There’s Black Now In the Union Jack
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

Mo Farah did it! Actually did much more than he knows. Cheers reverberated to the heavens as he won the Olympic gold in both the 10,000 and 5000 metre races, one of only seven men ever to do so. David Cameron tweeted ‘@Mo_Farah is an Olympic legend and a true British hero. We can all be proud of his extraordinary achievement’ But not even the PM quite gets the significance of what has come to pass these weeks. The runner was born in Somalia in 1983 and came to London when eight years old. His eldest brother Faisal stayed behind and is a farmer on a smallholding without electricity. They are close. Two brothers, two lives and a journey that changed everything for one of them. Today Farah, whilst remaining a devout Muslim , claims and extols his adopted country. His joyful embrace of Britishness, replicated by other Olympians of immigrant stock, has aroused the same rapturous national feelings in people who, until now, were wary of nationalistic celebrations and expressions. Not any more. For black and Asian Britons, seeing the mixed race and black competitors fiercely fighting for their own personal bests and for their country was the moment when history turned a page.

Ten days back, on a tube, I met a Somali family festooned in Union Jack kit. The mum had a red , blue and white band across her forehead under a tight, black head scarf; her sons had on T shirts and caps, held flags and on her daughter’s leggings were crowns, Big Bens, St Pauls and colours of this nation. They were coming back from a halal restaurant after breaking an eighteen hour fast for Ramadhan when Muslims can’t eat or drink anything. They told me they were so happy because of Farah. They wanted their children to be like him, make this country proud of them. Near us a white family was just as joyous and for the same reasons. And I thought, this is brilliant, we are in it together. One stuck up passenger muttered disapprovingly that the happy Somalis were not British and had no right to the flag. Such grumblers have tried but couldn’t spoil the biggest and best party our nation has ever thrown.

This extraordinary festival of goodwill does not mean racism and anti-immigrant hostility have vanished and that all playing fields are now level. Or that ghettoised communities are letting the walls fall. But over this period even I found it impossible to stay on my soapbox and go on and on about equality, discrimination and segregation. When half Jamaican Jess Ennis, black British boxer Nicola Adams, and others of similar heritage got their medals, wept with joy as the anthem played, with millions of other migrants and their children, I too threw myself into the warm pool of belonging.

We have had such winners before, like the super-driven medal holders Daley Thompson and Dame Kelly Holmes. But this time because the Olympics is in London, the whole country got engaged and showed its most integrated, optimistic self. Since the July bombings the land has felt fragmented, mutually suspicious, and riven by bigots and Muslim extremists. We showed them all.

This moment is especially significant for me personally and my people the Ugandan Asians. It was forty years ago this August that Idi Amin announced he was expelling all Asians from the lovely spot in Africa we had helped build over many generations. Those who had British passports arrived in the UK, many with only £55 in their pockets. It was unbelievably hard for the cast outs to resettle and to accept that their fortunes had changed and there was no going back. In the early seventies Britain was in economic turmoil and the incomers faced overt prejudice, but there were also countless, kind Britons who gave the exiles clothes, homes, jobs and loans. This group has achieved more and faster success than any other since the Second World War. They are millionaires, professional highfliers and among the top in educational tables. What’s more, like my mum, they are true patriots . She said England made her feel safe, independent and truly happy. These loyalists have never approved of my carps against the country which gave them a second chance and refuge.

Whatever my criticisms, I too know I would never have become the person I am, or developed so many skills, got so many rights, got into a profession I love or found my voice in Uganda. Asian women there lived like middle class Victorian ladies here, as keepers of the home, with all other ambitions stifled. There was no democracy back there, no freedom of speech, no dissent within communities or nationally. It hurts when indigenous Britons attack me for my skin colour or faith or for presuming to come live in their old country. But that is offset by the love I get from my English husband and white friends, some of whom have kept me going and fighting on, through some terrible personal times, times when I wanted to give up and die.

I am writing a book on England and have found that even those immigrants who have suffered hardship and faced dreadful prejudice would not live anywhere else. As Ahmed whose family moved from Afghanistan, who is unemployed and depressed, told me in a small cafe in Kilburn: ‘ I don’t want to go anywhere. This is my place. My daughter here will get the best education, they will not imprison her future. I can say what I want, pray if I want, am free like a human being should be.’ What about anti-Muslim antipathy ‘Yes it is there. I feel it on my skin. But still, for us this is the best place. Difficulties are everywhere my dear. Have you ever been to Pakistan or Afghanistan?’

Last year, two French footballers of African descent spoke candidly about the difference between their country France and England, the nation they play for. Benoit Assou-Ekotto explained why England felt to him more open than France, ‘… even if you had only one drop of Moroccan blood, for example, you would represent it to the death. You would be fiercely proud of being African. But here it is different. People might say that their parents are from the Ivory Coast or Nigeria or whatever, but they are fiercely proud of being here and the society accepts that. …France has been unwilling or unable to accommodate the sons and daughters from its former colonies’. Fellow African footballer Sebastien Bassong agreed, and passionately: ‘It’s just a fact. In England it is more open and that’s why people come here. They know they will get a chance no matter how they dress or where they’re from. In England minds are more open and that’s why French players who play in England don’t want to go back to France…the way that English people think, they don’t judge you’.

There has been much talk about the post-Olympic legacy, about getting the young into sports and the health benefits of that. Just as important is the legacy of Britain’s winning inclusivity. The games showed its diverse identity made and remade by natives and strangers, through tough encounters and sheer determination, where pride beats prejudice. We should get a special medal for that achievement.

Published in Daily Mail