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‘I’ve Lost Everything’: Inside the Hidden World of Britain’s Pakistani Heroin Users

British Pakistani heroin users tell VICE News they've been shunned by their families and are too afraid to get help.
Max Daly
London, GB

BRADFORD, England – Every day, Alya puts in a shift to find the £20 or £30 she needs to buy her daily dose of heroin, a 12-year habit she’s had since she was 23. Sometimes she begs, sometimes gets paid small amounts of heroin to sell it to her friends. Other times she shoplifts to order, mainly perfume, and toys and clothes for kids.

Alya, whose name we have changed because she is too scared to be identified, is one of hundreds of British Pakistanis with a heroin addiction in England about whom very little is known, mainly because they exist off the radar from the authorities and are shunned by their own communities. 


Despite the huge stigma around drug addiction, over the last two years VICE News has been speaking to heroin users within the British Pakistani community in Bradford, a city in West Yorkshire with the highest proportion of people of Pakistani ethnic origin – 25 percent – in England.

People like Alya do not easily fit into the image of the average, white heroin user, because experts say Pakistani heroin users in the UK are more likely to use the drug alone, less likely to get help at drug projects and less likely to inject the drug. This is often a symptom of heightened stigma around addiction due to their Muslim religion and family honour, called izzat. Instead they are more likely to seek help from family, friends or religious guides rather than healthcare professionals. A study carried out in the 1990s in Bradford found that despite a sharp increase in Asian heroin users, they tended to be secretive about their heroin use. 


“This group are often insulated and unlikely to want to share experiences with others,” said Sean Ridley, project manager at drug service New Vision Bradford. “A high proportion prefer to address this internally within communities and families. This is largely due to cultural and religious beliefs and the stigma of bringing shame on families within their community.” 

What is it that makes British Pakistanis from religiously conservative homes end up addicted to heroin and shunned by their family and community? 

Alya said she started using maal, a slang word for heroin among British Pakistanis, after a forced marriage badly affected her mental health. 

“He was a right bastard, he raped me almost every day. He wanted to control me and did not let me do anything. He wouldn’t even let me go outdoors, he would lock the door,” said Alya, who is streetwise, talkative and most often wears joggers and a sweatshirt. “I was pregnant in no time but I didn’t want the baby and I had to get away, but nobody understood me. I couldn’t just go to the police, so I ended up staying with some friends. They were on heroin and I used it because I was in a bad place.” 

She left her husband and her baby was taken into care. When her family found out about her heroin use, they forced her to visit a pir, a spiritual healer who they hoped would exorcise the bad spirit within in her. 


“My mum and brothers put me in the car and dragged me to see the pir. He looked at me once, and turned to my mother and said, ‘she is possessed with a jinn, [a bad spirit] who is controlling her and making her use heroin as a punishment for not obeying the jinn’. He started blowing at me and reciting verses from the Quran. My mum was sat next to me, she was crying. Then the pir turned to my parents and said: ‘If I was you I would take her to Pakistan to a holy shrine and ask a peer to take the jinn away from her as I can’t do it, I’m not powerful enough’.” 

Alya did not end up going to Pakistan. But her family disowned her because they said she had brought shame on them. Although she is free from her husband, life is tough. Alya has noticeable self-harming marks on her arms, and instead of smoking heroin like most British Pakistani users do, she injects the drug, a way of taking heroin with extra stigma and health dangers attached. 

According to official data, last year there were 1,607 people with a Pakistani background officially registered as being treated for heroin addiction in England. But because they tend to shy away from drug services, the reality of heroin use among the 1.5 million British Pakistanis living in England and Wales is murky. Ethnicity is not recorded in the government’s drug-related death statistics so we have little idea how many British Pakistanis make up the 3,000 or so fatal overdoses from illegal drugs each year. 


