My connection with, and love for, this country starts with my father. Born in Turkey, he worked in a marble mine – as my grandfather had before him – and was one of nine children brought up by my beloved grandmother. After saving some money, he was able to start a small stationery business, selling to retailers from the boot of his car. But after he got involved in political activism, he was targeted by the Turkish government and was forced to flee. He came to the UK in 1991, claiming asylum and then refugee status. I joined him, along with my mother and brother, in 1994 as part of a family reunion programme.
Things weren’t always easy in those early years in London. We lived four to a room and I was bullied at school for not speaking English. But we always felt grateful to be in a country where we were safe, could access education and receive the best care from the NHS if we were sick.
At 14 I got a job washing dishes in a restaurant and also took on odd jobs at the textile factory where both my parents worked; my dad as an “ironing” man and my mum as a cleaner and assistant seamstress. Even as a teenager, I was desperate to contribute. I saw how each month they struggled to make ends meet, saw the worry in their eyes when new bills arrived and saw how much they wanted a better life for me and my brother. They were so proud when I became the first in my family to go to university.
It was through my involvement in community organising – supporting refugee children and campaigning for human rights in Turkey – that I first met local MP, Jeremy Corbyn. He introduced me to the Labour Party, and I have been a member ever since, campaigning in every election since 1997.
In 1999 I was elected Chair of Halkevi, the largest Kurdish and Turkish community centre in the UK. We raised thousands of pounds for local projects, including an initiative to combat drug crime in Hackney, Haringey, Islington and Enfield.
I will always be incredibly proud of what we achieved during this time, but I also bear the scars – literally – of our success. We managed to tempt many young people away from gangs but some of those criminals targeted me and, in 2002, I was threatened, my car was set on fire, and then I was shot in the stomach.
I am still here thanks to the fantastic paramedics, nurses, and doctors that make up our NHS. Although this was a very scary time for my family, the experience made me more determined to fight as hard as possible to make our society a fairer and safer place for all.
16 years ago, I had the opportunity to take over a small and failing restaurant in Waterloo. I managed to turn it around by working long hours (as all entrepreneurs have to!) and building excellent relations with customers, suppliers and colleagues. Today our family company employs more than 50 people and, across all the businesses I am involved in, we are committed to paying the London Living Wage or working towards it. My staff are drawn from all over the world and I am determined that they get to enjoy the same opportunities that were afforded to me when I came to Britain.
Today, as well as running several campaign groups and community organisations, I am a councillor in Lambeth and am coming to the end of my term as Mayor of the Borough. I have seen first-hand the damage caused by Tory austerity and cuts to the services protecting our most vulnerable. Over the past decade, the foundations of the open and compassionate country that took my family in have been put under huge strain.
At times, Britain feels more divided than ever. Yet I know the strength, vibrancy and willpower of my adopted home will win out. Working together, and showing love and tolerance to our neighbours and compatriots, we can weather any storm.