We can’t ignore the mental health epidemic

Originally published in the Evening Standard on 27th Oct 2020

Figures released last week show that one in six children aged five to 16 now identify as having a probable mental disorder, compared to one in nine in 2017. But the worst may be yet to come.

Many of the young adults supported by the youth charity I founded have shared stories of their own precarious mental health; and the impact that lockdown, isolation, bereavement and uncertain employment has had. 

This ranges from amplified anxieties, compulsive behaviours and concern about loved ones, to sheer exhaustion and depression.

The acute need for increased pastoral support has made me re-evaluate how we not only work with young people but how we as a society and youth charities in particular approach mental wellbeing. How can we combat mental ill-health? I don’t have all the answers, but I know that we can only do it together as a community.

None of the youth charities I founded were based on the provision of mental health support. Some young people I mentor have told me about their attempts to commit suicide, most recently during lockdown. What then of the disadvantaged young people we work with who don’t have the support structures to help them cope with the challenges of life?

Students returning to school after lockdown reported worse mental health and a decrease in support

For too long, youth charities have been focused on “churning out” young people to chase funders who care more about parading the numbers of young people they fund than understanding their long-term needs, including their mental wellbeing.

Young Minds’ research said there was an 11 per cent increase in students who described their mental health as poor since they returned to school after lockdown. These students also reported a 23 per cent decrease in support for pupils in schools since the pandemic.

Over 75 per cent of all mental disorders start before people hit the age of 24. I believe everyone who comes in contact with a young person — no matter the interaction — should have at the front of their mind how they can contribute to that young person’s mental health.

This will take a culture shift and strong and effective campaigning not just with youth charities but corporations and foundations which seek to fund them — we cannot afford to ignore this silent epidemic any longer.

The need to understand our shared histories has never been more important – to help shape our shared futures

Originally published in the Evening Standard 16th Oct 2020

In light of the recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations, the need to understand our shared histories has never been more important – to help shape our shared futures.

The CBE given to trailblazing headteacher Yvonne Conolly is a wonderful example of how this can be achieved. Yvonne, a member of the Windrush generation became the first black headmistress in 1969 and sadly the only surviving from the original first black headteachers, which included Tony O’Connor and Beryl Gilroy. For over four decades successive Governments have overlooked the contributions made by our pioneering black headteachers, with none of them receiving a senior national honour. At the start of Black History Month, the Prime Minister Boris Johnson dedicated his video message to Yvonne and how “she inspired and mentored not only her young charges but also generations of educators.” The awarding of the CBE, has gone some way to correcting the decades of neglect and sacrifices that our first BAME headteachers made, not only in breaking the glass ceiling but facing abuse and death threats from the far right for just doing their job.

This was the most diverse honours list ever with 13 per cent of successful candidates coming from BAME backgrounds beating the previous highest percentage of 12 per cent in the New Year list of 2019. The public honours system in recent years has become more independent from political influence. Nominations are made by the public and assessed by independent committees. The public honours should not be confused with the political honours list which is decided by the sitting Prime Minister. However each year the Prime Minister of the day can set strategic priorities for these independent committees and it is clear this round the focus was on the Government’s “levelling up” agenda, with the list reflecting the length and breadth of society. Read more ‘A remarkable lady’: Charles honours UK’s first black headmistress

Business leaders in the north have been recognised. For example, Blackburn’s Issa brothers, Mohsin and Zuber who recently brought the 71 year old Asda supermarket chain back to British ownership after 21 years. Their entrepreneurial expertise in securing countless jobs in the north of the country has seen them being awarded CBEs.

But what makes this list so unique from previous honour lists was the Prime Minister’s inclusion of over 400 additional Covid-19 heroes. For raising nearly £1m for charity by walking while fasting during Ramadan, 101 year old Dabirul Choudhury was awarded an OBE, whilst Rajinder Singh Harzall ‘the Skipping Skih’ received a MBE for encouraging elderly people to stay active in lockdown. The Covid-19 recipients have embodied the blitz spirt which was led by the Captain Tom who was awarded a knighthood earlier in the year.

