‘At one stage, my father would have clothed the half of Derry’

Charlotte's parents, Tara Chand Vij (right) and Chand Rani Vij.
Charlotte's parents, Tara Chand Vij (right) and Chand Rani Vij.
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The story of people leaving home in search of work is all too familiar in this part of the world.

Our loved ones have been bidding farewell to the banks of the River Foyle for generations.

The famous Vij Bros van which was a common site in Derry during the 1960s.

The famous Vij Bros van which was a common site in Derry during the 1960s.

Families fretted over how their sons, daughters, brothers and sisters would be treated when they emigrated to far away places like America, Canada and Australia. Would they be welcome? Would they be safe? Would they be happy?

These same questions were being asked by an Indian family living in the 1940s in a small village called Talwan in the Punjab.

Tara Chand Vij arrived in Derry in the 1940s in search of a better life.

When Mr. Vij set foot here for the first time more than 70 years ago he could have had no way of knowing how he and his family would impact upon the local community.

Charlotte (back, left) with her brothers and sisters.

Charlotte (back, left) with her brothers and sisters.

Mr. Vij’s eldest child, Charlotte, believes the imminent arrival of Syrian refugees in the North West renders the tale of how the Vij family made its mark on Derry with its clothing shops to be of the utmost relevance.

It’s thought that up to 50 Syrian refugees will be re-settled in Derry as part of the Home Office’s scheme designed to help people fleeing the war torn Syria.

“I want to tell my family’s story because I want people to know that migrants, asylum seekers and refugees, call them what you will, can all contribute to society. At one stage, my father would have clothed half of Derry,” said Charlotte.

Charlotte and her six brothers and sisters were all born and educated in Derry. The first house the Vijs lived in Derry was 4 Simpson’s Brae and it was here that Mr. Vij and his brother set-up Vij Bro’s clothing shop.

The ship that took Charlotte and her family from Liverpool to India in the 1960s. The ship was called the M.V. Caledonia.

The ship that took Charlotte and her family from Liverpool to India in the 1960s. The ship was called the M.V. Caledonia.

“My father’s uncle, Salig R. Vij, sent a letter back to my father’s village - I think Salig R. Vij arrived in Derry in the early 1930s,” said Charlotte.

“Salig R. Vij sent for my father and off he went. My father arrived here with my mother and his youngest brother who went on to become a qualified doctor in the 1940s - my family and I owe everything to Salig R. Vij, if it wasn’t for him I probably wouldn’t be here today,” she added.

Mr. Vij was determined to make a success of his new life in Derry and soon went into business for himself when along with his brother, he set-up Vij Bro’s clothing.

Mr. Vij made contact with a clothes wholesaler in Glasgow and began to ship the clothes to Derry where he sold them.

Charlotte's father (right) pictured beside a brand new Ford, which he had transported from England to India in the 1960s.

Charlotte's father (right) pictured beside a brand new Ford, which he had transported from England to India in the 1960s.

“I think my father would have been one of the first people in Derry to offer people credit to buy clothes. Back then people would have had to travel to places like Dublin to get all of the latest fashion but because of my father’s business they were able to get it in Derry,” said Charlotte.

“When my father and other family members came here first they were different in many ways including culturally, religiously and even they way they looked, but what they shared with people living here was their desire to work hard and provide for their families. The same must be said for the Sumras, Singhs and Chadas who also came to Derry and contributed to life here.

“In fact, when the dust settles, you soon realise that people have more in common than they initially think,” she added.

“However, I remember hearing that my father thought Irish women talked too much,” smiled Charlotte.

Charlotte has memories of the family home being full from top to bottom with boxes of clothes. Clothes rails with the finest wares and boxes full of shoes were a common sight in the Vij household growing up.

“My father had his shop in different places in Derry over the years. My father, his brothers and other family members were extremely hard workers and contributed more than their fair share to the local community - I don’t see why this cannot happen again when the Syrian refugees re-settle here in the near future.

A young Charlotte Vij takes a telephone call in the family home in Derry.

A young Charlotte Vij takes a telephone call in the family home in Derry.

“It’s our duty as human beings to do all that we can to help these people. Irish people have been leaving these shores behind for generations. I hope the Syrian people who are coming here will be welcomed with open arms,” added Charlotte.

Mr. Vij and his family built a successful business and a few years later the family moved from Simpson’s Brae to Caw Park before building a new family home on the Rossdowney Road. Business was good.

“In 1964, my father and mother took all seven of us to India. My father even bought a brand new Ford and had it put on the boat we were travelling on. The car was put on the boat in Liverpool and it took us around 20 days to reach Bombay. We spent a month in India visiting our family before travelling back home again. It’s crazy looking back on it now.”

Charlotte’s parents were both Hindus and when she was younger she was educated at Clooney Primary School before moving on to what is now known as Foyle College.

Charlotte is all too familiar with what it feels like to be singled out because of the colour of her skin and said she hopes things will be different when Syrian families arrive in Derry in the next few months.

“There were a few snide comments growing up and I was subjected to some abuse when I worked in Belfast but I would like to think that things are different now.

“I often think about how lucky my family were to find a better life and the same can be said for the Syrians who will arrive here.”

“I hope when the Syrian families arrive they are not subjected to racism - us Derry people are much better than that,” said Charlotte proudly.