Speaking for Ourselves

“Queens of the Commonwealth”: the moving stories of Birmingham’s ‘unsung heroes’

“Queens of the Commonwealth”: the moving stories of Birmingham’s ‘unsung heroes’

Silvia Tadiello

 Migrant Voice - “Queens of the Commonwealth”: the moving stories of Birmingham’s ‘unsung heroes’


One woman said goodbye to her father when she moved to the UK, and never saw him again. Another met hers for the first time as a five-year-old at a British airport, having just arrived with her mother from Lahore. These are just two stories from ‘Queens of the Commonwealth’, a moving documentary featuring the stories of 22 women who moved to Birmingham at some point in their lives from Commonwealth countries.

The movie premiered in Birmingham on 9 July, and was directed by Panikos Panayiotou, a Brummie-Cypriot director who wanted to tell the stories of “unsung heroes.” “I’ve seen my own mother go through a lot in her life and still stand strong as a migrant woman,” he explains. “I thought that there must be a lot of heroes unsung in the community.”

Panayiotou’s Greek Cypriot parents were in England temporarily when war broke out in Cyprus and they were stuck here. They did not see their families for 12 years, except for a harrowing moment, when Panayiotou’s mother was watching the news and saw her brother in a Turkish prison camp. Panayiotou was born in Birmingham, but has moved between the two countries throughout his life.

The 22 ‘Queens’ in Panayiotou’s documentary come from many walks of life, all brought together by their migration to the UK, all striving to build better lives for themselves and their families. There is Afia, who one day supplied her homecooked Indian food to a deli counter almost by chance, and now runs a successful artisan Indian food company (she is the one who first met her father at the airport). There is Louvina, who followed her husband to the UK with their three-month-old child, at first leaving her two older ones behind, worked at East Birmingham Hospital for 43 years and had tea with the Queen at Buckingham Palace (and who later came back for her son’s MBE award). There is Esita, who, after surviving domestic violence and with a six-month-old daughter, risked losing her status in the UK because of the breakdown of her marriage, but who eventually found her home in Birmingham.

“These women who came over here with nothing are the reason why we’ve got the lives that we have today,” explains Panayiotou, also referencing his own mother’s migration to the UK. But in spite of the eventful, difficult lives the 22 women have had, Panayiotou was struck by the women’s humility and sacrifice. And despite quite literally building new lives for their children from scratch, working in the NHS, in factories and farms, giving an invaluable contribution to the UK – all while often experiencing racism, their stories have so far gone mostly unheard. This documentary is an attempt to give them their rightful place and acknowledgment.

Panayiotou’s choice to amplify migrant women’s voices in his work came from another one of his projects, a book he was writing called “Amathus to Birmingham”: “I interviewed couples that had come from Cyprus to Birmingham, and the men weren't allowing the women to talk. It was very male dominant. I would ask the woman a question, and the husband would speak over her.”

Having grown up around women – his mother, his three sisters – Panayiotou knew that women’s stories were essential and that he was missing them. “I thought, I need to do an independent female story,” he says – and that is how his first “Queens” documentary came to life: in “Queens of Amathus”, he interviewed women who migrated from Cyprus to Birmingham.

For the making of ‘Queens of the Commonwealth’ Panayiotou employed an all-women steering group to make sure his own, male, perspective didn’t misrepresent the Queens and their words. The release of the film ties in with the Commonwealth Games, which begin today in Birmingham.

The premiere was coupled with an exhibition of 22 art pieces portraying the women interviewed, all created by Birmingham-based artists. With each picture, a QR code leads to a short video featuring each woman. A mural of Louvina, painted by artist ‘Create Not Destroy’, now appears in Erdington, the area she first settled in.

Panayiotou is a sports development manager at Birmingham City Council. He is also the founder of a charity called LGK (Lakis Greek Kitchen), which he created in memory of his late father, Lakis: in May and June every year, LGK opens a Greek taverna in Panayiotou’s own garden; year-round, it supplies food parcels to the area. With his LGK Productions team, Panayiotou has shot the Queens documentaries. All of Panayiotou’s work, from the Council to his charity, is community-based and centred. When he set up LGK, he followed his father’s values: food, for its ability to bring people together, and heritage, because it does justice to everyone’s stories and journeys.

Shooting the documentaries helped Panayiotou to overcome some of his prejudice and preconceptions, too. With “Queen of Amathus”, he was able to leave behind the historical animosity that exists between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. This time, with “Queens of the Commonwealth”, he started seeing the British Queen under a different light. The women interviewed, he says, “didn’t speak of her as a monarch, but as a woman, as a mother, as a grandmother.” For maybe the first time, Panayiotou was able to look at the Queen and see the person rather than the institution.

Panayiotou hopes that this documentary will allow people to truly appreciate the silent sacrifice migrant women have made, for their families and for the UK, too. His upcoming projects expand on his now-signature format; they will explore new realms and feature new Queens.

Satinder, the woman who last saw her father before she left for the UK, sits in her garden as she is interviewed. She shares some advice for women and girls of the next generation: “Follow your dreams, make sure you have your education, explore and enjoy life, play your part in the community. Whatever you do, be a good human being, a good person, and a good citizen of this country.”

For more information about ‘Queens of the Commonwealth’, see here.

Get in touch

Migrant Voice
VAI, 200a Pentonville Road,
N1 9JP

Phone: +44 (0) 207 832 5824
Email: info@migrantvoice.org

Registered Charity
Number: 1142963 (England and Wales); SC050970 (Scotland)

Our Social Links

Sign up for our newsletter

For more information on how your data is stored and used please see our privacy policy

Read our recent newsletters