Occasionally heroin users from Britain’s Pakistani community pop up in the courts after being caught stealing to buy drugs or dealing them: for example the 20-year-old heroin using thief from Burnley whose family sent him to Pakistan to get help, the Bradford man with a 30-year long heroin addiction who dealt drugs to pay off his debts, the 22-year-old dealer with a heroin and alcohol problem, the serial shoplifter from Salford and the gun-toting car thief with a heroin and crack problem from Birmingham.

But most of the people VICE News spoke to are living taboo lives behind closed doors, sometimes keeping their addictions hidden behind a facade of normality.

Strolling around the city one evening, Yusaf, a 41-year-old who had been using heroin for 15 years, who like all the people we spoke to did so on the condition of anonymity because they feared being demonised, said he knew many British Pakistanis on heroin, it’s just that some of them don’t look like how you would expect them to. Later on, he stopped to chat with someone he knew, a well-dressed, professional looking man in his late 30s. After they said goodbye, Yusaf said heroin use was more common among apnas, which means “our people” in Urdu, than many think: “Can you see that guy? What do you think, does he look like a junkie? Well he has been on maal for longer than me. See there’s loads of apnas on it, it’s just the average person would not have a clue, because they don’t look like heroin addicts.”  


Even for those dedicated to Islam – which judges intoxication and drugs as haram, an Arabic term meaning “forbidden” – using heroin can happen. Akhtar, in his early 40s with a large beard, is a religious and proud man born in north west Pakistan. He studied in Darul Uloom, an Islamic boarding school in Chislehurst, south east London, where he did hifz, memorising all 77,000 words of the Quran by heart. But he said the stresses of life got to him and he developed a heroin habit. Now he’s a street hustler who supports his heroin habit by acting as a middle man, supplying heroin to other users, as well as by selling stolen items shoplifters pass onto him. 

“I worked, I had everything, a good life, a good job, beautiful children and now look at me. I’ve lost everything, what for, it’s because of this thing.” Akhtar then put his hand in his pocket and revealed a small bag of heroin which was wrapped in foil and which he was waiting to sell to a customer. “Our people look at us like we are dirt but it can happen to any one of us, I never thought I would end up on maal.” 

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A woman walls past the Al-Jamia Suffa-Tul-Islam Grand Mosque in Bradford. Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

Despite the stigma surrounding drug use, heroin is easy to get hold of within Bradford’s Pakistani community due to its links with the drug’s importation from Asia and its supply in cities such as Bradford. Moreover, Bradford is a city with both high rates of people with heroin and crack problems and deprivation.  


With heroin being such a widespread black market commodity among British Pakistani drug gangs in the UK, the drug appears to have seeped out into the wider community to be used by those who need to get intoxicated.   

Dressed in an expensive tracksuit and with a good sense of humour and a charming nature, Mohammed, 33, said he had been using heroin since he was 26, smoking the drug on and off. But when he became a heroin tester for drug dealers his use became addictive. 

“I was getting it for free as I tested it for a local drug dealer. He dropped me some off every other week and I would tell him how good or bad the maal was, but then he got locked up and I got stuck. I had a habit, I mean it was not a big habit, not like some of the others I know,” said Mohammed.

In the case of Abdul, 30, who had been using heroin since he was 20, it was his father, a well-known heroin dealer in Bradford, who exposed him to heroin. Abdul’s father did not want him to use drugs, but rather to make money selling them. Even so, Abdul ended up getting high on his own supply. He holds his father responsible for his subsequent addiction to the drug he was supposed to be selling. 

“I looked up to him. I used to see him selling it . He was making stupid money, he would be counting money on the bed and would throw it at me and say ‘it’s all about making money son, you don’t use this shit’,” said Abdul, who is now living in poverty and suffers from depression. “But then one day I saw his friend, he used to always come to the house, he was in our front room using a crack pipe and I thought to myself I wonder what it is like, so when he was not there I went in there and used it, and then I used it again and then I started heroin.”


