My Lords, ladies and gentlemen, on behalf of my wife and myself, can I just begin by saying what a real pleasure it is to have been invited to join you here this evening, and above all to have met so many truly inspirational figures from Britain’s Asian-origin community in the last 45 minutes or so.
As ever, it is personal stories – often involving a personal triumph over adversity – which most accurately tell the wider story of the community and the vital role which you play in modern British society. My wife and I are only sorry that we cannot stay for dinner, to hear more about the exceptional talents which you are celebrating - and of course to taste the no doubt powerful food you will be provided with!
Can I also say how unbelievably touched I am to have been given this Global Empowerment Award. I don’t quite know what I’ve done really to deserve this. I cannot thank Pinky Lilani and her committee enough for having thought of me in this way and for Pinky’s very kind words of introduction about the work I have been trying to do, I think now for more years than I care to remember!
Ladies and gentlemen, you hardly need me to tell you that, over the past 60 years, very nearly two million people of Asian origin have made Britain their home and have raised their children and grandchildren in this country. There has been a remarkable shift of population and that shift helps to define modern Britain. We endlessly hear about the difficulties which such migration can cause. But rarely, if ever, do we seem to find a moment to recognize the incredible contribution which it has made to our social and economic well being. If I may say so, it has also had quite a profound effect on our vocabulary, although I have to confess that some words seem more widely deployable than others. … I now know what “chuddies” means but doubt , ladies and gentlemen , that I shall be able to use that word very much!
I also know, by the way, how much our vocabulary owes to so many words of Indian origin which we take for granted like all sorts of Shakespearan phrases , for instance , about whose origin we are in total ignorance. So we owe a great deal to the subcontinent.
So ladies and gentlemen, it is your contribution to British society which makes my wife and myself so pleased to come here this evening to join you and why I feel so proud to accept this Award; because apart from anything else it gives me an opportunity to tell you how intensely proud I am of the diversity and quality of skills present in this room and, indeed, of the even greater pool of talent that you represent. Through this splendid awards ceremony, we are thrilled to have a chance to celebrate with you the many ways in which you have enriched Britain - in every conceivable sense!
It is through the family of Charities which I have initiated, I now realize , I have initiated over the past four decades (and which, as you rightly said, Pinky, has now grown to include some 20 members) that I have been trying to offer some practical solutions to a range of social and economic issues, including those of inclusion and integration. You were kind enough to mention the work of the Prince’s Trust and the British Asian Trust. Through another initiative of mine, called “Mosaic”, we have set up a mentoring network led by members of our Muslim community.
I know that many winners of previous “Asian Women of Achievement” awards have been kind enough to join the Mosaic Network as volunteers and have become all-important role models for others. Previous winners like Nabila Sadiq and Ruby Sayed, who are , I think , present here this evening, have been mentoring 20 young girls at the Elizabeth Garret Anderson School in North London and making all the difference to their lives and opportunities.
I am profoundly grateful to them for being prepared to help and inspire others in this way. All I can say is that I will keep a close eye out for some of these young mentees among your future award winners! And perhaps, you never know, some of this evening’s award-winners might even consider joining Pinky, Nabila, Ruby and others in this Mosaic initiative, thereby helping to carry that spark of inspiration one stage further.
Pinky, ladies and gentlemen, you have kindly given me this “Global Empowerment Award” so perhaps you’ll forgive me if I just say a word or two about what my organizations have also been doing outside the United Kingdom. You mentioned Afghanistan, and my Turquoise Mountain Foundation exists to try to protect and restore not only something of the Kabul’s former beauty in its historic quarter and to keep its famous craft skills alive, but also to restore dignity to the place and the people. Apart from removing seven feet of rubbish in the streets. (Can you believe it! Seven feet of rubbish had built up in the streets of Kabul …).
We are now able to offer employment to every adult male who wants a job in the historic Murad Khane district. And over 120 students, nearly half of whom are women, attend our four schools and will graduate with an accredited degree after three years. In West Africa, my Foundation for the Built Environment is working with the President of Sierra Leone to regenerate one of the most terrible slum areas I have ever seen. And, on a third Continent, my Foundation is working with the Jamaican authorities to regenerate the Kingston suburb of Rosetown, which is next to the Trenchtown immortalized by Bob Marley and which suffers from the same problems of social deprivation and inter-communal violence.
My problem is I can’t go around the world and, I’m afraid , and come across all sorts of difficulties without trying to do something about it them , which drives my staff mad as you can imagine! And It also presents an interesting fundraising challenge but that’s another story!
There is, of course, a common thread which runs through all this. It is that, in order to achieve genuinely sustainable results, it makes the whole difference to invest a bit of time in trying to understand people so that it then becomes possible to work with the grain of their local culture and identity and the realities of their existence, rather than against it. And I don’t think this happens nearly enough. In short, I have always believed that the key is to do things with people, not to them. That is why my organizations spend so much time listening before acting. It is why, when it comes to redesigning the built environment for instance to create genuine communities, my Foundation has pioneered the “Enquiry by Design” approach which helps to put community members at the grassroots, at heart of the planning process. So many people have a great deal more wisdom about their local area than people would realize.
However, if I may say so, ladies and gentlemen, what this evening’s Awards are really about is celebrating your successes. They are about recognizing some of the many extraordinary people who make up our Asian community and shining a light on their equally remarkable achievements. They are about showing that each and every one of us can make a difference at the end of the day– and how that can be done.
So ladies and gentlemen, my wife and I can only offer all the award-winners our heartfelt congratulations and every possible good wish for the future. Thank you.