As I peer inquisitively across a table at Divya Vora, I ask her if she felt angry being forced to leave the country in which she had been living for 10 years.
But her face shows just a wry smile and she talks only of the warmth and generosity she received from the Northampton people who helped her in those dark days of 1972.
This was an amazing response given that 40 years ago she was forced by the government in Uganda to uproot her young family, abandon her home and possessions and move to another continent. Many people would have been furious.
She was just one of many Asians expelled from their homes in Uganda under the harsh regime of the country’s leader, Idi Amin.
All of the country’s 60,000 Asians, who were not Ugandan citizens, were given only 90 days to flee the country, despite the fact that many of these families had lived and worked there for more than a century.
The country’s leader is reported to have branded them “bloodsuckers,” accusing them of sapping the wealth from the economy.
Divya recalled: “I was born in Tanzania, came to Kenya and then, from 1962 to 1972, we were in Uganda. Life in the country was very good, but in 1970 Amin took over and every day was really bad and every day we were afraid. It was a threatening atmosphere with the army. If they came and knocked you would have to open the door and they would say ‘give me money’. They could go into people’s houses and take whatever they wanted. The native Ugandans were also afraid, it wasn’t just the Indians.”
SEEKING REFUGE IN THE UK
Following the order to leave, 30,000 of the exiled people sought refuge in the UK. The Vora family were among them, finding their new home in Clare Street, The Mounts, Northampton, thanks to the charity of local organisations.
Northampton Town Council had made 20 properties available for Ugandan Asian families, one of which was used to house the Vora family, made up of Divya, her husband, Jaysukhlal, and their nine-year-old son, Abhilash. Their older son, 16-year-old Milan, was already at school in the UK.
Remembering their departure from Uganda, Divya said: “We reached the airport and they checked our bags and personal belongings. If we had money in our pockets they took it. My son’s pocket had only 50 cents, but they took it too.”
Their first stop after leaving Uganda was a resettlement camp in Devon, where they were given warm clothes.
Divya recalled: “We left the airport and were driven by bus to the Devon camp. Twice we broke the journey and they took us to a church. Every table had one volunteer with each family. They talked with us and were very friendly. They were like our parents, supporting and comforting us. At that time, in my eyes, tears came out. I felt really that we were refugees.”
Reflecting on the family’s new situation, she said: “We lost everything (when leaving Uganda), we had only been allowed to take with us £55 per family, two bangles, one pair of earrings and one ring.
“We were worried about how we would cope. For us, the country, language, weather, people, food, work, friends, culture, everything was new. We knew that the English government would find us jobs and this is the reason we decided to come to England.”
In Uganda, Divya’s husband, Jaysukhlal, had been an area manager for several shops, including a diamond and jewellery store. But life in the UK was very different for the family.
NOTHING IN THE HOUSE
In Northampton his jobs included working on a British Timken assembly line, at the former town centre shop, Brierleys, and at the Co-op dairy. Divya also managed to find work at a clothing factory.
Jaysukhlal was interviewed by the Chron, alongside other refugee families, not long after their arrival in the town, saying: “There was nothing in the house when we first arrived. I don’t know if this is a complaint or a criticism. We had to borrow cups and saucers from Mr Saldanha.
“But in our culture you don’t say we must have this or that. You carry on with what you have got and are satisfied.”
Young Abhilash went to school in Military Road. He recalled: “I don’t remember how I felt and whether I was nervous going there or not, I just felt excited. My teacher was quite impressed I knew my times tables; all the teachers were really nice. My teacher was Mrs Edith Kennedy. I still remember the kids there and how welcoming they all were.”
Looking back, Divya remembers a mixed reception from Northampton people, with some welcoming and generous, and others less so.
She said: “For the last four or five years nobody had used the house. There was no carpet, no heating upstairs, just two heaters on the ground floor. The toilet was outside. There was one saucepan, one kettle, two cups and a cooker in the kitchen. I knocked on the next door neighbour’s door, she was a Jamaican lady. She lent us one kerosene heater for one month and told us she needed it back in January.”
Abhilash said: “Unfortunately you would get the feeling from certain people that you weren’t wanted, but this was always outweighed by the kindness shown by other people.”
The family lived in Northampton until 1985 and today 77-year-old Divya lives in London while her son Abhilash, now aged 49, lives in Bristol. Jaysukhlal passed away in 2009.
Abhilash and Divya recently revisited Northampton to look back on their old haunts for the first time in many years.
Abhilash reflected: “I have long been trying to extract this thing about feelings from my mother, about how she felt leaving Uganda, and I’m not sure why, maybe it is a generational thing, but there is a lack of it. The attitude is this is just what you did at the time and I really admire how my parents just got on with things.”