I was born at Dersim, in Turkey, to Kurdish parents, in 1971. My dad came to England in 1980, my siblings in 1982, and I came over in 1984 with not a word of English under my belt (I spoke Turkish at school, as we were under army occupation, and Kurdish at home). I put everything into learning English, I carried a dictionary around, learning words, but it was six months before I could have a conversation.
It was very hard. At school in Enfield, north London, I was the only foreign kid, apart from a couple of Italians, but, after my second fight, yes, I made friends. A year 8 spat sandwich on my blazer and I asked him politely to wipe it off. I gave him three chances and, when he still refused, I punched him! And he became my best friend…
From the age of eight I wanted to go into journalism, but that didn’t happen, and I wanted to go to uni, but finances were difficult, so I worked in travel for ten years for a small company in Southgate, north London, who ran tailor-made trips to Africa, Australia and New Zealand.
The opulence – staying with tourists in Thailand at a five star hotel, with people begging on the other side of the street – made me question things even more, and I decided this wasn’t for me. I was active in the CP, but stopped when I became a mother because, bringing up a child alone, I had no time.
I did an English degree at the Open University and I read in three different languages now. Shakespeare never resonated with me, but I love the Brontë sisters, Steinbeck, Ben Okri, and the Russian classics, especially Dostoevsky.
I moved from London to Doncaster and went into teaching, children with special educational needs, specialising in autism, until the whole team was made redundant and I fell into Tosh’s trap. What’s going to happen to the mortgage, I wondered. ‘You should become a train driver,’ he said. It was never on my radar, as a male-dominated industry, and no one from my background, I thought, worked a train.
But there was a trainee job at DB Cargo so I applied – of the 400 people at the assessment only two had brown faces – but I passed and went for interview and they said it could be ‘anything from five months to five years’.
I started on 8 January 2018. I live in Doncaster, work at DBC’s South Yorkshire hub, and am branch secretary of Sheffield No 1. It was dormant, it’s not a big branch, but it has historical importance and we’ve started the process of getting it going again. I’m so glad Tosh encouraged me.
There is inequality in the workforce and inequality at home. Look at our EC – it’s 100% Caucasian male – and unions need to look into how to make that better. I’ve found resistance not to me as BAME but to me as a woman. ‘As a woman, you’ve taken a man’s job.’ Most women have children at home. How are unions going to accommodate women? Without plans in place we’re left with empty words.
TOCs and FOCs need to start going into schools to talk about careers in the railway. At the moment Network Rail go in and talk about safety on railway lines; but no one talks about being a train driver. And the TOCs and FOCs need to provide proper, and better, facilities for women. Unions and operators need to work together to change the mindset.’San Senik