How city of Mirpur became 'Little England'
- 5 March 2012
- From the section Magazine
The city of Mirpur, in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, is known as "Little England" due to its large British Pakistani community. So what is life like for the city's many expats?
Mirpur's connection with Britain has made it a place quite unlike anywhere else in the region. You can see it in the huge villas.
"Where could I get a place like this in the UK?" says Zahoor from Ilford, as we crane our necks to get a full view of his dazzling palatial creation, complete with terraces and towers.
But even that is nothing compared to his most recent foray into development Mirpuri-style. He has now finished building an entire "British street".
"It's a home away from home for UK Pakistanis," he says, proudly showing me the little semi-detached houses and their neat gardens that he hopes to sell on.
"They'll even have British-style rubbish collections."
Not far away is evidence of another Brit who has invested heavily here.
Rafay is rushing around his plush, four-storey bakery and restaurant, where he employs around 100 staff.
In the kitchens, he gives instructions on new cake designs. In the restaurant, he samples new dishes he has dreamed up.
"All my skills were learned in Yorkshire, taught to me by my father," he says.
"It's because of his hard work that I'm where I am now."
The story of Rafay's father, Saleem, is the story of Mirpur.
In the 1960s, the original town, where Saleem lived - along with scores of villages around it - was submerged.
With the help of an English firm, Pakistan had built a huge hydro-electric dam on the Jhelum River close by.
It meant that more than 100,000 people had to leave their homes.
But the British government needed more workers at the time, and decided to give many of the Mirpur evictees permits so they could go to the UK to work in factories in the Midlands and the north of England.
Rafay proudly shows us a picture of his father working in a textile mill in Yorkshire.
"He worked hard," he says, "and saved enough to open a small baker's shop in Bradford."
Saleem's firm expanded so much that it soon became one of the biggest manufacturers of Asian snacks across Europe - still based in Bradford.
Eventually he felt it was time to give back something to Mirpur and opened an outlet here.
So Zahoor invested in real estate in Mirpur, and Rafay's family in business. But many more expatriates over the decades have sent back money to their families here.
Having a voice
The Pakistani government says it was contributions like these which made it decide to allow Pakistanis living overseas to vote in national elections - even if they are second or third generation.
The electoral commission in Islamabad says that even a quota for a number of seats in parliament for British Pakistanis is under discussion.
The news seemed to have gone down well with listeners of Mirpur's radio station, Rose FM, whose phone-in programme is broadcast simultaneously in Mirpur and Bradford.
"It's like one community, just in two places," Aisha the presenter tells me. "People from both here and there participate.
"They all have views about what's right and what's wrong in Pakistan, so why shouldn't they all get the chance to be involved in how the country's run?"
Not everyone is in agreement, including that property developer from Ilford, Zahoor.
"How can we understand the issues unless we live here permanently?" he asks. "And politics in Pakistan is such a dirty, unpredictable business, it's better to stay out of it."
He has a point. No government in Pakistan has ever seen out a full term in office, and the administration of Prime Minister Gilani is teetering as we speak.
But then he raises, as he sees it, a bigger issue.
"I give it another generation or two, then these links will be over anyway," Zahoor says.
He feels a process of disengagement between Mirpuris in Britain and their place of origin has suddenly started to accelerate, thanks to problems in both countries.
"In the UK, money's become tight," he says, "and not so many can afford to spare enough even to pay the expensive fares to fly here, so young people aren't getting to know the place."
"And in Mirpur, the authorities have managed things so poorly," says Zahoor, "it will put people off investing."
Rafay, the baker, has similar worries.
"Look at the energy problems in Pakistan," he says.
"Gas and electricity are unreliable and it affects business.
"We're almost running our bakery here as a charity to help give people employment, but others won't be able to afford to do that."
Fear about security in Pakistan is also likely to be playing its part, and it could all spell the beginning of the end, at least, of Mirpur's reputation as a Little Britain in Pakistan.
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