Khurshid Ahmed grew up in rural Pakistan in Gujrat, his father, a schoolmaster, had encouraged all his sons to study and get a profession. As a young man Khurshid joined the Pakistan Navy and excelled, becoming an officer and winning trophies as part of its Kabbadi team. In 1964 he came to the UK as a naval attaché at the Pakistan embassy to secure parts and supplies for the Pakistan navy from UK. It was a coveted post, and Khurshid had been selected from among hundreds of officers. Accompanying him was his wife Naseem, and their three young children. Living in London and working at the embassy was an amazing experience for Khurshid. He had been deeply affected by his upbringing in a small village in Pakistan. His sisters had married young with little education and had a difficult life living on the land. Khurshid wanted his children, particularly his daughters, to have a better quality of life and better opportunities. It wasn’t long before Khurshid and Naseem started making plans for a future in the UK for their growing family .
Khurshid had by now served 20 years in the Pakistan Navy and was due for discharge with a full military pension. Gaining citizenship in the UK was also possible due to how long the couple had been residents, and two of their children born in London. However, Pakistan was in a fragile political state at the time, and this was to have far reaching effects on their plans to settle in the UK.
Pakistan was ruled by the unpopular military dictator General Ayub Khan, and on a state visit to London in 1966, he faced protest from Pakistanis living in the UK. My father told me how angry General Ayub had been on his visit to the embassy, complaining that he had paid for these students to come and study in the UK only to be humiliated by their protests. This was the start of a crackdown on Pakistanis coming over to the UK for study or work, and ultimately led to a recall of some expatriate workers and students, including my father. Coupled with this were the India-Pakistan wars of 1965 and 1971, for which the Pakistan Navy recalled all personnel. Khurshid’s request for discharge was denied and he was recalled to Pakistan.
This left him in a difficult position, as he wanted his family to have a future in the UK. They made the painful decision to split the family, with Khurshid returning to the naval base in Karachi with the two youngest children (aged 2 and 3), leaving Naseem with the older kids. The plan was for Khurshid to send money from Karachi and Naseem would supplement this with a job locally to support the family. Khurshid left for Pakistan to try and secure his release from the navy, but not really knowing when he would return. Back in London, Naseem missed her two youngest children and her husband, but struggled on. The small local Pakistani community was very supportive. She found two jobs to keep the family going. She was very social and loved mixing with friends from different communities, chatting to people on the buses or in the local shops. Even now her friends recall her kindness and funny jokes. It was an exhausting time for Naseem and she often came home and collapsed on the bed. This was in the early 1970s when the National Front and Enoch Powell were inciting racism, Neighbours threw eggs at her and the children, but years later the same neighbours became friends. Once people got to know their Pakistani neighbours and their children became school friends racism reduced.
Meanwhile in Karachi, Khurshid struggled with two young children who desperately missed their mother and siblings. He appealed for help from his family and his older sister came to support him, becoming a surrogate mum to the two toddlers nicknamed Baba and Cookie. They never forgot their mum in England and every plane that flew overhead would ask is ‘ammee’ on it. He would always say yes, she was coming, which reassured them and they loved the letters from mum with Smarties treats inside.
Despite Khurshid’s repeated requests for a discharge, the navy refused, and the months passed to approaching two years. Frustrated and concerned he may never be able to return, Khurshid changed tack and went to see his Navy Commander’s wife with his two little daughters, making sure the commander was out at the time. It was a desperate plan and one that could have backfired. He appealed to the commander’s wife and daughter, explaining the plight he was in with his family separated. It also helped that his daughters cried at the right moment, no doubt due to a sharp pinch on the legs by their dad!. The strategy was a success and the commander had no choice when faced with emotional pressure from his family but to release Khurshid from the navy with a full pension.
Khurshid children, 1966 with Tariq, baby Farkhanda , Khalid and Kauser.
Within weeks, he was discharged, and they returned to a joyful reunion in UK. For Baba and Cookie had by then spent most of their lives in Pakistan and had forgotten how to speak English and life in cold London.
Throughout his life, Khurshid maintained a keen interest in current affairs in Pakistan and these were often debated in the house and they often of their early life and journey to London, thanking Allah for all the blessings they had received. They both wanted their children to study and have better lives. They instilled in a strong work ethic and Islamic values that we have in turn passed on to their grandchildren.
Khurshid passed away in 2014 and Naseem in 2010, but their legacy lives on in their children and grandchildren. They know the sacrifices their grandparents made and the vision they had for future generations, how proud they were of their family and how they now share the responsibility to carry on their legacy.
Naseem and Khurshid, 1993
By Farkhanda Khurshid @farawayphotos