Several times a week Anwar Ditta would stand up in front of dozens or even hundreds of people she didn’t know and tell her life story.
In a broad Rochdale accent, the young Asian woman would explain how when returning to Britain from Pakistan she had been separated from three of her children. She would outline the great cruelty of the Home Office that refused to allow them to join her in Britain.
This was despite the fact she was British born and had British citizenship. The Home Office refused to believe that the children were hers regardless of the mass of evidence she presented them with.
“How would you prove that your children are yours if the state demanded it?” she would ask her audiences.
Her case began in 1975 when returning home after several years in Pakistan. A lack of official documents forced her to travel without her children but with the expectation that they would soon follow. By the beginning of 1981 they still could not be with her.
Ditta and her husband had to drag the Home Office through lengthy appeals processes. The system was designed to demoralise, but it hadn’t reckoned on Ditta.
“She was indefatigable, so strong and so powerful,” her then solicitor Ruth Bundey told Socialist Worker last week. She would speak at length without notes, and she shifted public opinion. Her story exposed the way the Home Office made its decisions.”
Bundey said officials didn’t expect families fighting immigration battles to have the resources to “unravel the real truth”. “But for Anwar,” she said, “The sky was the limit.” The Anwar Ditta Defence Committee that formed around her in 1979 made a crucial impact, says Bundey.
It organised large demonstrations, produced leaflets and organised meetings all over the country. It was this campaign that brought Ditta’s fight to the attention of editors at Granada TV’s World in Action programme.
The resulting documentary, These Children Are Mine, was shown on prime-time ITV in 1981.
The team produced sworn witness statements, marriage certificates and identity cards to prove that Ditta had lived and married in Pakistan. These were crucial facts officials disputed.
It even arranged for blood samples of the children and the parents to be compared—at that time still a relatively new procedure—by specialists at the London Hospital.
Mark Krantz, then a student teacher in Rochdale, visited Ditta at home shortly afterwards. “I’d read about the case in Socialist Worker,” he said. “So I made a card to congratulate Anwar and took it around the staff room to get it signed.
“During my lunch hour, I went round to her house. Like so many of our pupils’ families, she lived in a desperately poor area. I sat in her front room chatting surrounded by piles of linen.”
Ditta was by then working at home sewing pillowcases for the NHS. “The Home Office has ruined our lives so far. For six years I’ve been apart from my children,” she told Socialist Worker after her victory.
But Ditta said the support for her campaign continued to be amazing. “When I go out shopping it takes me three hours to do what I used to do in one! People I’ve never seen before keep coming up and wishing me a happy life.”
With justification Ditta could have chosen to step back after the victory. Instead, she dedicated herself to fight for “other people in my position”.
Anwar Ditta will be reunited with her children at 8.30 on the morning of 14 April. It will be exactly six years since she left them in Pakistan.
Ditta expected the children to follow her to Britain in matter of months. Instead it took four years of private battling with the Home Office and 16 months of a public campaign before they were given permission to join her in Britain.
With the end of her long battle in sight, Ditta spoke to Socialist Worker. Ditta is very bitter about her treatment by the Home Office over the last five years. “They have called me a liar to the whole world. If you are a black person, no one at the Home Office believes you. They accused me of not being born in this country. I gave them all the evidence—school reports and medical records. They tried not to accept them.
“Then we offered them blood tests, medical examinations—anything they wanted to prove the children in Pakistan were mine. They weren’t interested.
“Until we began to campaign publicly, the Home Office just messed us around. The campaign created enough publicity to get World In Action to do a TV programme and that forced the Home Office to give way.
“The Home Office have ruined our lives so far. For six years I’ve been apart from my children. Because of the years of fighting them we are now in terrible debt. We owe all the barristers’ and solicitors’ fees for the whole case. I lost my job because of the campaign.
“We came to this country because they couldn’t get workers for certain jobs—the lowest paid and dirtiest. I used to work in a Marks and Spencer factory until they told me to choose between my job and the campaign for my children. I left the job.
“Now I’m working as slave labour. I make up pillowcases at home. I get one penny per pillow case I sew up—out of that I pay £5 a week just to rent the sewing machine. I didn’t even know how we were going to pay the fare for my children but Granada TV are providing the money. Really the Home Office should pay us compensation.
“My house has been full of people since the announcement. I’ve had hundreds of letters and telegrams and lots of flowers. Some of the letters have been racist but I’m not scared.
“When I go out shopping it takes me three hours to do what I used to do in one! People I’ve never seen before keep coming up and wishing me a happy life. I have to go the launderette at 6.30 in the morning to get anything done!
“My husband is going to collect the children from Pakistan because they will be scared by all the publicity when they arrive at the airport. When we get them to Rochdale I just want to give them all the love and attention I can.
“But I’m not going to give up my campaigning. There are plenty of other people in my position. The Nationality Bill is obviously aimed at black people. The Tories say the bill won’t affect people legally here and British.
“That’s lies! Look at what happened to me. I’ll tell you what immigration controls mean—black children having X-rays at airports to prove their age. Black women given ‘virginity’ tests by immigration officials and every black person facing interrogation by customs.
“How many white brothers and sisters have to go through that? Why should anyone?”
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