Harris Bokhari OBE (Maths and Management 1999) on making positive change.
Interview: Megan Welford / Photography: Hannah Maule-ffinch
It’s easy to identify the inspiration behind my charity, the Patchwork Foundation – my father, Naz Bokhari. After his death in 2011, my sister, Hina, and I mapped out all that he had achieved and what would complement it. We started the Naz Legacy to promote education and integration, and the Patchwork Foundation came out of it. The aim is to connect disadvantaged young people, who are often locked out of society, with civic life.
My father was the first Muslim headmaster in the UK, at Ernest Bevin College, a secondary school in Tooting, and we were amazed at just how loved and respected he was. In the last two days he was in hospital before he died, we sent out an open invitation and a thousand people came to visit. He’d always been so low-key – he drove us into Buckingham Palace one day to get his OBE as if we were going on just another trip.
We grew up in Epsom, Surrey, where we were the only non-white family, and spent weekends in north London, Birmingham or Leicester setting up chairs in community halls or organising sports. We drank weak lemon squash and ate rice and mince from Tupperware containers. It was fun for us – we didn’t know we were participating in community events and helping people. But our father brought us up to give back, to try to make positive change in our environment.
I am so lucky to have had my father’s love and that my mother is my shoulder to cry on. In the Patchwork Foundation, we try to provide that sense of family for young people. Individuals provide the spark, but family is what allows you to achieve something. My dad advised me to become an accountant (rather than a teacher like everyone else in my family), and for that I am grateful. It allows me to do what I do, and I love it. I’ve always been comfortable with numbers – I like things to add up. Lots of things in society don’t add up, like me having a full fridge when others don’t.
Sometimes it can get a bit overwhelming, so I keep handwritten thank-you notes people have given me in my pocket. When someone says, “I’m alive because of you”, you know why you do what you do.
Harris Bokhari OBE won Imperial’s inaugural Distinguished Alumni Award in 2020.