Museum pays tribute to the migrants who have been a backbone of the NHS

Image courtesy Gulzar Waljee

By Lianne Kolirin

One positive to have emerged from the challenges of the past few months is the universal recognition of the National Health Service as Britain’s most prized possession.

As doctors, nurses and other key workers have done everything to support Britain in the battle against Covid-19, outpourings of appreciation have sprung up everywhere — from rainbow drawings in windows to illuminations on iconic buildings.

About a quarter of NHS staff are non-British nationals or from a minority ethnic background, rising to about a third of nurses and health visitors, and almost half of doctors. Many have found themselves working on the front lines, while a disproportionate number have lost their lives during the pandemic.

Today the NHS protects and promotes the rights of its staff, patients and volunteers to exercise their religious beliefs and traditions, from dress codes to dietary requirements and time off for religious observance.

This was not always the case. A new multimedia exhibition from the Migration Museum highlights the stories of the many ordinary people from different nationalities, races and religions who built the NHS and whose stories have largely been ignored.

The exhibition, Heart of the Nation: Migration and the Making of the NHS, shines a light on the stories and experiences of those who came to Britain to work in the NHS following its creation in 1948.

Thirty current and former NHS staff were initially featured, and stories are being added all the time. Among them is Dr Hargundas Khanchandani who was brought up in Sindh, now in Pakistan, but moved to India following partition.

After completing medical school in Bombay, he arrived in England in 1954 — leaving his family behind. He became a GP in Luton, Bedfordshire, where his patients were mostly immigrants from the subcontinent, building up strong relations with the Muslim community at his practice — where his son Raj is a GP today.

Recalling his father’s experience for the exhibition, Raj said: “I don’t know how he managed all that time, to be honest. He didn’t drink. He didn’t eat meat. Try living seven years in Britain in the Fifties on vegetarian food!”

Religious sensitivities were not of great concern in the NHS at the time, he told the Religion Media Centre. “I don’t think anyone gave any thought to accommodating religious beliefs in my father’s time.

“There was no time off for festivals, not even Diwali. No one ever asked if any special arrangements needed to be made. He worked the same hours as anyone else.”

He added: “It is now acknowledged that the NHS requires staff from wherever they may originate, of whatever faith. The NHS is much more accommodating of different faiths. There are now rooms for prayer in hospitals, available for use by people of any faith. Pastors from different faiths are available to console patients. Hospitals offer a variety of food options with vegetarian options commonplace.

“Managers are willing to rearrange rotas to allow time off for non-Christian festivals. Muslim staff, certainly in many general practices, are allowed to have time to break fast during Ramadan. I have known of Jewish doctors given Friday afternoons off to coincide with their sabbath. I don’t think any of this would have happened in father’s time.”

Someone who can testify to the advances in religious tolerance is Kartar Singh Bring, Sikh chaplain for the University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust.

He works alongside colleagues from many different religions to provide “pastoral, religious and spiritual support” for patients, staff and volunteers.

He said: “The chaplaincy has been on quite a journey over the past several decades, going from largely providing Christian religious care to the diversity we have today.”

While he offers support to those from the Sikh community, Mr Bring — like other chaplains — is there for whoever needs him.

He added: “Having people from diverse perspectives is a great resource for hospitals, so that if there are specific issues that come up there are people who know how to engage with them and provide guidance.”

The exhibition features many varied experiences of NHS staff from around the world, including personal accounts, archival materials, art, photography and more.

Ethel Corduff left her native Ireland after seeing an advert for student nurses in The Universe, a Catholic publication. She joined the City General Hospital in Stoke-on-Trent as a pre-nursing student. Her experiences are recalled in her forthcoming book on Irish nurses, Ireland’s Loss Britain’s Gain, excerpts of which feature in the exhibition.

“Matron Agnes Brown was from County Mayo,” she writes. “She was a forbidding-looking figure in black and her huge white nurse’s cap reminded me of a nun’s veil. Her voice was powerful, and terrifying.

“Matron welcomed us to the hospital and listed all the times of the masses in the hospital chapel and in the nearest church at Newcastle-under-Lyme. She recommended daily Mass and later we discovered she was there every morning and could see which nurses attended.”

Lotte Fuchs arrived alone in Manchester from Czechoslovakia in 1938. Her nephew, Nick Fox, said: “In 1938 with the situation deteriorating for Jewish people in Europe, my aunt Lotte was sent by her family from what was then Czechoslovakia to study as a nurse at Booth Hall Children’s Hospital in Manchester. She was 17 and came here on her own. She lived in a nurses’ home.”

While there, she learnt that her brother — Fox’s father — had been sent to a concentration camp, yet she managed to help get him out. Their father, however, could not be saved.

Aditi Anand, head of creative content at the museum and curator of Heart of the Nation, said: “The NHS simply wouldn’t exist without the generations of people from all over the world who have built, grown and staffed it from the very beginning.

“Amid the outpouring of appreciation for the NHS during the pandemic, we thought that it was really important to highlight and reflect the diversity of the NHS today, and to put this story at centre stage.”