This is a story of a second generation Punjabi who reversed the traditional Indian route of coming to the UK to make a career.
UK- born, 44-year old British solicitor Gurpal Oppal’s work as an immigration lawyer means he regularly goes to work in Punjab.
Gurpal Oppal MA, LLB (Hons) is a Partner at Charles Simmons Immigration Solicitors and an active Trustee at World Cancer Care.
Childhood and Background
“My father is from Karputhla - from a small village called Kot Gobind Pur, Punjab. My mother’s from the village of Rapur Balan in the district of Jalandhar,” he starts, as he interviews at his busy surgery in Southall. The main Charles Simmons Immigration offices are in Ilford.
Gurpal continues; “Both my parents were uneducated; they came here in the late sixties. My father became a builder on a construction site. Eventually he became self employed. Like many others, he came here with little and grew from the ground upwards.”
But the Oppals Senior always wanted their children educated. “My mother’s mother passed away when she was little and she became almost the kitchen help for the family.”
Yet she had her children schooled; Gurpal became an immigration lawyer and his sister, a matrimonial lawyer.
Gurpal recalls, “I used to help my father on the building site.” Most of the people who worked for Oppal Senior were uneducated Punjabis, he states. “A lot of them came here with dreams of succeeding in life. They had spent much money with unscrupulous agents; people smugglers, just to come to the UK. They could have come here through the proper means but didn’t know how.
This led to me to realise that this hard-working community is being misled. In coming to the UK or going abroad; a fantasy for many, a lot of people struggled, especially after 1984 with the Punjab riots.
Gurpal related to the workers; finding them fun as well as serious. His Punjabi improved too by interacting and eating with them.
His parents took him back to their Indian village every year. He compared lifestyles, aspirations, and the differences between the UK and India.
“Parents didn’t want me to become a builder. Asians, they said either be a doctor or a lawyer. Law was slightly easier than becoming a doctor.”
Gurpal got good A Level grades, did a Law degree at Kingston University, his professional exams and a Masters at East London University.
Gurpal’s aim was to become a corporate City lawyer. But in the late eighties when the UK was going through a recession, “it meant that interest rates went up to 15%- it was the Norman Lamont days,” he recalls.
“I had few options apart from going back to my father’s business on building sites to become a builder.”
Eventually someone offered Gurpal Oppal a position as an immigration trainee solicitor.
“I did it in order to qualify. I started promoting good immigration amongst the Punjabi and Asian community. That’s why I go to India to do all the work I do with the Punjabi community.”
Gurpal was a Partner with two firms before Charles Simmons.
Motivation to Give Back
Gurpal regularly attended the Home Office, Foreign Commonwealth Office and British High Commission, New Delhi with clients for interviews. He now uses this experience to give proper Immigration advice in the UK and in India through newspapers, radio and TV.
Mr Oppal is one of the first Punjabi Sikh solicitors of England and Wales to host an independent community Punjabi radio show where up to date information on Immigration Law, Immigration Policy is provided. Every day problems facing UK arrivals are dealt with live on air. His popularity amongst the Punjabi/ Indian community internationally grew following weekly appearances on Zee Panjabi, MATV and Doordarshan in Punjab, India.
Discovering just how much his compatriots got duped reinforced his commitment to his work. “Everyone wants to succeed in life, but it doesn’t mean you can dangle a carrot and mislead people. Unfortunately it happens in India a lot. India’s not an easy place to work. I’ve been doing it for 15-20 years. I’ve struggled.”
Mr Oppal is one of the most socially and professionally committed Punjabis around. He also cares deeply about his World Cancer Care camps.
And he notes an irony.
“Considering how many people leave India to come abroad to work, I’ve probably done the opposite. I’ve gone to India to work! I’ve been fortunate in being a qualified immigration lawyer, seeing the ups and downs of people, and being able to represent them with an understanding of their background as well as the immigration laws of the UK.”
"I’ve been fortunate being able to represent people with an understanding of their background."