There is never a better time to put forward someone for a honour, from anywhere in the country. The Government sets out very clear guidelines, on how to nominate someone, at gov.uk/honours. All you will need to do is fill out an online form, describing in no more than 500 words why your nominee is deserving of an award. You also need two supporting letters of reference. Now is the best time for us have a honours system which reflect the whole of society, so nominate someone today.

Why it’s vital that the first BAME heads are recognised

BAME headteachers have to work 10 times as hard to be acknowledged for the work they do – so it’s wonderful that Yvonne Conolly has finally been appointed CBE, saying Harris Bokhari

The achievement of being the first person to break a glass ceiling for your community can never be underestimated. And being an excellent educator and outstanding headteacher isn’t easy at the best of times. But being the first of your community to do this means you have to work 10 times harder without making any of the mistakes afforded to others. This is rarely acknowledged when awarding national honours.

My father became the first Muslim headteacher in the early 1980s and faced racist abuse from day one of his appointment. He was an excellent headteacher and turned his school into one of the best in the country, but along the way he faced abuse from elements of the education establishment and from parents who didn’t want to see him succeed. 

These pioneers know that if they make one mistake they could lose their career, which could then impact the next BAME (black, Asian or minority-ethnic) educator who applies for a headship. That’s what makes these educators exceptional and why we need to recognise them at the highest of levels. Combined with the voluntary work that many of them do in their own and wider communities, the question I ask myself now, given that I sit on the honours committee, is: why did my late father receive only an OBE when many of his non-diverse counterparts were knighted while achieving the same results without having faced the same level of prejudice or having made such contributions in their voluntary work?

But the biggest injustice of all has been the sidelining of the generation of “first” minority headteachers. More than 50 years ago, we had the first generation of black headteachers. The Windrush generation brought a level of excellence in education that was needed to a country developing into a rich multicultural society. When Tony O’Connor, a former RAF sergeant who had served in the Second World War, became Britain’s first black male headteacher in 1967, it came at a time when race relations were at their worst in Smethwick, coming off the back of the most racist electoral campaign in British history. His appointment led to the school walls being daubed with swastikas and racist slogans. Death threats were commonplace and were also faced by both the first and second black female headteachers, Yvonne Connolly and Beryl Gilroy, with Connolly needing to take a bodyguard with her to school.

One thing that the three first black headteachers had in common is none of them ever received a senior national honour. They were exceptional headteachers, just as good, if not better, than other headteachers who had received senior honours. So why were they overlooked when they were in the education system and, more importantly, when they retired?  

What also makes this more upsetting is that each of them was active in public service in a voluntary capacity during their working lives and even into their retirement. Dr Gilroy was an active member of the Race Relations Board as well as being a founder member of the Camden Black Sisters. Connolly founded the Caribbean Teachers’ Association, served on the home secretary’s Advisory Council on Race Relations and was a member of the Independent Broadcasting Authority. Sadly, both O’Connor and Gilroy are no longer with us, and national honours cannot be awarded posthumously.  

But after four decades of successive prime ministers and governments ignoring the contributions made by our pioneering black headteachers, justice has finally done by Boris Johnson awarding a senior national honour, a CBE, to Yvonne Connolly.

At the start of Black History Month, the prime minister dedicated his video message to Connolly and told of how “she inspired and mentored not only her young charges but also generations of educators”.  

The awarding of the CBE has corrected the decades of neglect and sacrifices that our first BAME headteachers made, not only in breaking the glass ceiling but facing abuse and death threats from the far right just for doing their job.

Fifty years on, Connolly has received tributes from HRH The Prince of Wales and the education secretary Gavin Williamson. What is important is that we never forget the contributions our pioneering headteachers have made but also remember that we need to recognise those headteachers and educators who still face prejudice on a daily basis – be it related to their race, sex, faith or sexuality. The impact on children from minority backgrounds of having a headteacher who looks, sounds and comes from the same background from you can never be underestimated.

