Migrants to England Hope Their Hujra will Build Community

By Bonnie Price Lofton | July 28th, 2015

Members of the Pukhtoon Society of Bradford, England, who are setting up a hujra (from left): Awais Ali, youth member; Zia Zakirullah, general secretary; and three executive committee members, Kader Khan, Haji Shahrif Khan and Ali Gohar. (Photo by Bonnie Price Lofton)

Members of the Pukhtoon Society of Bradford, England, who are setting up a hujra (from left): Awais Ali, youth member; Zia Zakirullah, general secretary; and three executive committee members, Kader Khan, Haji Shahrif Khan and Ali Gohar. (Photo by Bonnie Price Lofton)

“There’s no community here at all,” says Ali Gohar, MA ’02, in disgust, as he urges a visiting reporter from the United States to accompany him and his son, Awais, to meet three other Pakistani men in a nondescript rowhouse in a working class district of Bradford, England.

“We have a big need here – even the police agree – we need to start building a sense of community for our young people,” he continues.

Zia Zakirullah, Kader Khan and Haji Shahrif Khan introduce themselves as members of the Pukhtoon Society of Bradford and as executive committee members of a group establishing a hurja. That’s Pukhtoo (one of Pakistan’s languages) for “village community center.”

A hurja is not just a place, the men hasten to explain. It’s the heart of a village, the focus of hospitality for visitors. In the absence of hotels in rural Pakistan, travelers always know they can find shelter, food and safety within a hurja. At least, that is the way it was in the old days, before much of northwest Pakistan and northeast Afghanistan – the traditional homeland of the Pukhtoons – began descending into violence, mostly stoked by outside powers and interests.

Gohar explains that most of the thousands of Pakistani citizens who have moved to Bradford in the last 50 years “came to earn money and then to go back home.”

Yes, one of the other men nods soberly, “we always thought we would go back home.”

But then their children came along, and they went to Bradford’s schools, where all the lessons were in English and centered around Britain. And the children no longer felt like natives of Pakistan. They didn’t quite feel British either. Yet they didn’t want to go live in their parents’ homeland, which they didn’t know at all, or not much.

“We were an agrarian society, we depended on each other,” says Gohar. “Now, here, we are not unified. We don’t help each other. The young don’t listen to the elders. The elders feel disrespected by the young. Crime is a problem, and we don’t know how to find solutions, the way we did with our hurjas.

“Back in Pakistan, the jirgas [problem-solving groups of male elders] developed from our hurjas. I want to preserve this wonderful hurja tradition of taking care of each other.”

“Our young are walking the streets and getting into drugs,” says Zakirullah.

The solution, these men have decided, is to set up a Bradford version of a hurja. And, through it, to teach that the Pukhtoon code of life is to love and respect each other.

Zakirullah points out that migrants from Bangladesh, Kashmir, and Kurdistan have community gathering places, why not the Pukhtoons?

The reporter wonders about the mosques – couldn’t they serve as community centers? Zakirullah says mosques should be reserved for worship (adding his regret that many in Pakistan have become political hotbeds) rather than being a site for hospitality and communal sharing the way hurjas are.

Zakirullah explains: “We need a place for celebrating and grieving, for cultural events, for inviting friends who are Hindus or Christians to join us.”

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