3 August 2012

Flight from Amin, 40 years on

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August 4 1972 was an unforgettable day for thousands of Ugandan Asians. It was the day that Uganda’s dictator Idi Amin ordered around 70,000 Asians to leave the country. Forty years on, in an interview with British Future, Girish Mehta, now a successful businessman, tells of his family’s flight from the country and how they settled in Britain.

Most left with very little. Fleeing from homes where they had lived for many years with a bag or two, in fear of their lives from Amin’s military henchmen.

Girish Mehta, now running his own business in Watford, remembers it well. He was 12 at the time, and living in a tiny village of Lugazi, about two hours from Entebbe, with his sister, brother and his parents, who both worked as nursery teachers.

Unsurprisingly he remembers the day when the family heard the news of the announcement and their lives changed dramatically. “Everyone felt very, very scared and really not knowing what was happening next. In particular we were worried about the women and fear of rape.”

He said: “People started to leave and the place felt more insecure. The majority of people were not very wealthy. They didn’t have loads of money to go to places.”

At first the family didn’t know what to do, and as their neighbours fled the pressure built. “People got scared, they didn’t know what the military was going to do.”

On one of the last days before a deadline set by Amin, the Mehta family packed up some belongings and set off for Entebbe airport. They had their savings in a bank and they weren’t allowed to take any money with them, except for a small amount of cash, a couple of hundred shillings.

Girish remembers that they tried to work out what was the safest time of day to travel, and then left in a convoy of other vehicles all going to the airport. “We got stopped at a few checkpoints and they took what they wanted (of our possessions), and when we got to the airport there was no guarantee we would get out.”

Luckily the Mehtas managed to get on the flight to Britain, where they landed on a cold day in October, and where the children encountered cold weather and rain for the first time.

“My first memory was of the WRVS women making sure that people stayed warm and giving out coats. The generosity of the people came across straight away.”

They were sent to a camp in Honiton, Devon. “My mum and dad wanted to do something to give back to the community there, as they receiving all this help, so they set up a nursery for the kids in the camp, and my mum helped out at the canteen. They didn’t want to have something for nothing,” he remembers.

“People went out of their way to make sure we were comfortable. The intention was to resettle us as soon as we could get jobs, but in the meantime we kids went to school. My dad was close to retirement age but he was adamant he was going to get a job.”

After they were moved to another camp in Lincolnshire, a British hero came to the family’s aid. When they were still in Uganda, the Mehtas had met a young doctor called Spencer and he had told them to get back in touch if they were ever in the UK, never expecting that they would move there one day. Spencer, now based in Glasgow, was their only British friend, so they sent off a letter asking for his advice. Not only did he advise them, but he also helped the Mehtas find teaching work in Glasgow, helped them find housing and is still a family friend today.

Girish, who went to school and then university in Glasgow, says the family is incredibly grateful for the help Spencer gave them, and sees it as a turning point in their lives.

“What Spencer and his family did for us I think even family wouldn’t have done. Without him we would not have been where we are.”

Girish and his brother ended up in a fairly tough school in central Glasgow where they were two of only four Asians in the school. When they did encounter racism, they just shrugged it off and “got on with it”, he says.

“The help of the majority of people overcame a lot of things.”

These days Girish is a highly successful businessman running three pharmacies in the south of England, and he says when he looks back he can see that the dramatic move to Britain has not only changed their lives, but has meant huge opportunities that they would never had experienced in Uganda.

Recently we went back to Uganda and it was exactly the same, things hadn’t moved on, he said.

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