Long Read: Interview with Amal Azzudin

Ever since she began campaigning against the deportation of a classmate at the age of 15, local activist Amal Azzudin has been a powerful voice for the rights of refugees and asylum seekers.  A graduate of the University of Glasgow, Amal now works for the Mental Health Foundation, specialising in refugee issues. We met up with her to talk about her journey into activism, how the Home Office harms asylum seekers, and what the government and individuals can do to bring about change.  

qmunicate: You’ve been working in community development for some time; what inspired you to first get involved?

Amal: I didn’t really know what I wanted to do when I was in school until one of my friends was dawn-raided and detained. My friend Agnesa is a Roma Gypsy from Kosovo and she’d been living in Glasgow for five years at that time, in 2005, and we were all at school in Drumchapel and she was still waiting on her asylum status. So one day, on a Sunday morning, fourteen home office officials wearing bullet-proof vests went to Agnesa’s house, handcuffed her father in front of Agnesa and her younger brothers and put her family in blacked out vans. Her father was in one and the rest were in another, and they drove them to a detention centre in England called Yarl’s Wood. It’s like a prison – barbed wire, electric fencing, security cameras everywhere. She was locked up for three weeks, and she was fifteen at the time.

On the Monday morning when I heard what had happened to her I was completely outraged because obviously she was one of my very close friends, but also because she was a child being treated like I criminal. I went to my teacher and said I wasn’t going to any of my classes as a protest against the way she and her family had been treated. Before I knew it I was on the BBC News and the local newspaper, and five other girls joined in. We became known in the media as the Glasgow Girls, and after campaigning tirelessly for three weeks we managed to get Agnesa out. Her lawyer used the time to gather evidence to send to the home office, so thankfully there was a u-turn and she was returned to Glasgow. But after that lots of other families started being dawn raided and detained and deported as well, because we couldn’t save them. And that’s when I realised I wanted to work with people and help people. I found out about the Working with Communities course at Anniesland College and then from there I got into second year of Community Development at Glasgow University and I’ve done a master’s as well in Human Rights and International Politics.

It wasn’t like I woke up one day and thought “I’m going to start a campaign and it’s going to be made into a film and a musical and all these things”, but all the things we were doing turned out to be what a campaign looked like. We wrote letters to local politicians and started a petition in the school, and almost everyone in the school signed it. We took it to our local MSP who took it to the Scottish Parliament and there was a debate about one of the other families, and then we got invited to go to the Parliament and met the First Minister and the time, Jack McConnell, who made a lot of promises which he knew he couldn’t keep because he didn’t have control over immigration. But we were fifteen at the time and we’d met the first minister – we thought things were going to change! We think he had good intentions – he did go to Westminster, who basically told him go back to Scotland.

Q: What was their justification for being able to detain child refugees and Asylum seekers?

A: Because they’re not British. The UK is the only country in Europe that has indefinite detention. One of the things the campaign has managed to achieve is the end to child detention in the whole of the UK, not just Scotland, in 2010. But we know since then that at least 600 children have been illegally detained. It’s becoming worse now, because the only detention centre in Scotland, Dungavel, was to be shut down next year, but it’s not going to happen. The planning permission to build another detention centre near Glasgow Airport has been refused and one of the conditions of shutting Dungavel down would be that they built a new one.

Q: So they were going to please the campaigners by shutting down the detention centre but then just building a new one, which they’re calling a ‘Short Term Holding Facility’?

A: It’s basically a faster way to deport people. It will be a detention centre – they won’t call it that but it will be. What they do as well is that they move families to different places – Agnesa’s family were moved to England, English families are being moved to Scotland. That way you don’t have your support system – your family can’t visit you, your lawyer, your friends can’t campaign for you. It’s so clever and it costs a lot of money. G4S, the security company that move people, are so expensive, and the government are paying them to isolate people from their support systems.

Q: What do you think the future holds for asylum seekers in Scotland?

A: I respect everyone’s decision when it comes to independence, but the huge frustration now is that the Scottish government come across as very sympathetic and very welcoming to refugees, but I wonder if they had control over immigration would that be the same? I do think that if we did, we would have a better chance of having a fair and humane asylum system than we do now, because it’s horrendous. The whole system is designed to cause mental health problems. What they do now, instead of dawn-raiding people, is they ask you to go and sign on at the home office. One of our volunteers, Jan, who’s been seeking asylum for over twenty years, has lost her case and they don’t know what to do with her. She has to go to the Home Office every month to say she’s still in the country, but they can just keep her and deport her from there. She wouldn’t even have her belongings. She’s also destitute – destitution is a huge problem. Basically an asylum seeker becomes destitute when the Home Office recognises that their country of origin is not safe enough for them to go back to, but at the same time won’t let them stay – so they let them become homeless. No access to benefits, just out on the street, hoping it won’t get so bad they have to ask for Voluntary Return.

