British city gives an immigrant son a new title

It's a long way from the hot plains of provincial Pakistan to the damp urban sprawl of northwest England.

But for Mohammed Afzal Khan, the real journey did not begin until after he'd arrived in 1970s Britain as a bewildered 12-year-old who spoke no English, and had few friends and little clue about the culture he was entering.

Three decades later, Mr. Khan capped an extraordinary odyssey from humble obscurity to high office when he became the first Asian lord mayor of Manchester.

The new mayor, who has been described as an "Asian Dick Whittington" (Britain's Horatio Alger), is gracious enough to admit that his improbable ascent says more about Manchester than the man. It was, he says in a phone interview, the "greatness of the city" and the "celebration of diversity" that made it all possible.

Yet much was also due to his own determination to better himself and ignore any snide, racially tinged discouragement. Now Khan agrees that his achievement could well inspire Britain's 2 million-plus individuals of south Asian origin, who still resent their underrepresentation in the upper echelons of British society.

Twenty percent of Manchester's 400,000 citizens are nonwhite. Now they have a role model in city hall.

"Here I am from a humble background, uprooted from one culture to another culture and still able to progress," he says. "I never thought I would be Lord Mayor of such a great magnificent city; no one in my family thought that.

"As humans, we all have tremendous potential," he continues. "It's harnessing that potential and having a goal which is important, and that's what we all need to do."

The potential was hard to spot when Khan left his hometown of Jhelum, a trading backwater between Lahore and Islamabad, in 1971.

Khan's family was part of the initial wave of Asian migrants seeking to improve their prospects among the textile mills of Lancashire.

For the older generation, the transition was tough, the linguistic and professional barriers high. But for a Pakistani boy suddenly thrust into the hurly burly of Mansfield's high school, the culture shock was debilitating. His English was so poor that he didn't even bother with exams. Further education was out of reach.

Instead, he did what many Pakistani immigrants did: quit school as soon as possible to seek work in one of the cotton mills.

Khan toiled for more than three years as a laborer and then a weaver at the mill in the town of Brierfield. But unlike some of his colleagues, he suspected there was something better out there.

One night in the late 1970s, clocking off from work following another long night shift, he began the trudge out of the valley toward his home.

At the top of the hill, he turned to survey the scene: the chimney jutting out of the mill, the red-tiled roofs on the terraced housing emblematic of working-class northern England.

"I thought, 'Do I want to spend the rest of my life in this mill?' " Khan recounts. "The answer was no. That was the moment that changed everything. I realized that education is paramount."

He enrolled in college to learn English and math properly. He moved to Manchester to do further exams, at the same time taking a range of jobs, from bus driver to youth worker.

At 19, he married Shkeel Kayani, and worked so she could qualify as a dentist. A résumé started to come together. He spent 2-1/2 years as a police constable, developing a keen interest in the law.

When he was informed he would not be allowed unpaid leave to study, he took a risk and quit.

"My police superintendent said, 'You're making a big mistake, your future is here,' " he recalls. "I said 'I'll live with my mistake.' And I have."

Khan took a law degree at Manchester University and soon made partner in a Manchester law firm.

A father of three, he found time for community and interfaith work before the lure of local politics brought him a council seat in the Cheetam Hill section of the city five years ago.

City mayors in Britain, for the most part, are not directly elected. In Manchester, they are chosen by the council. Khan won the approval of his 95 fellow councilors. A stint as deputy mayor led to the top job. He was appointed on May 18.

Khan is not Britain's first Asian mayor. But his elevation comes at a critical time in a critical place.

Although Manchester itself has an impressive record on racial tolerance, its suburbs have been troubled by tension between Asians and whites in recent years.

A leader with a track record of promoting interfaith dialogue (his first act as mayor was to appoint a multifaith chaplaincy), Kahn has promised to promote understanding rather than division.

"The Asian community will obviously welcome this," says Steve Hammond, editor of the Asian News, a local Manchester newspaper. "He's a well thought-of guy. He's very well known and has been a respected councilor for a number of years, particularly as he came from such an underprivileged background."

The timing is notable, moreover, given the clamorous debate over immigration and integration that has intensified here in the post-9/11 world.

Khan's own narrative, underscored by his Muslim faith, suggests that the ideal compromise should involve people doing their utmost to contribute to society, while society tolerates the many expressions of their culture and ethnic identity.

Or, as he puts it: "It's like a garden with lots of beautiful flowers. But they're all different. We don't want them to grow the same."

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