Saturday, 2 June 2012


This article appears in today's edition of More, weekend supplement of the Leicester Mercury. "Here's looking at you, kid" is a regular feature, where prominent Leicester people reflect on their childhoods and how those early years helped shape their later lives. It isn’t included on the paper's website, but I thought it well worth posting here.

Here's looking at you, kid: Abdul Osman, Lord Mayor of Leicester
Leicester taught me tolerance, that you grow up living next to people and you respect them
I came to Leicester when I was six. We came from Mombasa, Kenya. It was like landing on a different planet. It was January 31, 1970. There were seven of us: me, four siblings, my parents.
I remember vividly the sights and the sounds of this new place we would call home: the cold - oh, it was so cold - and the houses, all those red brick houses, with their smoking chimneys. It all seemed so grey, compared to the sunshine and blue skies of Mombasa.
We lived at first with my uncle in Highfields. His family and our family in a little Victorian terrace. It was tight.
What I remember most about that house was the fireplace - a big roaring fire, in the middle of the house. I couldn't believe it. I thought that maybe that's where they did the cooking. And the toilets were in the back yard. I didn't like that in the cold, especially at night. All these things were strange to me.
I started school at six. I couldn't speak a word of English. What I remember, though, is the school dinners. Mashed potato, over-boiled vegetables. I hated it. And because the meat was not Halal, I had no meat. Just vegetarian meals which, back then, was the same dinner, but without the meat.
But I would cheer up when the puddings came out. I loved stodgy English puddings with custard. And ice creams. And then, later, discovering all those English sweets. Wow. So many different types of sweets.
It took me a long time to feel settled in Leicester. I had to learn a new language, well, three new languages - as I was learning English I was also learning Gujarati and Arabic.
I had to walk to school, which was a mile-and-a-half away, the come home and go to the Mosque to learn Arabic.
There wasn't much time for play.
By the time I was in my teens, the National Front was  was marching in Leicester. There was a lot of fighting in St Matthew's. I had to walk through there to get to college.
I was chased by skinheads more than once. They never got me, but they tried. It was a scary walk to school, looking over your shoulder, listening for taunts, ready to run.
Leicester taught me tolerance, that you grow up next to people and you respect them. Look for the positives in that. Most people in Leicester feel like that, I think. It's why the far right have never prospered here.
I left school at 16 with only a few qualifications, so I went back to college. I studied politics and my politics was Roger Blackmore - who would become the leader of the Lib Dems in Leicester.
He was a good teacher, and he had a good sense of humour. We have had many disagreements in the council chamber, but always remained friends.
I did several jobs. I was a bricklayer. I can still lay bricks to this day.I worked nights at a factory. I looked at myself one day and said: come on, you can do more than this.
So I started an access course as a mature student, then a law degree, which I deferred after two years to get a degree in careers education. I became a careers advisor. I got involved in local politics in the 1980s, mainly because of Thatcher and the way her government was causing so much imbalance and inequality in our communities.
I was a county councillor before local government re-organisation, then I became a city councillor. I lost my seat in 2003, but came back in 2007.There have been achievements, proud moments, frustrations. I am proud that they named the sports hall after me in Highfields. That was such an honour.
It was notable, though, coming to the city council from the county council, that there are many more different factions here.
At the county, councillors would have a drink with each other afterwards. At the city, that rarely happened. Different groups, different cliques. Colleagues on the same side not speaking to each other. Not being able to be seen to speaking [sic] to some councillors. I don't like that.
I feel proud to be [Lord] Mayor of Leicester, the first Muslim mayor of the city. It's a prestigious position and I know my late father would have been very pleased.
My five-year-old goes round the school saying she's The Little Mayor. He likes it. My 16-year-old daughter is the opposite. She's so embarrassed.
Me? I just remember where I came from, from being taken to school on my father's bike in Mombasa, a small terraced house in Highfields - and now Lord Mayor. It's humbling.

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