t’s 1993, you’re a young Bangladeshi looking to start a life in the UK. You’ve just landed at Heathrow, you know no-one and have mastered “hello” – but that’s about it. In one hand you have your suitcase, in the other, the address for Euston’s Surma Centre.
“That is how it was back in those days,” says Faruk Miah, Surma’s project coordinator, “you would step off the plane and head straight to Surma.”
From humble beginnings, the organisation started out as the Bengali Workers Action Group back in 1976. It was the brainchild of a group of local activists who wanted to provide a vital point of contact and source of community for recently arrived migrants.
The group offered a range of services from chaperoning people to the local halal shop and making phone calls for those yet to master the English tongue, to helping people find work and housing.
It was all volunteer-based at this stage but as more Bangladeshi migrants arrived – all of them instantly bee-lining it from the tarmac to Surma – Camden Council realised the demand and started funding it.T
hey gradually evolved – changing their name to the Bengali Workers’ Association (BWA) and, in 1990 moving into Hampstead Road’s Surma Centre, the first space created specifically for the Bangladeshi community in Camden.
BWA soon became the largest and for a while, the only Bengali-specific support group in the borough. “There are of course other vital services now, like Hopscotch and KCBNA, but because it was the first it has a real reputation,” says Mariam Hassan, Surma’s youth and communities manager.
“People are very passionate about this place, chances are their parents and even grandparents have used and probably still use our services. It is a pillar of the community.”
So what goes on at Surma now? Although they still offer the same essential support and advice, the group has transformed in accordance to the needs of locals, and as such, acts as much more of a community hub.
Twice a week they run a very reasonable (£4) lunch club, open to everyone; it’s so rammed that they often run out of food. “It used to be all Bangladeshis,” says Mariam, “we were thinking of ways to get a more diverse range of people in at one point – but now we couldn’t keep them away if we tried,” she jokes.
“There’s something so special about a room filled with people across cultures and generations, from office workers to older Bengalis.”
Surma also run study support and homework clubs, youth groups, women’s group, employment advice services and exercise classes for the young and old.
However, what they are currently most renowned for are their dance classes, for adults, primary and secondary school kids. Faruk reckons that this is the “most popular dance class in Camden,” and judging by the fact that they currently have a waiting list for primary school kids he might be right.
The youth streetdance group are called BWA Mix It. Why? It consists of kids from 15 different cultural backgrounds – white working class, various African countries and Kosovan children – all learning how to krump and b-boy together.
“It’s so powerful,” says Mariam, who runs the class, “all the kids keep a part of their culture and bring it into this space.”
“Dance is what we are really known for at the moment but through that we’ve been able to give the kids so much more, through life and social skills,” says Mariam. “Parents are so appreciative as well, so proud of what their kids can do after they come here and, on the flipside, so grateful that their kids aren’t getting up to some of the things they could be doing otherwise. It’s a great way of staying on the straight and narrow, and not getting influenced by things that are not so good for them.”T
he dance crew’s diversity nicely sums up the recent expansion in BWA’s mandate. Over the last few years they’ve started working with the community at large, not Bangladeshi residents exclusively. This is primarily thanks to Mariam and her ethos of togetherness.
“As soon as she started working here, you could see a lot more non-Bangladeshi faces around the place,” says Faruk. “I really respect Mariam for this, it is such an achievement transforming this from a culturally exclusive organisation, into a fully inclusive one.”
“I’ve lived in Camden my whole life,” says Mariam, “I’m of mixed origin myself: half Pakistani, half Italian, and I married a Bangladeshi, just to make the mix a little more complicated.” Growing up in this area, “everything was diverse in my eyes and that is how it needs to be.”
Having previously worked at Cumberland Market’s H-Pod for six years prior to her move to Surma four years ago, building bridges across communities in Euston is what really drives her. Mariam does this by organising family-focused sessions, events and workshops.
“It can be so simple,” says Mariam, “even leaving parents sitting in the foyer as they wait for their kids to finish their dance class makes a world of difference.”
“Imagine if you’ve never talked to someone from that particular culture before or there has been some unresolved neighbourly tension across races. This is all triggered by a fear of the unknown, which is amplified if you don’t speak very much English. These negative perceptions heighten without a way to communicate or interact in a positive way.”
And that is exactly what Surma offers: crucial opportunities to breakdown cultural barriers. Whether that’s while twiddling your thumbs waiting for the kids dance class to end, sharing a curry at the weekly lunch club or, at the age of six, doing your homework alongside Somalis, Brits and Bangladeshis.
Long may Surma remain the home to Camden’s Bengali community, and long may it keep leaving the door open to anyone wishing to join in.
Photo: Bengali Workers Association