Councillor Heather Fletcher, co-chair of the Muslim Jewish Forum of Greater Manchester, made time to chat with JLife about Royal Garden Parties and life as a Labour councillor.
The past few years have been a blur of recognition and achievements for Heather Fletcher, who currently combines her work as a Labour councillor for Swinton South with a prominent role as co-chair of The Muslim Jewish Forum of Greater Manchester. The forum is aimed at creating closer ties between the Muslim and Jewish communities in the area and frequently throws social events designed to promote participation, tolerance and awareness.
Born in Salford and educated at both King David Primary School and Manchester High School For Girls, before going on to study at the University of Birmingham and spending over 30 years working in the law, Heather’s career and life both took a surprise twist one evening in 2004.
In the grand setting of Manchester Town Hall, Heather attended the meeting that would lead to the creation of the forum – but only by chance. “It’s really funny because I wasn’t going to go to the first meeting because I used to go to the cinema every week with my friend, but there was nothing on so I said let’s go to the meeting instead. It was quite by accident, I hadn’t been involved in much community work before”, remembers Heather.
“The forum was founded exactly 12 years ago by the then Deputy Mayor of Manchester, Afzal Khan, who is now an MP,” continues Heather. “He founded it with the late Henry Guterman, who was a refugee from Germany. They thought at the time that it wasn’t that the Jewish and the Muslim communities didn’t like each other, but just that they never mixed at all. The more people mix the more they realise that Muslims and Jews aren’t that different and that we have many more similarities than differences. Our group has grown from 10 to 12 hard-core members at the beginning to now over 400 people.”
Heather would soon go on to play a bigger part, spending a decade working in various roles for the organisation: “When Afzal Khan became Lord Mayor of Manchester, Henry asked if I’d be the company secretary and I remained in that position from 2005 to 2015. [Then] I was elected as the co-chair of the forum in January 2015. Along the way fellow co-chair Mohammed Amin MBE, now secretary Tahara Amin and Afzal Khan have become lifelong friends. In fact, the Amins are my holiday companions and Afzal encouraged me to become a councillor.”
A new social circle is just one of a handful of the ways in which Heather believes the forum has had a positive impact on her: “It has enriched my life and I have become friends with people I wouldn’t have met otherwise. I have been educated by it.”
When asked about the importance of the forum for the local community Heather, adds: “We are getting the communities to come together in Greater Manchester and that’s something that wasn’t done before the forum. The more people get to know each other, then the more tolerant they are. It is when people don’t know each other that ignorance breeds intolerance.”
The forum runs a selection of activities including quizzes, dinners and concerts, with upcoming events including the annual picnic on 23rd July, an Asian buffet meal in September and participation in the Global Weekend of Twinning in November, which sees mosques and synagogues twinned across the world thanks to an initiative by the Foundation For Ethnic Understanding (FFEU). However, it’s not all fun and games in the forum according to Heather, who says: “So far we have put on over 100 events and a lot of them are social events. [But] we have also put on serious events, such as a lawyers event which we do most years, looking at legal issues from Jewish and Muslim points of view.
“Both myself and Mohammed Amin also draft statements on behalf of the forum when something serious happens like it did recently in Manchester. A few years ago Mohammed Amin did a counter-petition because somebody wanted to debate ritual slaughter in the houses of parliament, which affects both of our communities.”
The organisation has been praised for its work, receiving two awards – the first one in 2014, when the forum won the British Muslim Award for Spirit of Britain, followed by being named Community Organisation of the Year at the Fusion Awards in 2016. But Heather has also garnered plenty of personal recognition, as she was invited to and attended one of HRH The Queen’s Garden Parties at Buckingham Palace in May: “It was a lovely day, we walked around the gardens and we spoke to people from all different walks of life. At 4pm the Royals came out so we went to see who came down our part of the lawn and it was the Queen,” says Heather.
June was also a big month for the forum, as it arranged an Iftah, a meal at the end of a day of fasting for Ramadan, at which Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, made an appearance and short speech. With more events in the pipeline, both Heather and the forum look to have bright futures ahead.
Visit Muslimjewish.org.uk for further information.