Finding My South Asian Identity Through My Purpose

Taimour stands in front of an illustrated green path, with a map of Pakistan at the back.

From growing up in Ilford to discovering how mental advocacy can help his community, Spark Insights' Project Management Lead, Taimour Ahmed (He/Him), writes about embracing South Asian heritage through his work.

In recent years, I’ve become deeply embedded in British South Asian communities, something which I really cherish. My involvement in South Asian communities has been heavily guided by my work in community-based mental health support. As I’ve become more embedded in British South Asian communities, I’ve also become more grounded in my South Asian identity and what it means to me, something which I am truly grateful for. The reason I am so grateful is that sadly there was a period in my life when I hated my South Asian identity. As a result, I never truly imagined I would be in this position.

This is why when Spark & Co. asked me to write a piece for South Asian Heritage Month, I felt like it happened at the best time because I am just starting my journey in shaping and navigating my South Asian identity. Something which is deeply exciting. My journey to this stage in my life of feeling comfortable in myself and my sense of identity has been a long and very challenging one. This is why I wanted to explore my journey with my South Asian identity. More importantly, I want to explore how my mental health activism, which is rooted in collective care, has facilitated this personal growth.

The journey

My journey to this point of acceptance, celebration and seeking joy in my South Asian identity has been a really challenging one. As an immigrant kid from Pakistan who grew up post 9/11, it was hard from the beginning. While things became challenging quite early on there was a period of 3 months where I felt really happy and nourished in Ilford, London, where we were temporarily housed after applying for asylum. Our temporary accommodation was on Kingston Road, which was pretty much a stone’s throw from Ilford high street. During this 3 month period, I felt really happy because I was around other South Asian people in a familiar setting where the sounds, smells and people reflected what I knew growing up in Pakistan. This level of familiarity was priceless, especially after moving to a new country.

Unfortunately, being people who had sought asylum, our family was forced to move away from the safety bubble of Ilford and wider London to Glasgow, which is where things became incredibly tough. Looking back, it was here that I developed my desire to distance myself from my South Asian identity because I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere.

Existing in the wider context of post 9/11, overnight, across the world, I remember how hate for brown skin and Islam became central to many parts of western life. As a result, life became a lot harder for me as an immigrant kid. For instance, I remember how the attitudes in my predominantly white school changed overnight and whatever curiosity and kindness the white kids had towards me turned into an attitude of avoidance or indifference at best and bullying at its worst.

While navigating racism and Islamophobia was hard enough, there was hostility from the local settled South Asian population in Glasgow also, something which was devastatingly heartbreaking. 

This is something I’ve explored more intimately in an article entitled Holding The Settled South Asian Diaspora Accountable For Their Treatment of Recent Immigrants. It was the sense of rejection through overt expressions like ‘freshie’ from my ‘own community’ that hurt deeper than anything.

The alienation from my ‘own communities’ while exclusion from white spaces meant that I grew up feeling like I didn’t belong anywhere. As a result, I didn’t truly prioritise cultivating a sense of community with anyone for most of my young-adult life.

How advocacy helped me find community

In my early twenties, I had my first bout with severe depression and anxiety due to life-changing circumstances. This experience was made worse by the fact that there was very little support available from mainstream services or in my local area. One of the main emotions I remember from that period of 2 years was a heavy feeling of loneliness. Because while there was very little support available, I was also ‘too much in my head’ to ever feel present. As a result, I felt quite distant from people in my life. Although it took me a long time to heal myself, eventually I did get better.

Having gone through something so drastically life-changing on top of everything else going on in my life, I started writing and publicly talking about my own experiences of mental ill-health. My intention at the start was to simply speak my truth. The desire to explore mental health, masculinity and being South Asian in my initial work generated important traction.

While the journey at the start was mainly about my experiences alone, later this flourished into support programs, research and peer support as my work started to attract other South Asian men who had been in or were experiencing what I wrote about. It was a bitter-sweet period in my life where I was making new mates and building a community because many of us had not been supported with mental health.

Filled with hope and anger at structural inequalities, I ended up creating my own grassroots organisation dedicated to South Asian communities and mental wellbeing four years after writing my first article on mental health.

The reason I mention these things isn’t to big myself up, instead, I want to emphasise I never really imagined I would be in this position, no one ever does, especially when it comes to mental wellbeing. With that being said, I’ve taken to the role of supporting South Asian communities and their mental wellbeing with all arms open and a full heart.

The reason I’ve taken to the role so keenly is that my activism has allowed me to redefine my relationship with British South Asian communities. Communities I felt distant for a very long time due to our experiences as recent immigrants. Another reason I’ve taken to this role with such passion is that my activism allows me to challenge and guide conversations around subjects that have historically negatively impacted our communities.

To a great degree, a lot of my work is driven by the fact that I don’t want future generations to have to experience what I did growing up, whether it’s exclusion due to immigrant status or loneliness during mental health challenges.

Lastly, one big driving factor in my activism in the communities is effectively wanting the best for everyone from a deep place of love and empathy.

I guess what I’ve learnt in my long journey of finding my South Asian identity is that no community is perfect and there’s a lot of work to be done, the answer, for me, isn’t running away from the problem anymore. The answer I choose now is figuring out solutions and providing support. In my journey, I’ve also learnt that all of us play different roles in the change we would like to see for our communities. While I struggled for the longest period to find my space and place in that change, I’ve found it now and I sure intend on making the best go of it, for myself and future generations.

This piece was written by Spark Insights Project Management Lead, Taimour Ahmed, based on his professional and personal lived experience. Find out more about Taimour here.