Most of the British Pakistanis on heroin VICE News spoke to were unemployed and sold heroin to fund their habit. Two of them had been to prison for dealing. Some worked for established dealers as “runners” selling direct to drug users in the street, some shoplifted, and a few begged for money. Unlike most beggars who sit around busy places begging for money, they preferred staying among their communities. Some went knocking on doors of people they knew. In their eyes there was nothing worse than being seen as a beggar. It was humiliating.

Parveen – a friend of Alya, the woman who started using heroin due to a bad marriage – earned money to buy heroin by shoplifting, usually from some of Bradford’s larger stores. She said it was easier to shoplift dressed in traditional Pakistani clothes than in western clothing, as staff in the stores did not suspect her because she did not look like a typical thief. Shy and with a stammer, it became apparent she earned money for heroin as a sex worker. She had several clients who paid her for sex in rented rooms. 


Bradford back streets. Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Two of the heroin users we spoke to worked in full-time jobs. Academics call them “controlled” heroin users – a group of people who use heroin without the drug impacting too heavily on their lives. Because this group rarely attends drug treatment services, like British Pakistani heroin users, it is hard to know how many of them there are.   


Usman, who is short and looks a lot younger than his 44 years of age, works as a carpet fitter. He has not turned to criminality to fund his habit but spoke of how the cost of living crisis and his heroin use were causing him problems with his wife.

“She is like telling me to stop as we need the money for bills and weekly food, but it’s not that easy. I’m trying to reduce the amount I use, trying to use only a bit but I only use about £40 a day as I know we need the money. But it’s not that simple you know, I’ve been using this shit for years and my body now needs it, it’s dependent on it.”

Hussain, another heroin user from Bradford who used to work for Bradford’s bigger drug gangs, now works for a local takeaway as a delivery driver. There are days when he uses the company car to work for local dealers, dropping off drugs to waiting customers. He said he needed the extra money as he could not afford his heroin habit solely on his wage from the takeaway.

Some people started using heroin through sheer tragedy. VICE News met Eisa last year at an outdoor tea stall. A number of cars were parked up, mainly young British Pakistani boys who were enjoying the evening socialising. Dressed in traditional white salwar kameez, Eisa walked around begging from car to car pleading with people to give him money. Most people were verbally abusive towards him. 

“Get lost you smack head,” shouted one of the drivers, another got out of his car and yelled: “Don’t touch my car or I will knock you out”. Eventually one of the drivers, a man in his early twenties dressed in Arab attire, handed him a £10 note from his wallet and advised him to leave the area for his own safety. Eisa thanked the young man endlessly. 


Eisa’s story is a particularly sad one. Now 41, he has been using heroin for the past four years. He was born and raised in Pakistan and moved to Bradford after an arranged marriage, working hard in a bed and mattress factory in Dewsbury, a nearby town. “It was the death of my five-year-old son. It was after losing him that I could not face it, it was too much for me, he was my life, my everything.” 

He took out his phone and showed a picture of his son in his arms. He then stood up, realising that people were walking past, conscious that he was not seen by anyone while he was crying. “I couldn’t keep going on after that, my wife, we were arguing a lot more, she was struggling too and she would take it out on me. She changed after the death of our son, our relationship felt empty, there was nothing left after that, it was the one thing keeping us together and he was no more, we had tried for years and years to have children and losing him was too much, Allah bless his soul.”

The death of his son had taken its toll on his mental health and he needed professional support, which he had not managed to get. His family had disowned him. Nobody wanted to help. “They look at me and see a ‘junkie’, they call me names, laugh at me. Even some of my family don’t think I’m worth speaking with. They walk past me, and don’t even greet me, why? Because I’m on maal. I think what have I done, is this some kind of punishment from Allah, I don’t know.”


For those whose families do try and help by sending them to Pakistan to “get clean”, things often didn’t work out well. One heroin user, Riz, said of his removal to Pakistan to get off drugs: “At first it was OK, I completely stopped using it. But I was able to buy it in Pakistan. One of the villagers helped me out, I mean I had to pay him to keep it hush,” he said. 