As the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, said in his mayoral victory speech: “It was my headteacher Naz Bokhari, an outstanding teacher and a role model for me and thousands of other children at Ernest Bevin College, who encouraged me to go to university and aim to give something back into society. He made me realise that skin colour and background should never be a barrier to fulfilling your potential.”

Now is the time to remember our diverse educators, so please nominate them today at gov.uk/honours. Let’s not allow another generation of educators to pass without acknowledging their contribution to our country.

Harris Bokhari is a national board member of Mosaic – The Prince’s Trust mentoring programme, and founder of the Naz Legacy Foundation

Record number of Ethnic minorities receive honours

Rajinder Singh Harzall ‘the Skipping Skih’ receiving a MBE Rajinder Singh Harzall ‘the Skipping Skih’ receiving a MBE

By Harris Bokhari

The recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations have highlighted the ongoing inequalities faced by Black communities across the UK. Over the last four honour rounds we have seen the number of BAME recipients consistently decline, so the timing of the most ethnically diverse honours list to date, with 13 per cent of recipients coming from an ethnic minority background cannot be better.

Recipients of CBEs are represented by numerous BAME history makers. Farmida Bi came to the UK from Pakistan aged six. She made history by becoming the first woman and ethnic minority to be elected chair of Norton Rose Fulbright LLP and the first Muslim woman to lead any of the “magic circle” firms. She joins Blackburn’s Issa brothers, Mohsin and Zuber who have brought the 71 year old Asda supermarket chain back to British ownership after 21 years as well as Kofi Adjepong-Boateng the Chair, of Economic Justice Programme, Open Society Foundations and leading philanthropist being awarded CBEs.

After four decades of successive prime ministers and Governments ignoring the contributions made by our pioneering black headteachers, with none of them receiving a senior national honour, justice has finally been done by also the awarding of a CBE to Yvonne Conelly. Yvonne, a member of the Windrush generation, became the first black headmistress in 1969 and sadly the only surviving of the original first black headteachers which included Tony O’Connor and Beryl Gilroy. At the start of Black History Month, the prime minister dedicated his video message to Yvonne and how “she inspired and mentored not only her young charges but also generations of educators.” The awarding of the CBE, has gone a little way to correcting the decades of neglect and sacrifices that our first BAME headteachers made, not only in breaking the glass ceiling but facing abuse and death threats from the far right for just doing their job.

The Queen’s Birthday Honours List 2020 is also the first honours list to have 11 per cent of recipients under 30 and no one represents this better than the Forbes 30 Under 30 Entrepreneur Josh Babarinde being awarded an OBE. One of the UK’s leading social entrepreneurs Josh has helped rebuild the lives of hundreds of young ex-offenders from a live of crime to employment.

But what makes this list so unique from previous honour lists is the inclusion of over 400 additional Covid-19 hero recipients. From the raising just under £1m for charity by walking while fasting during Ramadan, 101 year old – Dabirul Choudhury who was awarded a OBE to Rajinder Singh Harzall ‘the Skipping Skih’ receiving a MBE for encouraging elderly people to stay active in lockdown.

With a record number of BAME recipients, there has never a better time to put forward someone for a honour. The Government sets out very clear guidelines, on how to nominate someone, at http://gov.uk/honours

All you need to do is fill out an online form, describing in no more than 500 words why your nominee is deserving of an award: it may be because of the amounts of money they have raised or the number of people they have helped. Remember, you must highlight the impact the nominee has had in their community — not just how nice they are. You also need two supporting letters of reference. Now is the best time for us to boost the diversity in the honours system, so nominate someone today.

Patchwork Foundation: providing a sense of family for young people

Harris Bokhari OBE (Maths and Management 1999) on making positive change.

