LONDON: Dabirul Islam Choudhury, a centenarian living in the UK, remembers beating everyone at track events in college in Sylhet, Bangladesh, in the 1940s. In one long race, he said he came first, second and third when most of his competitors collapsed or gave up. He was told by the organizer to stop running, and he could just walk to complete the race. But that was not how he did things. “It is my habit to run,” he said.
Today he continues the race and refuses to stop, inspired by another centenarian, Captain Tom Moore, who in April pledged to walk 100 lengths of his garden to raise funds for the UK’s National Health Service.
Dabir Chacha, as he is called by those who know him, set a fundraising target of £1,000 for COVID-19 victims and walked laps of his yard while fasting during the month of Ramadan.
He has raised more than £150,000 for COVID-19 aid to Bangladeshi and Muslim communities in the UK and abroad. That, too, in just 17 days.
Dabir Chacha was born in Assam when it was still part of the British Raj and he witnessed the partition of the subcontinent in 1947, after which the state became a part of India, while his district, Sylhet, joined East Pakistan.
At the time of partition, he was studying at the prestigious Murari Chand College (MCC) in Sylhet. Six-foot-tall, Dabir Chacha led the MCC’s football team.
“I cried for the Hindu students who now had to go to India. They were brilliant students,” he told Arab News.
In 1957, he won a scholarship in the UK to study English literature at King’s College. He knows many plays of Shakespeare by heart, recites poems in Bengali, Urdu, Farsi, English, and is a prolific writer of poetry himself.
In the 1960s, Dabir Chacha started helping people from migrant communities in England — with immigration paperwork, in setting up bank accounts or finding places to stay. He settled in St. Albans and worked for communities in his area: Luton, Bedford, Bletchley and Milton Keynes.
What he is doing today is not out of the ordinary for him. In 1971 and 1973 he raised funds in the UK for war and famine relief in Bangladesh.
“Wherever I would go, I would somehow become a leader because I knew a few languages. This was god-gifted, and my experience in captaining in sports in college also helped me,” he said.
Today he is an iconic figure of the Bangladeshi community in the UK.
The funds he has raised will go the Ramadan Family Commitment (RFC), a charity set up by Channel S in the UK that calls itself the “voice of British Bangladeshis across the world.” The RFC is affiliated with Bangladeshi organizations and other charities such as Islamic Relief and Muslim Aid.
The UK is home to more than 4 million people of South Asian descent. Bangladeshis in the UK form 0.7 percent of the population and about half of them live in London. They have been hit hard by the pandemic.
Earlier this month, a report by the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) made waves when it released data on the economic and physical vulnerability of black, Asian and minority ethnic people in the UK to COVID-19. The report found that Bangladeshi men are four times as likely as white British men to have jobs in shut-down industries. Household savings, according to the report, are also lower than average among the group.
Since the virus outbreak, according to IFS, Bangladeshi hospital fatalities have been twice those of the white British population, and Bangladeshis are more than 60 percent more likely to have a long-term health condition that makes them particularly vulnerable to infection.
In this context, relief efforts by people such as Dabir Choudhury are significant for the community.
When asked if he would stop his efforts after Ramadan, Dabir replied, “No, I will never stop. I have to help.”