They fled Uganda with nothing, but built a new empire


By Paul Harris

LONDON: Jaffer Kapasi arrived in Britain with nothing. He was 18 years old and all that his family owned had been stolen when Ugandan dictator Idi Amin gave his country's Asian community 90 days to pack up and leave.

When he emerged into a wet October morning at Stansted airport in 1972, Kapasi was confused. "I was shivering and realised it was nothing to do with an African fever. It was the cold. I hadn't been cold before," he said.

But Kapasi flourished in his new home. So too did the 27,000 other Ugandan Asians who arrived that year. In a remarkable story of triumph, those penniless refugees are now Britain's most successful immigrant community. From arriving with only the clothes on their backs, Ugandan Asians have risen to the top in all walks of British life.

On the way they had to defy warnings that there was no space for them in crowded Britain. It is a debate that continues today. Last week the right-wing think-tank Migration Watch claimed immigrants would fill a city the size of Cambridge, England, every six months. It would be a disaster, it said, warning of job losses and lack of housing.

But for some campaigners the successes of the Ugandan Asians over the past 30 years sends the opposite message: immigrants represent opportunity, not a threat.

It is easy to find Ugandan Asian success stories. In politics Shailesh Vara is now vice-chairman of the Conservative Party while Lata Patel was Mayor of Brent. In the media Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is one of Britain's most distinguished columnists. Asif Din was an accomplished Warwickshire cricketer, while Tarique Ghaffur is the deputy assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.

It is in business that Ugandan Asians have made the biggest impact. Industrialist Manubhai Madhvani is a regular in the annual Rich Lists. He lost all in 1972. Now his world empire, with interests in sugar, brewing and tourism, is worth $245 million.

In the Midlands city of Leicester, where many Ugandan Asians settled, their presence has transformed the city from a depressed and deprived East Midlands town. It is estimated they have created 30,000 jobs there. In the most affluent suburb of Oadby - or Load-by as locals call it - the residents are overwhelmingly Ugandan Asian.

Shops bear names such as Kampala Jewellers and the driveways are full of top-of-the-range Mercedes outside houses worth $750,000. It is here that Kapasi made his fortune. After university, he trained as an accountant and set up a financial consultancy business.

He has served as a head of the powerful - and Ugandan Asian- dominated - Leicester Asian Business Association. In 1997 he was awarded an OBE. Two of his brothers own their own hardware business, another is the group accountant at an agricultural firm. His two sisters hold top positions at Nottingham University and a London council. Not bad for impoverished refugees from the Ugandan village of Masindi. "We have been very happy here. We have done well," he said.

Most Asians living in Uganda thought the order to leave was a joke. As the descendants of Indians brought over to build railways during the days of the British Empire, many had lived in Uganda for generations. They had formed a wealthy mercantile class, owning shops, factories and plantations. They put the outburst down to yet another mood swing from their insane President. But Amin was serious. It took only a few weeks, some jailings and public beatings for that to be made clear.

Kapasi heard the news when he came from college after lunch. Two months later his family was daring roadblocks in a desperate bid to get to Entebbe airport and the last transport home. Abandoning everything but what they could fit into a van, they trundled towards Kampala, being looted by Ugandan soldiers at every stop.

They owed their safety to an officer who had shopped at a store owned by Kapasi's father. He agreed to accompany them to the airport. "We were in total fear. They were taking everything valuable," said Kapasi.

Britain's first reaction to the Ugandan Asians was frosty. Marches were held and the racist National Front party, which was riding high in the opinion polls. Leicester city council - on hearing that many intended to move there - placed an advert in the Ugandan Argus. It warned of no houses, no jobs and full schools. "In your own interests and those of your family you should . . . not come to Leicester," it read.

They came anyway. Now Leicester will be Britain's first ethnic majority city by 2011 and the fact is touted as a source of civic pride. But what lay behind Ugandan Asian success? The answer seems to be hard work. Arriving with nothing, they quickly set about trying to rebuild the luxurious lives they had lived in East Africa. "They never seem to retire," said Professor Richard Bonney of Leicester University, who has studied the community.

That rings true for Manubhai Madhvani, the richest of all Ugandan Asians. He is now 73 and still works a five-day week at his business in the leafy London suburb of Hampstead. "It is simple. When something is stolen from you, then you fight hard to get it back," he said.

Ugandan Asians were also highly educated and familiar with British customs. Though Amin took their possessions, they had not lost their skills, university degrees or network of community contacts that would see their businesses rise from the ashes. They helped each other to help themselves.

Ugandan Asians were also not riven with the community disputes that other immigrants often brought with them. They are made up of Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims, yet all work together.

For Madhvani the importance of tolerance was reinforced by his experience in one of Amin's prisons. He had been arrested due to his high status and huge wealth. While struggling to survive with other political prisoners - of all races - in Kampala's foetid jail, he saw they suffered equally.'I learnt that all human beings are the same,' he said.

Ironically, the success of the Ugandan Asian community could see it die out. So well has it assimilated to life in Britain that memories of its African past are disappearing.

Dawn/The Guardian News Service.