Bringing together researchers, practitioners and policy makers working with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Scotland
This month we spoke to Selina Hales, the founder of Refugweegee, and three pupils from Sandersons Wynd Primary School, who organised a collection of clothes to go to refugee camps. This is the first in a new series of monthly interviews, with people in Scotland (and beyond) who are working on, or affected by, issues related to migration and asylum.
What inspired you to start Refuweegee?
I was sat at home one evening and a news piece came on with someone reporting from the Hungarian border. It was filmed during the closure of the border and the report centred around it having ‘turned nasty’ and showed people throwing bricks and fire at riot police. It horrified me. I spent a lot of time avoiding the news on television for various reasons but this captured everything that I couldn’t handle.
There was a man with a tiny baby strapped to his front that was screaming and the man was rubbing his eyes because of the tear gas that was being fired at them. There were water cannons being used and desperate people in chaos. I couldn’t stop thinking about what my reaction would be if I had a war at my back, a fence in front of me and the space in between was filled with water cannons and tear gas? If you put my children into that space alongside me then I know what my reaction would be. It would be exactly the reaction that I was watching unfold on television.
Refuweegee came about because I wanted to do something. I’m lucky to have a very inspiring network of friends and colleagues in the city and I started to think about what we could do to make sure that when people make it to Glasgow they know that the city doesn’t just welcome them but embraces them. To try to get that message across I decided to create community built welcome packs for people who have recently arrived in the city.
What kind of things does Refuweegee do to help refugees in Glasgow?
Refuweegee aims to make people feel welcome in the city and in Scotland.
We do this firstly by providing welcome packs to people. The packs contain three types of item: items of use – hats, gloves, map, waterproofs, stationery, toiletries; Glasgow items – Tunnocks tea cakes, irn bru, guide books; and finally the ‘letter fae a local’ – a personal welcome letter from the existing community. The hope is that through this small gesture, people understand that they are welcome and that Glasgow is a friendly city. We also put a return stamped addressed envelope into each welcome pack and ask the recipient to write back to us if they wish; whether that be to share their story or to tell us something that they need we’re delighted to receive these letters and open up engagement in a non-intrusive manner.
We have also attended and run events that we have opened up to those have recently arrived in the city. The first being a gig at the Barrowlands and the latest being a 5-aside charity football match (photos attached). I wanted to make sure that when things were happening in the city, the newest members of the community are aware of it and were joining in on existing events. So far the events been really successful and a number of individuals who have attended them are now volunteering with Refuweegee.
And finally (for now anyway) we have a drop in that has just launched on Monday afternoons at Social Bite, St Vincent Street. People can come along to pick up a welcome pack, get something to eat and drink and hopefully meet new people.
Oh no wait, one final really important element of Refuweegee to mention. Sharing stories. Most recently this was done through a photovision exhibition that is very soon to be shown in Glasgow. I worked with a group of students and LIVED (an Edinburgh based charity) and we asked a group of recently arrived individuals to share their stories of living in Glasgow. Their photos and words are incredibly powerful and it’s important that as many people as possible get to see the world through their eyes, if only for a few minutes.
We also had a gig on Friday 3rd June at Kelvinside Hillhead Parish Church that I was really excited about. Lucy Catchcart Froden, an incredibly talented musician, singer and songwriter got in touch to ask about doing a collaborative project where the letters fae the locals are used to inspire singer/songwriters. We now have a collection of beautiful original songs that were not only be performed on Friday 3rd but that will also be available to buy on CD. A very powerful message of solidarity, friendship and welcome.
Who receives the Refuweegee welcome packs?
Welcome packs are given to forcibly displaced individuals now living in Glasgow. Refuweegee doesn’t have criteria in terms of individuals needing to have ‘refugee status’ or needing to be from a certain part of the world. We wanted to make sure that any forcibly displaced person arriving in Glasgow received a welcome from the people of Glasgow. We’ve only been able to do this through working with all of the existing organisations in Glasgow. They’ve helped not just in passing on welcome packs but in helping to shape the contents and spread the word.
Have you had any feedback from some of the people who have received welcome packs?
We have. Through the return stamped addressed envelopes that we include in each welcome pack we get lovely feedback and messages of thanks back – I’ve included some photos of these.
We also have a number of the recipients of welcome packs and people who have come along to events who now volunteer with Refuweegee, that’s the best feedback you can get!
I find the thanks a little overwhelming at times; it’s not that I’m not grateful for it obviously but it’s difficult not to feel sad and angry at the necessity for it. Five years ago most of the people I meet were living happy, ‘normal’ lives like ours and now they’re on the other side of the world, having been through experiences that most can’t comprehend, let alone share, and that we certainly cannot comprehend; and they’re thanking Refuweegee for a notepad and map of the city.
What can people do to welcome refugees who have recently arrived in Glasgow?
There are so many amazing things happening in Glasgow, so many organisations and groups to get involved with. Start by having a look at the Refuweegee website; if you can, then make a donation, buy a t-shirt, write a letter…or 5! But the most fun would definitely be to come along to something. I’m getting a little better at updating the website but check out our twitter and Facebook for the most up to date things that we’re doing and come along. Join in and open up your eyes, Facebook pages and inboxes to all of the wonderful events and community led stuff that is going on in the city. The Refugee Festival begins on the 14th June so that’s a good starting point, get it googled and come along to some of the brilliant things that are happening that week and the next.
The Scottish Refugee Festival will run between 16 – 24 June 2016. There are lots of exciting events taking place accross Scotland and most are free! You can access a copy of the programme here.
What kinds of items were you collecting to send to refugee camps?
Ewan and Charlotte: Clothes to keep them warm
Evan: Footwear and socks to keep them warm
How did you go about organising the collection?
Ewan: I asked my best friends Evan and Charlotte if they would like to help me. Then I asked my teacher if my school could help the refugees and she said yes. First we made some posters to put up around the school and then we told everyone about it in assembly. We even used a microphone! Then we wrote a letter that was sent home to parents to ask for any clothes they didn’t use anymore. When all the clothes had come in, we took them to Iain Gray’s office (our MSP). We were given lots of clothes. I was really proud of myself.
Ewan, what made you decide to organise the collection?
Ewan: Because I wanted to help the people.
Where will the items you have collected go now?
Evan: We took them to Iain Gray’s office first.
Ewan: Then they are going to the refugees.
What have you learned in school about the war in Syria, and refugees who are fleeing this war?
Ewan, Evan and Charlotte: We haven’t been taught anything in school.
Ewan: I heard about the refugees on the news. Their country is in danger and there is a war. So they have to leave.
Over the past few months, lots of Syrian children have come to Scotland as refugees. What would like to tell them about life in Scotland?
Ewan: People are kind and won’t hurt you.
Evan: There is no war and no bad things are happening.
Charlotte: They will be able to learn in our schools.
We are really grateful to Selina, Ewan, Charlotte and Evan for providing such insightful and informative interviews. Is there someone you know, or have heard of, that you think would make for an interesting interview? Let us know using the form below!