Mohammed Ashfaq is managing director of KIKIT, a specialist Black, Asian and multi-ethnic drug addiction support service in Sparkhill, Birmingham, an area with a high British Pakistani population. 

“I see heroin addiction among British Pakistanis, because I’ve grown up with it over the years. I’ve seen how they have deteriorated as a result of heroin.” Ashfaq said he’s witnessed many people shipped off to Pakistan to try and get them away from heroin addiction, but said the issues are not addressed properly. “In Pakistan the heroin is more available, it’s stronger and a lot cheaper. So they come back with an even worse habit. Some have died of overdoses there.” 

Ashfaq said sending people to spiritual healers in the UK is “a huge problem”, and a way of avoiding confronting issues such as mental health and addiction. “It happens a lot. People use it to avoid shame: ‘it wasn't me, I was possessed!’. The healers tell people that an enemy has pushed a djinn onto them. But these people just make matters even worse.” 


He said social media has made it more common for people with addictions to be exposed in the community. If you are seen shoplifting or begging, pictures are sometimes put on the local WhatsApp group, meaning there are even less ways of seeking money. 

KIKIT tackles issues of shame and religion head on. The project works with theologists and has a 12 step programme, traditionally based on Christian values, adapted for Islamic principles. “Islam says it’s good for people to show compassion to people with problems, such as addiction. If someone wants to repent and become a better person, rather than judge people, society should accept them and give them a chance rather than close the door on them.”

Ashfaq said a lot of the British Pakistanis he sees with addictions have an identity problem. “Many are second generation, who are so different from their parents. They act differently in private than out in the community. They are adapting to British society. But they are still worried that if someone sees them going into a drug service they will tell their parents.” 

He said sometimes families end up feeding their child’s habit so they don't go out to beg and steal in public. In some cases, drug users hold families to ransom, that if they don’t give them money to buy drugs, they will cause them shame.

At New Vision Bradford, drug workers speak directly with Imams of local mosques “to encourage engagement and confidential safe spaces within communities such as community halls for people to speak to professionals”, reducing the need to attend highly visible treatment service buildings. 

There are signs British Pakistanis with heroin problems in Bradford are seeking more help. Tom Heggarty, centre manager at Oasis Bradford, a drug and alcohol rehab, said the service had seen a “sharp” rise in Pakistani people seeking help for heroin addiction, possibly due to word of mouth, in the last four months. “Unusually, we are seeing multiple clients from this community in treatment at the same time,” said Heggarty. 

Given rising levels of deprivation and unemployment in Bradford, the relatively easy access to heroin within its British Pakistani community, and the high cost to people, families and wider society of drug addiction, it’s imperative the city maximises efforts to find and help those suffering behind closed doors. But it is also down to community leaders and religious institutions along with families to work together to better support people with heroin and other drug addictions, before they end up in jail or one of Britain’s rising number of overdose fatalities. 

Alya thinks about how her life has turned out so different from the life of her friends she grew up with.

“If I didn’t get married to [her ex-husband] then my life wouldn’t have turned out this way. I see my friends, those I grew up with and who I went to school with, and they are happy, they have kids, they have beautiful houses and people who care for them, but I don’t. I ask myself why, it’s all because of what my family did to me [forced marriage], it’s their fault why I am the way I am and they don’t want to know me now,” she said.

“What do I have? Nothing, my kids are in care, my family don’t want anything to do with me, I have no real friends, everyone that sees me thinks I’m some sort of scumbag. This is not a life I want to live anymore.”

Dr Mohammed Qasim, a visiting research fellow at the LSE, was this year awarded an MBE for his research on drug dealing and gang culture, much of it initially covered by VICE. His latest book, ‘Poverty, Prison and Identity: British Pakistanis and Desistance’ will be published later this year. He can also be found on Twitter.