Interview: Megan Welford / Photography: Hannah Maule-ffinch

Portrait of Harris Bokhari OBE

Original Article on this link

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.

Change means museums addressing their past

Original artilce published in Evening Standard on 20th July 2020

My late father, the first Muslimheadteacher in the UK, would regularly take me and my sister to museums from a young age, to broaden and enrich our cultural horizons. This wasn’t common for minority communities in the early Eighties and unfortunately things haven’t changed much today at the national museums, as many still feel these institutions are not for people “like them”.

Museums and galleries are beginning to welcome back visitors, and doing so against the backdrop of Black Lives Matter. As the first Muslim trustee of the Natural History Museum, I have been thinking about what it means to have museums that are truly for everyone.

Most museums have looked at ways to address the feeling that some are excluded, and the lack of diversity in their collections. Sandy Nairne, the former director of the National Portrait Gallery, made special efforts to promote black icons like Mary Seacole and bring in paintings such as the Ayuba Suleiman Diallo portrait, the first British oil portrait of a freed slave. Tours were organised for harder-to-reach communities.

The Natural History Museum has looked at how parts of their historical collection were built on the slave trade and how “cultural institutions have a history of denying and ignoring the violence… that this desire to collect inflicted upon others”. Slave ships were used to collect specimens — and slave owners would whitewash contributions of people of colour to science. Understanding our shared histories is important to shape our shared futures.

Real change means addressing past injustices. Let’s have paid internships for the under-represented

We also need to see better diversity throughout our cultural institutions, from trustees to senior management; BAME paygaps published; and senior management undertaking not only diversity training but also unconscious bias and anti-oppression training. To reach out to diverse young visitors we need to establish links with schools with higher BAME student populations and provide resources to help them to visit.

Real change means addressing past injustices, and we can do that via paid internships and scholarships for under-represented communities. We can also build stronger relationships with countries of origin. The next step is to address the change we need in society and that only comes by providing equal opportunities for everyone to succeed.

Harris Bokhari is a trustee of the Natural History Museum

Lockdown won’t stop our faiths from uniting

Original artilce published in Evening Standard on 24th April 2020

Last night marked the start of Ramadan and of course Covid-19 is having a significant impact on it. The pandemic has affected the way all faith communities engage with important rituals and celebrations. This year there have been no large gatherings for the opening of the fast. Instead, the iftars will be virtual. We are lucky to have contributions from the Prince of Wales, Archbishop of Canterbury, Chief Rabbi and Cabinet figures — join tonight at nazlegacy.org.

Over the last few weeks we have seen Christians unable to gather for Easter mass; Jews for the Passover Seder meal; and Hindus and Sikhs for Vaisakhi. But these circumstances have enabled faith communities to display their adaptability and creativity. Places of worship have been quick to respond to the pandemic by closing their premises and using technology to reach out to congregations. It has been excellent to see them continuing to provide key services for their communities, whether it is Hindu temples translating the Government’s briefings into Gujarati, or mosques in Bolton offering to convert their premises into temporary hospitals.

In difficult times, people rely on their faith more than ever. it is crucial that institutions of worship do not close their doors spiritually, and find innovative ways of honouring timeless traditions. We’ve already seen virtual Easter and Seders. Initiatives like these boost spirits and nourish them with strength to keep going, as the lockdown shows no signs of letting up. During Ramadan, Muslims face 30 days of exacting fasts without the daily gatherings to break fast and pray which are so crucial to creating a sense of togetherness and solidarity. Virtual interfaith iftars will help all communities unite in our shared struggles and celebrate what we have in common. We want to revive the Ramadan spirit of togetherness and empathy for one another, and not just for Muslims: this ethos is needed across our country in these challenging times.

Events like the virtual Ramadan iftar, create new possibilities for people to connect across boundaries

Our world is increasingly driven by technology. Figures show that in recent weeks, many people have actually been in touch with family more than ever, because of the convenience of apps such as Zoom. One lesson from lockdown is that the tech so often blamed for creating distance and division can bring us together. Through virtual religious celebrations, perhaps we are creating new possibilities for people to connect across boundaries, even after lockdown is over.

