November 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War. To help commemorate it, Community First – a community group covering the Gladstone and Millfield area – is working together with St Mark’s Church to organise Peace in Diversity. This series of local events not only aims to acknowledge the sacrifice made by the local men named on the church’s war memorial, but to highlight to contribution made by the many people of other faiths and nationalities who fought alongside their British allies. The Moment talked to Vice Chairman of Community First, Mohammed Saeed, about the project
First of all, what is Community First and how did it come about?
We came about in 2015. I’ve always been involved in Residents’ Associations and things like that, but in 2015 we brought together a group of people to represent a whole area rather than just single streets. That’s when we met our Chairman, who is also governor of our local school, Revd. Adrian Holdstock, who runs St Mark’s Church on Lincoln Road, and we’ve been dealing with a number of local issues since then – litter, drug-taking, anti-social behaviour, fly-tipping. Recently we also replanted 22 neglected public flowerbeds in the area with the support of PECT and a troupe of volunteers.
What inspired Peace in Diversity?
This year, Adrian mentioned about the 100 year anniversary of the end of the First World War, and that’s when I started doing a bit more research into it, and finding out about the contribution of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs – about 2.5 million Muslims alone, if one includes soldiers and labourers. In total there were around 1.2 million soldiers from the British Indian Army – including 200,000 Gurkhas – as well as 55,000 from Africa and 15,000 from the West Indies. This of course, is in addition to the contributions from Canada (600,000), Australia (330,000), New Zealand (100,000) and numerous other smaller colonies around the world. This is a very multicultural area, so Adrian suggested we should do something locally that related to this.
How did you uncover their histories?
I came across a book called Unknown Fallen by Luc Ferrier, a Belgian who is founder and chairman of the Forgotten Heroes 14-19 Foundation. The book focuses primarily on the Muslim contribution, and began with him reading his grandfather’s war diaries, telling of his interaction with Muslim soldiers from various parts of the world, and the bonds that developed. He started researching that, travelling right across the Muslim world, and put together this first volume, which has some amazing photos, illustrations and stories. Luc himself is not a Muslim, though I only found that out when I spoke to him; when you read it you imagine he is. He said: ‘To counter the narrative that we’re seeing in the world at the moment we need to look at history and see the contribution made by Muslims and others towards the freedoms that we cherish today.’
What examples of that did you find?
The camaraderie between the different faiths during that time is amazing to read about. The Imams, Rabbis and priests learned each other’s prayers and burial ceremonies so they could bury their brothers if there wasn’t anyone else around to bury them. It’s amazing to know that kind of brotherhood existed, and these days many people would probably think that was a fairy tale. But that’s how they were. They stood shoulder to shoulder. For a Rabbi or Christian priest to learn an Arabic prayer so they could bury a Muslim brother is amazing. In France, when the troops came from the French colonies in Africa, they were greeted by cheering crowds lining the streets. They came off the ships with colourful uniforms and headgear, and the people just cheered them on. That’s something we don’t often read in histories of the time – and those millions who came from India, Africa and beyond, came as volunteers. In Europe we’ve lived in relative peace for decades now, so it’s hard for us to understand war. But that’s it’s important for us to remember the sacrifices they made, because without them we wouldn’t have the peace and tranquillity we live in now.
What activities will be taking place as part of Peace in Diversity?
We’ve got three schools involved – Kings School, Beeches Primary and Gladstone Primary Academy. They will all be holding their own events during the school term, with children doing paintings which will all be exhibited in the church. On Sunday there will also be a civic ceremony. One of our aims is to highlight the stories of the 147 local people named on the church war memorial, and to extend an invitation to any people living here now who have stories of their family involvement. It’s about bringing all those stories together. The parish of St Marks is the Gladstone area, and there’s a multitude of ethnicities – people from Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Portugal, India, Pakistan and various African counties. Everybody has a history of involvement with those events, so it’s about bringing all those together and remembering those who helped establish a more peaceful society.
Obviously the anniversary focuses attention on these issue, but do you feel there are other reasons why such events are timely?
Definitely. The author of the book Unknown Fallen felt it was important to be doing this now, because extremists on both sides across the world are using narratives of hate to increase their support. There’s a lot of Islamophobia as a result of that, but if you look at how many Muslims came to stand shoulder to shoulder with their Christian and Jewish brothers it shows that we really can stand together. Extremists will always exploit a lack of understanding to paint a different picture, but this is the reality, so, it’s important to get that message out. We all live together and have done so for a very long time.
The fact that you’re working with a Christian church leader seems a great example of that…
People who saw me for the first time would probably think I was an Imam, because I have a big beard and usually have a turban and flowing white robes! My partner in running Community First is the reverend of St Mark’s, and one time we were sitting in a coffee shop chatting and a young man came up and asked if he could take our photograph. It seemed amazing to him to see two people who were obviously of different faiths sitting together, enjoying each other’s company. But it’s important to get that image out there. Of course we have differences – that’s normal – but we can overcome those. The important thing is that we have so much in common. And differences can be good. Life would be so boring if we were all the same. Imagine not having any curry! The choice of meal for my family on a Friday night is fish’n’chips; it’d be terrible to be without that… But at Community First we have a strapline: ‘Breaking barriers, growing communities.’ That’s what we want to achieve.
Peace in Diversity
Inviting all people in the community of Gladstone and Millfield surrounding St Mark’s Parish to remember and commemorate 100 years since the end of the First World War.
Community activities over 9th-11th November 2018 (Friday to Sunday) in St Mark’s Hall and Church, Lincoln Road, PE1 2SN include:
- Schools’ art and history society exhibitions
stories behind the 147 names on the church war memorial
stories of other faiths and nationalities that fought in World War I
- A Remembrance service will be held at the Church on Sunday 11th November at 10am which will be a commemorative gathering for all faiths and none, and will include a two minute silence at 11am.
You are warmly invited join in with the weekend. Everyone is welcome.