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Not that funny on the way to the forum

"The Preston Muslim Forum. Never heard of it," the taxi driver grumbled. "It's near Preston North End Football Club, off Deepdale Road," I explained. The cabbie muttered something about Muslims having lots of those kinds of things and pulled away reluctantly.

We drove along Deepdale Road peering at mosques and other likely-looking buildings. Eventually the driver asked a passing pedestrian who popped into the football club to ask the receptionist. The receptionist consulted a colleague and eventually pointed us in the right direction.

Sullenly the driver dropped me off. The forum was located a few doors down the residential road in a two-up two-down corner house.

In its formal statement of objectives the forum says it will act as a voice for the disadvantaged and empower people - and overcome the kind of lingering prejudice I had just encountered in the cab.

Founded seven years ago to speak for Preston's largest social group - its 11,000 Muslims - the forum aims to address the community's educational, health, social, economic and political needs.

It employs a full-time male adult guidance worker, Iqbal Mulla, and a female development worker who try to boost the job prospects of those with poor educational backgrounds.

Since the closure of the cotton mills 15 years ago the forum has been a major employer of ethnic-minority labour. Many Muslims found themselves unemployed and lacking the skills and qualifications to find new jobs. For first and second generation residents the inability to speak good English is also a major handicap.

The centre's educational work divides along gender lines. The female development worker tempts Muslim women to take their hesitant first steps on the British educational ladder with classes inflower arranging, henna painting, dress making, English as a second language or Arabic (to improve their ability to read the Koran).

Men more often want to acquire new skills. Mr Mulla, who advised 85 Muslims on educational opportunities and boosting their job prospects last year, says most of his clients are over 24 years old, were not born in Britain and have poor educational qualifications.

"The first things they say is 'I want a job'," he says "I say I cannot guarantee you a job but I can help you towards a job if you are willing to take up educational opportunities and try to develop yourself."

After assessing their skills Mr Mulla asks what kind of work they are seeking. If it's office work, he suggests enrolling in a computer literacy and information technology course at Preston College. If they are scared of computers or worried about their English language skills, he suggests practical craft courses such as motor vehicle maintenance, plumbing or electrical installation courses.

Then there are the over 35-year-olds, with virtually no education and very poor English. Initially for this group he recommends joining an English as a second language course at Preston College.

For some of his better-qualified clients lack of experience is a problem.A female graduate in social policy for example wanted to do community work but could not get a job without experience. He offered her community work experience at the forum's offices and she has now secured a job with a voluntary organisation.

Other clients have come with degrees from India and Pakistan but have found that they are of a much lower educational standard than British degrees. These people he advises to enrol on A-level equivalent access courses as a first step to getting a British degree.

Mr Mulla also advises clients on preparing CVs, interview techniques, completing application forms and learning to identify what skills they need to acquire to do particular jobs. One unemployed client Mohamed Rebi, aged 40, could speak French and Arabic fluently and had considerable experience as a hotel manager, but was having no success with his job applications.

Mr Mulla helped him to prepare a more professional CV, guided him on interview techniques and applying for jobs. Mr Rebi is now headwaiter in a restaurant in Blackpool and has also been accepted on an HND catering management course at Preston College.

Another client Ryaz Bobat, aged 23, had a BTEC computing qualification but could not get a job. Mr Mulla discovered that his CV did not fully reflect his skills and that he lacked a structured approach to job hunting.After job application and interview technique guidance, Mr Ryaz found work as a computer technical adviser.

Mr Mulla says his main job is to encourage people from the Muslim community to take up educational opportunities. He says: "The usual complaint I get from them is that I am too old for education. My response is that you are never too old for education."

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