"It's just being here and being around." That's how Michelle connects with neighbours in her family's patch in Bradford, UK.
For the past nine years, Melanie*, her husband Stan*, and their two children have lived in a predominantly Pakistani neighbourhood. They originally lived in another area, but after working in Pakistan for several months, decided to move in among the same people in their own city. “We had some friends who were also looking at moving into the area,” Melanie says, “So we moved in together.”
Most of the patch’s residents are Muslims of Pakistani descent: some born and raised in the UK, others who immigrated for work or marriage. While other communities, such as Roma gypsies, eastern Europeans, and asylum seekers live here as well, South Asian shops, restaurants, and mosques dot the neighbourhood. Streets are lined with terrace housing (similar to townhomes or row housing), with extended families often living near each other.
The first years were difficult. An engineer by profession, Melanie worked full-time in another city. Long days left her with little time to spend in the patch, making it challenging to connect. The couple’s family-oriented south Asian neighbours were baffled. “They didn’t understand who I was or why I was going to work, or why we had been married seven years and didn’t have children. They didn’t really understand my life or who I was."
Their neighbours thought they would move out. They told Stan and Melanie, “Oh you won’t like it here. When you sell your house, let us know because we want to buy it.” “They were friendly and nice, but they thought we’d give the house up and leave,” Melanie reflects. “Well, we have been here nine years and we are still the same team. And we do like it here!”
A few years later, now a mother, Melanie changed jobs. She’s a community worker at the church across the street from their home. Three days a week, she spends time with local families, helping women learn English, cooking with them, and building bridges between cultures. Even though many of her neighbours are newcomers with limited English, working in the neighbourhood has opened the door for friendships and conversation.
“We see our neighbours much more: on the way to and from school, or in the shops, for example,” she says. “We all want the best for our children and we have that in common as a starting point for conversations.”
Due to language barriers, “getting beyond the hello” can be a challenge. When language fails, there are other ways to connect and communicate. After school, neighbourhood kids play with Michelle’s children in the yard. On special occasions, such as Eid, birthdays, and Easter, the family brings food to their neighbours. For Christmas, they host a party and invite the neighbourhood children. “They love decorating the tree,” she says.
Whether it is in an English class at work or sitting down over tea with a neighbour new to the country, Melanie says that one of the highlights of patch life is hearing her neighbours’ stories. Some of the women grew up in small villages in rural Pakistan. “Getting beyond the hello on the street, getting to hear their stories of how they came here and how they feel about their new neighbourhood is a joy for me.”