an incredible panel to discuss how this invaluable book, and vital yet almost forgotten history, relates to organising today:

Shabna Begum - author of From Sylhet to Spitalfields, is Head of Research at the Runnymede Trust, the UK’s leading race equality think tank, where she has worked on numerous projects including on income inequality, housing and problem debt. She is also Honorary Research Fellow at Queen Mary University London in the School of Geography, where she conducted her doctoral research. Prior to this, Shabna was a teacher for over two decades in London secondary schools.

Samuel Burgum - researcher of urban movements, occupation, squatting, and trespass. He is the author of Squatting London (Pluto Press, forthcoming), Occupying London (Routledge, 2018), and This City is An Archive (open access), as well as co-editor of How the Other Half Lives (Manchester University Press, 2021). Sam is a senior lecturer in sociology at Birmingham City University and a visiting researcher at the Urban Institute, Sheffield.

Sem Moema - Mayoral Advisor for the Private Rented Sector and Affordability, Sem campaigns for rent controls, supports tenants and leaseholders, and has served as a Councillor in Hackney for over 8 years. Sem has experience working with trade unions on housing; lobbying parliament on workplace equalities; and in the housing, youth, voluntary, and international development sectors. Sem joined the Ella Baker School of Organising to learn more about community organising. She is a volunteer trainer and has delivered training on Black Lives Matters, Unconscious Bias, and to the TUC on strikes.

Maymuna Osman - organiser at Migrants Organise organising especially around issues in asylum accommodation.

Wilf Sullivan - has worked in and for Trade Unions for over three decades. He worked in Local Government for ten years with young people in the residential care sector and those being processed in the criminal justice system. Wilf became a Regional full-time officer with NALGO (now UNISON) in 1990 and worked for ten years organising, representing, and negotiating for members in health, local government, higher education, housing and private sector organisations. He worked as UNISON’s National Black Members Officer from 2000 before moving to the TUC as the Race Equality Officer in 2004.

Tasnima Uddin - International organiser at the International Alliance of App Based Transport Workers. Legal Director at the Girls Human Rights Hub and Trustee at the House of Anetta. Cofounder of Nijjor Manush and Nejma Collective.

Amina Ali - is the deputy leader of the Tower Hamlets Labour Group, Shadow Cabinet lead on community safety and has been a ward councillor for Bow East since 2014. A trade unionist and political activist, Amina has worked to bring marginalised voices to the political table through her community work and as founder and chair of Somalis for Labour. In addition to her many cabinet posts, and work in Parliament as a political advisor and senior caseworker, Amina has worked as a senior housing and benefit law advisor, a producer at the BBC, and as a consultant for the Somaliland government. Amina is also a women’s champion for Tower Hamlets, the across London task force, and has worked on the implementation of the Forde report recommendations.

Praise for From Sylhet to Spitalfields

“Through sparkling vignettes of the individuals involved, Begum provides deep insights into the forms of solidarity that sustained the movement and the political differences that also characterised it. It’s a powerful contribution to the working-class and multicultural histories of Britain.” – Gurminder K. Bhambra, Professor of Postcolonial and Decolonial Studies (Global Studies), University of Sussex

“A richly researched document, this book is not only an important historical record but gives a voice to the slowly forgotten activists who were in danger of becoming forgotten faces in fading photographs of the period.” – Dr Halima Begum, CEO Runnymede Trust

“For too long, Britain’s postcolonial migrants have been neglected by histories of squatting and housing campaigns…From Sylhet to Spitalfields brings to life the community-based anti-racists that struggled for housing in East London, and a home in Britain. Begum’s moving accounts and sharp analysis are crucial for understanding how the right to housing is bound up with freedom from racism.” – Adam Elliott-Cooper, author of Black Resistance to British Policing, Manchester University Press, 2021

“Shabna Begum has written a brilliantly nuanced and long overdue study... Through foregrounding varied and vivid voices of Bengali women and men of different generations and experiences, she demonstrates how their claims to dilapidated houses, as they faced down violent physical and institutional racism, were integral to a shared struggle to establish their rights as equal citizens.” – Georgie Wemyss, Co-Director, Centre for Research on Migration, Refugees and Belonging (CMRB) at the University of East London