Charities need to adapt to survive the virus

Orginal article published in the Eastern Eye on 7th April 2020

The last few years have been volatile for the charity sector, with 2019 seeing a twenty seven per-cent increase in charity closures from 2018. Against this backdrop, the sector is now grappling with the implication of the Covid-19 outbreak. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), has predicted that the voluntary sector will face a £4.3 billion drop in its income over the next twelve weeks. Most charities do not have the savings or tangible assets to sustain these sorts of losses for more than a few weeks, meaning that many of them might be forced to close down. Could Covid-19 spell the end of the charity sector as we know it?

The third sector is of massive social and economic value to the nation, with nearly a million employees and £50 billion in total income.

Over the coming weeks and months, these charities will be providing crucial auxiliary support to help our infrastructure deal with the Covid-19 pandemic. It is also important to remember that these charities are an important support system for the most disadvantaged in our communities. It was great to see the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak announce bold measures to protect jobs over the coming weeks, and the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden ensuring that these measures will apply to hundreds of thousands of jobs in the charity sector, whilst also offering charities support to coordinate volunteers, in aid of their response to the crisis.

Oliver has a track record of understanding the importance of the charity sector; he was the tutor for the first Patchwork Foundation Masterclass at Downing Street, where he inspired several disadvantaged young people to go on to work in Whitehall and even in his own Department of Culture.

Despite this, the NCVO, senior charity leaders and many MP’s have argued that without drastic sector-specific measures, such as an immediate cash injection, many charities will be forced to close.

Charities and communities operating in London are going to have their hands particularly full, given the higher prevalence of Covid-19 cases in London. With this in mind it was good to see that the City Bridge Trust have pledged over one million towards a new emergency support fund to support community and voluntary organisations in London.

The Government have acted decisively to relieve some of the burden on the charity sector in the coming weeks. Charities themselves will need to adapt to the circumstances, making more use of the online space. Many forward thinking charities have already started to make this adjustment well before the pandemic, in recognition that this is the most effective way to support our new generations, who spend more of their time online. A good example of this is the Princes Trust, who had introduced an online mentoring services for young people across their programmes.

Perhaps the challenges of the coming weeks and months, will force more charities to become fit for purpose for the realities of our current society. For those that do not adapt, this may indeed spell the end.

School closures affect Muslims more than most

Original artilce published in the Time Educational Supplement on 6th April 2020

The coronavirus crisis impacts BAME communities – and Muslims in particular – in unforeseen ways, writes Harris Bokhari

A little over two weeks ago, the government announced that schools should close to all, except for children who are vulnerable and those whose parents are key workers “critical to the Covid-19 response”. It was the right decision, bearing in mind the potential for schools to become hotbeds of Covid-19 transmission.

However, it is also important to consider the disproportionate impact this decision will have on black and minority ethnic families, and Muslims in particular.

BAME children are more likely to live in extended family structures, with their grandparents and other elderly relatives. These children are now more likely to be in sustained close proximity with these elderly relatives, who are at greatest risk of experiencing fatal symptoms due to Covid-19.

We have already seen the heightened risk facing the Muslim community in particular, with the suggestion that up to a third of Covid-19 deaths so far have been from within the Muslim community. No doubt, this is in large part influenced by the tightly knit family structures that tend to dominate in the BAME groups that predominantly constitute the Muslim community. 

Muslim families hit by coronavirus

One has to wonder about the impact of these death rates on the children themselves. With the month of Ramadan approaching, Muslim families will have been preparing for a time of greater community spirit, with adults and children gathering in the evenings in mosques to share food and prayer; enjoying the solidarity of fasting and eating together. Instead, they will have to contend with greater isolation at home, and potentially seeing their loved ones dying.

