Together in a World Apart

During the pandemic minority ethnic groups were at a higher risk from Covid-19 than others, at times being almost three times as likely to contract the virus and five times more likely to experience serious outcomes.

People are still asking why this was the case, but evidence suggests that social inequalities in areas such as housing, occupational risk and access to healthcare are to blame.

Minority groups might also have been especially vulnerable to the eff¬ects of local lockdowns, which were more common in densely populated urban areas with higher rates of ethnic diversity. The disadvantages of local restrictions may have outweighed the protective benefits for many people. 

Supported by Sampad South Asian Arts & Heritage, artists Tasawar Bashir and Nafeesa Hamid gathered stories from South Asian communities living in the West Midlands. These oral history recordings explore how people from diverse backgrounds navigated one of the most challenging periods in our history.

Artist Nafeesa Hamid listens to oral histories recorded for the exhibition Together in a World Apart

Gathering stories

Engaging participants with both open conversation and structured oral history collection, the artists set out to explore and record the experiences of South Asian communities around Birmingham. They worked with groups at MECC Trust, the Dolphin Women’s Centre and Sähëlï Hub, organisations that provide invaluable support to people living in and around the city.

The stories gathered here demonstrate a wide range of situations and emotions that ordinary people faced during lockdown.

From finding small joys in the everyday mundane task of buying a health drink from a corner shop to exercising on a neglected football pitch near Sarehole Mill, or to regaining a sense of serenity and faith from a walk around Cannon Hill park in the aftermath of heart-breaking loss.

This artwork draws from a rich collection of life experiences of people from different walks of life, young and old, where narrators share how local places and spaces provided brief respite and comfort during unprecedented times.

The Heron and the Mermaid
A drawing of a heron

During lockdown Lara became a food bank volunteer and delivery driver, helping families and individuals the system had forgotten who had no access to furlough or emergency money. Her realisation was quick; for the sake of the people she was helping, it was vital for she herself to keep sane. 


Food parcel drops became increasingly regular, allowing tentative friendships to form over weeks and months. Mundane conversations such as when visiting a hairdresser were now given unexpected gravitas. Nothing beat quality time chatting nonsense with a best mate, enjoying long meandering walks across the streets and fields of King’s Norton, or along the Route Five canal paths when an encounter with a heron felt like an epiphany.

The Smith and Nephew Mosque
An illustration of a Muslim man kneeling in prayer

The Smith and Nephew factory on Ludlow Road in Birmingham was previously known as Southalls, and earlier still as Charford Mill. During the 1980s it became a mosque that was built with money donated by Kashmiris who worked in local warehouses, foundries, and bakeries. 


Khalid couldn’t remember even a single day when the mosque was closed. Just before the first light each morning he would take a short walk from his home to join a small group of men who would form a close-knit line, face the direction of Mecca and collectively perform the fajr prayer – the first of five daily prayers. This had been his routine for around forty years. 


It usually takes war or pestilence to close the doors of a mosque, and it was a double-shock to the community when collective funeral prayers couldn’t be performed or elders who died from Covid-19. A sacred space meant for bringing people together became another reminder of people's isolation from each other.

Mother's Faith
An illustration of two people walking hand in hand

Sensitivity warning: this piece contains themes of grief and loss.


It was Easter Sunday during lockdown. Shebina was at her mother's side in hospital, when she died. At that time, visiting a loved one in hospital was restricted and in a bittersweet recollection Shebina felt she was "one of the lucky ones." 


Lockdown was a most challenging time in her life; in the midst of grief, she took time off work to protect her mental health. Shebina was always the rock for everyone but through those dark times her family and her faith played a massive part in her recovery. 


Family walks in Warley Woods lifted her lethargy, in Calthorpe Park a quince tree brought lightness to the grieving process, and team-building sessions with fellow community charity workers in Cannon Hill Park inspired her to realise; “I have to be with people, I want to be with people, we are better together, we’re stronger together as a community.”

Kurkude and North Sea Oil
An illustration of a glass of Kerkude, a health drink

The eve of the first lockdown coincided with Fehr’s online exams being cancelled. To help him become a fully-fledged UK citizen he was working to get an engineering qualification, hoping to secure work on an oil platform off the coast of Scotland. The bureaucracy was already complicated and Covid-19 made everything worse. Life was on hold indefinitely. 


Fed up, frustrated, and living in a cramped flat with his wife and their young children, anxiety about money was kicking in. The weekly food shop only afforded one luxury; kurkude, a drink made from dried hibiscus flower petals. Each morning Fehr would make a large jug of the health drink and store it in the fridge. 


After helping with the kids he took morning strolls around Ward End park, where a canopy of Oak trees never failed to remind him of the trees that people in Sudan call Brazilia. By the time he got home the kurkude would be perfectly chilled.

Tolkien's Goalposts
An illustration of a man about to kick a football

Television producer Kamal was really worried. He had been amongst 54,000 hysterical football fans who had just witnessed Liverpool get knocked out of the Champion’s League competition by Atletico Madrid. Driving back home along the M6 he remembers someone coughing. Had it been wise for so many people to congregate when there was news of a disease killing scores of older people in northern Italy? 


