What I learned in Brierfield: How young British Pakistanis are promoting peace

Four and a half hours north up the motorway from London is Brierfield, a community of around 5,000 people.

During the past century this Lancastrian town, located just outside Burnley, has evolved from being predominantly white British to a third of its population being of Pakistani heritage, according to national Census figures. The mills that initially attracted families from Pakistan seeking more prosperous lives are long gone. But the British Pakistani families have remained and grown, and their ties with Pakistan have been preserved. What it means to be Pakistani, British, Muslim and Lancastrian is now layered with complexity. Identity in this part of Britain, as in many others, is a subject of much debate. And debate it we did, at the first Alert Peace Talks event to be held outside London, on 22 January.

The event, held at Marsden Heights Community College in Brierfield, showcased the results of our ‘Promoting positive diaspora voices’ project, which we run in partnership with the Lancashire Global Education Centre and is funded by the EU. The event was therefore framed as a discussion about the role of the young Pakistani diaspora in addressing peace and conflict issues in both their country of heritage (Pakistan) and their country of birth (England). The panel, chaired by Alert’s Secretary General Dan Smith, included two young students from Marsden Heights involved in the project, a representative from the Pakistani consulate in Manchester, an academic, and a youth worker based at the school who is integral to the project.

What became clear from our discussions was the need to explore, understand and express identity. In particular, to readdress what the young students viewed as misconceptions of their Pakistani and Muslim identity. Having just returned from a visit to Pakistan organised as part of the project, the two students on the panel, Tayeb and Zangeel, were at pains to explain how their country of heritage is not the terrorist-ridden land portrayed in much of the media.

The media was in fact the subject of some frustration. The students had the sense that the national media controlled the politics underpinning perceptions of Pakistan, rather than politicians – although local media stories had more credibility. There is a need and opportunity, said the students, for social media to change views and generate more positive images of Pakistan.

One got the impression from this interesting exchange that the students from Marsden Heights who had begun to engage in this initiative, had discovered a new way of understanding themselves and their community. The youth worker assigned to the group emphasised that these kinds of opportunities were necessary to help Brierfield residents as a whole better understand the dynamics at play within their community – dynamics which can create tensions between white Lancastrian and Pakistani Lancastrians, as well as between the different generations and genders. The students at the college, for example, do not necessarily have the same experiences and perspectives as even their own parents. This creates different expectations of what it means to be young, male/female, British, Lancastrian, Pakistani and Muslim.

The ‘Promoting positive diaspora voices’ project has grown in popularity among the students at Marsden Heights, with the numbers ‘applying’ to take part exceeding the places. The panel expressed hope that this engagement would help retain talent within Brierfield and combat the trend of the better qualified moving out and away to other parts of the UK.

There is a misconception among some in Pakistan that their relatives in Brierfield have riches beyond their dreams. Yet, while there are certainly good opportunities for education, employment and careers in the UK, as the students reminded the audience, there is hope and opportunity in Pakistan too, and serious challenges to tackle in Brierfield. One thing the students involved in the project certainly seem to have appreciated, therefore, is the importance of not believing everything you hear: of questioning, and seeing things for yourself.

This is something often exhorted but quickly forgotten and something we all need to do if we are to manage our conflicts effectively and peacefully. And on this note, what I learned from my trip north up the motorway is that interesting and stimulating debates don’t always have to take place in London!

This project has been made possible by the financial assistance of the European Union.