Due to restrictions on funeral rites, in place to prevent transmission of the virus, saying goodbye to loved ones will be bereft of the usual closure provided by the elaborate Islamic burial rituals. I fear that this will be fertile ground for mental health issues to take root. Given that mental health awareness is still a work in progress in some BAME communities, this is of particular concern.

The government’s latest lockdown measures are unquestionably the right decision, given their effectiveness in slowing the spread of the disease. Nonetheless, they will entail greater disruption for BAME children and families. For many BAME parents, extracurricular faith and community schools can also provide an important social, cultural and moral education for their children. 

These evening and weekend schools closing, although the right move, will increase burdens on parents and potentially bring more vulnerable elderly relatives into childcare roles. Not to mention that these schools form an important part of the routines of many children, giving them the opportunity to build their confidence and feel a part of community life. Losing this will be a further blow, again with potential implications for their mental health.

Economics will also play a role in exacerbating these issues. With some exceptions, BAME children are more likely to be eligible for free school meals. Many of these children are in effect dependent on their schools to receive adequate nutrition. A closure of schools will put BAME households under greater pressure to ensure that their children are well fed. These households are less likely to own a house or have any savings, and more likely to use food banks. This makes them extra vulnerable to shocks to their income, or increased pressure on food banks and other public services that they are reliant on. I was pleased, therefore, to see education secretary Gavin Williamson’s guarantee that children eligible for free school meals will continue to be provided for while their schools are closed – and into the Easter holidays. This will prevent many children from going hungry in the coming weeks and months.

The government has demonstrated a laudable awareness of how measures taken in response to the Covid-19 threat will impact the most vulnerable. During these challenging times, we must also ensure that we remain sensitive to the needs of the most vulnerable children, many of whom come from BAME backgrounds.

Positive immigration is the key to the NHS’ success

Orginal artile publisehd in the Eastern Eye on 6th April 2020

Given the tragic news of the youngest victim of the Coronavirus to be buried as well as the fourth doctor on the front lines to lose his life this week, many from my community were acutely aware that the one thing they had in common was that they were both Muslim Londoners.

Over the last few decades, our NHS has been one of the greatest monuments to the success of immigration in this country. From all over the world, it has welcomed doctors, nurses, porters and cleaners, who have ensured that it remains one of the leading examples of healthcare provision around the world. Without these contributions from immigrants around the world, our NHS today would not be capable of mounting the incredible fightback against the virus, that it has done. It has also not been lost on me that the first four doctors to fall to this virus have all been immigrants, and Muslim, two of whom worked, lived and sadly died in London.

It is important to remember that Muslims make up 10 per cent of all doctors in the NHS, despite being only 5 per cent of the population. Muslims form part of a large contingent of BAME staff in the NHS, in London BAME staff represent 44 per cent of the entire workforce.

The incredible contribution of Muslim and BAME staff to the NHS, is also something we must continue to remember and celebrate.

Speaking to NHS staff on the frontline it is clear that a significant percentage of Covid patients in ICUs have also been Muslim.

Immigrant contributions to our society are far too often overlooked, and it would be an injustice to continue to do so, whilst they give up their lives to protect us and our loved ones. We owe these immigrant NHS workers, as we do to all NHS staff, an immense debt of gratitude. There is no doubt, that these are heroes, who will be remembered in years to come for their sacrifices for this country, in the same way that we remember those who sacrificed their lives for us in World War Two. Just as our war heroes are recognised with medals, we need to seriously consider recognising our NHS heroes in the same way.

What all of this drives home, is the immense importance of immigrant and BAME communities to our society. London in particular, is the great city she is today, thanks to immigrants and their contributions.

In the run up to, and after the Brexit vote, we saw a polarising public discourse on immigration. What the Corona crisis has reminded us – is that if we want our nation to continue to thrive, we must remain open to those seeking to build a better life for themselves and their families. If we need reminding about their value and loyalties, let’s not forget that they were fighting on the front-lines during the greatest crisis our country has seen in a generation.