Research Finance Manager, Imperial College Business School
From London to Pakistan... and back again!
"I am a second-generation British Pakistani. My father moved to London in the early 60s, but I spent my childhood to-ing and fro-ing between London and Pakistan.
As a kid, you don’t really think about race issues. I didn’t have any horrendous experiences during my time in school, but I did notice that I was different. Being a Muslim, I don't eat certain foods and my school didn't cater for that. I remember other kids enjoying their school lunch and there I was relying on cheese and pudding!
My outlook is to focus on the similarities between people, not the differences – that’s how I choose to live my life.
When I was 10, we moved to Pakistan for six years.
It was a real eye-opener. Everyone looked and sounded like me. In London, my parents would talk to me in Urdu and I'd respond in English, but after living in Pakistan we could have a full conversation in Urdu. Having this fluency has been really important because it allows me to connect with my parents and the rest of my family.
In 1993, we came back to England and settled in Southall in west London. At first, I would think in Urdu and then translate to English. Southall offers the best of both worlds as you can have the creature comforts of the UK but you can also find Pakistani food, clothes, and so on.
Back then in Pakistan you ended up thinking of India as the enemy, but in Southall there is a big Indian community and some of my closest friends are Indian. You realise that all of us are human, and there are good and bad people regardless of their background. My outlook is to focus on the similarities between people, not the differences – that’s how I choose to live my life.
More to Eid than meets the eye
When I was growing up, I loved Christmas more than Eid. In England, Eid isn’t around you the same way that Christmas is, so we make an extra effort to make Eid special for our kids.
I recently saw a slide saying Eid Mubarak on the big screen in the main entrance to the College. It’s a small gesture, but it made me feel really valued.
In Islam we have two Eid celebrations which are separated by two and a half months. The first one, Eid al-Fitr, celebrates the end of fasting for Ramadan. Initially you approach the fasting with a lot of spirituality, but by the end you’re just tired! Lots of non-Muslims know Ramadan is about fasting, but there’s a lot more to it than just not eating. Fasting means you have to abstain from everything sinful, so not just food but also lying, for example. We also give money to charity.
Breaking our fast each day during Ramadan is a nice occasion – the whole family sits together to eat. During Eid al-Fitr we wear special clothes, give gifts to our kids and meet with our families.
Eid Mubarak is an Arabic term that means “Blessed Feast/festival”. Muslims around the world use this greeting when celebrating the two Eid festivals. Eid al-Fitr is celebrated at the end of Ramadan, a month when many Muslims fast and Eid al-Adha is celebrated just over two months later, at the same time when many Muslims perform the Hajj pilgrimage.
During Eid, I normally bring in South Asian sweets to the office to share with my colleagues. I recently saw a slide saying Eid Mubarak on the big screen in the main entrance to the College. It’s a small gesture, but it made me feel really valued.
I’ve also been really impressed by the availability of Halal food at Imperial as there's so much choice for different dietary requirements. The College also has some of the best prayer facilities I’ve seen, especially the arrangement for Friday prayers which are very well done with the cooperation of students and staff.
I think Imperial could go further with the representation of people in more senior positions...
During lockdown I wasn't able to attend prayers at Imperial. I’ve been taking social distancing very seriously because of my vulnerable parents, so I haven’t been going to my local mosque. Instead, Friday is like a mini Eid at home and I’ve been wearing the Pakistani national dress of kurta and shalwar every Friday.
Shalwar kurta or shalwar kameez is the traditional dress worn by people from South Asia. It usually consists of a kameez (shirt or long tunic) and shalwar (loose pyjama-like trousers).
Breaking the glass ceiling
I really value the work-life balance and flexibility Imperial has given me. My family circumstances at home are challenging as I look after my elderly parents as well as a young family. I recently joined the Carers Network and I’ve also attended different lectures and seminars on diversity.
Imperial is ahead of the curve in terms of proactiveness on diversity and has accelerated since the Black Lives Matter protests. Dropping the Latin motto is a hugely significant move. I personally didn’t have an issue with it to begin with, but it shows the lengths the College is willing to go to make people feel included. I think Imperial could go further with the representation of people in more senior positions — the College needs to help people believe there isn’t a glass ceiling.
The reason why I wanted to take part in this campaign is because I really value the College’s initiatives. I wanted to show how proud and happy I am to work for Imperial."
Syed shares his story as part of Shifting the Lens: a celebration of cultural diversity at Imperial.
This interview was edited by Elizabeth Nixon and photographed by Jason Alden.