At home Kamal was the sole carer for his octogenarian mother. The news would later emerge that South Asians, especially Bengali elders, were in the highest risk category for Covid-19. When his mother did fall ill and was admitted to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Kamal thought he was seeing her for the last time.


Walking outdoors he found some neglected goalkeeper posts in a field next to Moseley Bog – J. R. R. Tolkien's stomping ground and inspiration for his books. A brand new set of yellow TRX exercise cables were hung over the rickety goalposts, and for three months while his mother made a slow recovery Kamal and his best friend enjoyed dawn workouts in the mystical surroundings.

The Philosopher's Café
An illustration of someone pouring coffee

When lockdown was announced the first thing that occurred to Ibrahim was to read philosophy books that had been gathering dust in his apartment. The list of authors was daunting; Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Albert Camus amongst others. 


Lockdown gave Ibraheem permission to take things at a slower pace and reflect on big questions about the meaning of life. Very quickly he realised the books were dense, unwieldy and difficult. Instead YouTube became his teacher, and he spent many long hours learning about biblical history and Quantum Theory.


When restrictions were lifted Ibraheem craved to be around other people – but not too close. Nearby to where he lived, numerous coffee shops and sheesha lounges located on Stratford Road offered the perfect balance of being around other human beings whilst still immersed in private thoughts and reflections.

If you'd like to read the stories featured here in full, you can follow the link below. 


Together in a World Apart Transcripts


Logo for Sampad South Asian Arts and Heritage

Sampad’s mission is to connect people with South Asian and British Asian arts and heritage. They believe in the power of arts and heritage to impact widely on all communities, bringing people together from all walks of life. Sampad’s work celebrates South Asian arts and heritage, breaks down barriers and amplifies unheard voices.


Sampad plays an instrumental role in promoting and encouraging British Asian arts, so that they progress, break new ground and enrich mainstream culture in the UK. They support, commission and co-produce a huge variety of arts and heritage activities inspired by diverse artforms that originate from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. They have a strong track record of delivering high-quality dance, music and theatre productions, digital events and workshops in education, community and outreach settings. 

Learn more
Logo for MECC Trust

MECC Trust is an independent charity set up in 1979 devoted to helping Birmingham city’s most vulnerable residents. The organisation supports thousands of people each year, helping them to keep their lives on track. 


MECC offers grants through their household support fund, alongside help with applying for benefits and seeking employment. Customers are given the opportunity to get outdoors and take part in arts activities, with benefits to their health and wellbeing. 

Learn more
Logo for the Dolphin Women's Centre

Based by the lake in Ward End Park, in the Washwood Heath area of East Birmingham, The Dolphin Women’s Centre provides education, training, employment and health and wellbeing support to women in the local community.


The centre welcomes women of all ages, faiths, cultures and backgrounds, including those most vulnerable. They work with partners to provide specialist support for women with learning difficulties and mental health conditions, refugees and asylum seekers, and women who have experienced drug addiction, sexual exploitation, domestic violence or homelessness. 

Learn more
Logo for Sähëlï Hub

Sähëlï Women’s Group was formed in 1998 in Balsall Heath, and is dedicated to improving community health and wellbeing by providing innovative services and solutions that educate, motivate, inspire and empower. 


Recognising the need for a local facility that takes into account the culturally sensitive needs of local Muslim women, the hub also works to open up the world of exercise, fitness activities and sport in Birmingham city. 

Learn more


Tasawar Bashir

Tasawar Bashir has over 20 years' experience in arts production. He has spent the last two years working closely with residents of Birmingham who use the services of MECC Trust. 

Having previously collaborated with the Arboretum in 2022 to produce the exhibition Prayers for the Past, Bashir’s recent work has focused on engagement with Birmingham’s South Asian communities, learning about their past experiences and telling hidden stories.


Nafeesa Hamid

Nafeesa is a British Pakistani poet, spoken word artist and playwright based in the Midlands. Her work focuses on issues such as mental health, domestic violence, gender, identity and culture.

Her debut poetry collection Besharam was highly commended for the Forward Prizes in 2019. She is also published in the Forward Book of Poetry 2020 as well as Forward Poems of the Decade 2011-2020.


For their invaluable support throughout this project, we would like to thank:



Tas Bashir and Nafeesa Hamid 


Anum, Fehr El Amin, Kamal Uddin, Lara Ratnaraja, Madhumita Ra, Mohammad Khalid, Mohammad Ibraheem, Najma Hussai, NH, Prathiksha Kumar, Robina, SJ and Shebina Gill 


MECC Trust 

Fareen, Uncle Bash, Khalid Hazem, Rukiya and Heather 


The Dolphin Women’s Centre


Sähëlï Hub


Sampad South Asian Arts & Heritage Team 

Technical Support and Fabrication 

Brian Du y, Daryl Georgiou, Michael Valentine West, Muhammad Ali and Professor Scott Wilson



Helen Lloyd, Tarsem Singh, Abdullah Rehman, Phil Beardmore, MG Khan, Rabiyah K Latif, Manmit Jandu and Tony Fox