Q: The Glasgow Girls started campaigning when you were fifteen – what would you say is the best way for young people to get involved in community activism today?

A: One thing we didn’t have when we were at school was social media. I think social media’s great but it’s not enough. People need to be out on the street, people need to be organising and coming together. For me unity is strength. I honestly think people have different skills, ideas, influences, and we all need to use our own potential to move forward. That’s what we did with Glasgow Girls – what are you good at? I’m good at arguing and speaking up. We were very lucky because we had supportive teachers and our school to guide us, but that’s not the case for everyone. Join local campaigns, get involved, even start a new one. Don’t just press ‘like’ and feel like you’ve done something.  

There are different ways of campaigning. I use social media to spread awareness and let people know what’s going on. There was huge outrage. I’m still surprised at how often I speak at things and people say “Really? Did that happen? In the UK?” I remember I went to the Southbank Centre in London because I was nominated for an award and I took Jan, one of our volunteers, as my guest. There was a man who was also being nominated for founding a homelessness charity. I left the two of them talking and when I came back and this guy got up and he had tears in his eyes. I looked at Jan like, “what did you do?!”. When he was talking to me afterwards he said “She just told me her story – is it true?” He didn’t want to believe it – he was really moved by listening to her story. That’s why I spend a lot of time speaking in schools. I think it’s really important for people to see a real human being rather than hearing information through the media. It frustrates me so much – people just don’t know and are told so many lies. Social media can be good for that in some ways but there are also unreal amounts of hatred and racism and Islamophobia – it’s easy to sit behind a keyboard. Sometimes it makes me feel there are more people against my work than there are for, but that’s not true, especially in Scotland. In everything there’s good and bad.

Q: Can you talk a bit about your work at the Mental Health Foundation?

A: So my role is the Equality and Human Rights Officer. I specialise in refugee issues and raise awareness about mental health issues in asylum seeker and refugee women. I’ve recently been working with men and young people as well. We do a lot of art therapy and we take a community development approach. I work with a group of eight to ten women at a time for eight sessions, and I’ve been doing this for the past five years. The other parts of my job are working with Syrian refugees, policy and research, speaking at events and campaigning.

One of the main problems we face, as I said earlier, is that the system is designed to cause mental health problems. The level of depression and anxiety is unreal. The night before Jan has to go to sign on at the Home Office she becomes so anxious and she can’t sleep because she’s so worried. All she has to actually do is go and sign her name and leave, but when you go in there is security like an airport, cameras everywhere, the chairs are chained to the ground. The message is you are a dangerous, unwelcome person – a very hostile atmosphere. She has to do that every month.

Isolation and feeling worthless because you can’t work is a big issue too. I was in America recently, working with Yale’s mental health department and I went to visit an organisation called IRIS and one of the things I found very interesting was what the member of staff who runs the women’s group there said. She sets up two flipcharts, one for the US and one for home and she asks what the problems in each are. For ‘home’ it’s things like war, persecution, torture, and for the US it’s isolation, depression, unemployment. She asks which is worse and they always pick the US. I did the same thing here and it was the same result. I also always hear that although there’s physical safety in the UK, mentally it’s torture. Just because we can’t see it doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect you just as much. You stay because at least you’re alive here.

The thing is, people had great lives before the wars started. I remember speaking to a young girl from Syria at a school a couple of months ago. She said her family didn’t want to come here. They had great lives, her parents had great jobs, they had a massive house, a great car, really great quality of life, but now they’re treated like they’re nothing. It’s the inhumanity of it, the lack of respect for people. I’ve seen so much humanity from people trying to help, especially in Scotland, but I’ve also seen the opposite. The system’s the problem, it’s hostile. They train their staff to be aggressive and unwelcoming. They train them to seem disbelieving, to make people jump through hoops to prove their story. The way the media make it look is as if we’re soft and we let everyone in, but the number of cases that are rejected are far more than are accepted. We take the lowest number of people in Europe. A woman from Uganda who campaigned with us had been dawn raided twice. Once was an accident. I don’t know how they can play with people’s lives like that.

Q: An accident?! Did they apologise?

A: No! Apologise, are you kidding? One of her kids was thirteen and the other was five. We had a little party for them when they came out the second time and the thirteen year old was so traumatised. Eventually it came to the point that she asked for a voluntary return because it got so bad. Every time there was a knock on the door the children would hide under the table thinking it was the Home Office coming to get them. She didn’t want to keep putting her kids through that – at least she knew what to expect in Uganda, rather than this constant fear and uncertainty. Living in limbo, not knowing what was going to happen. She came here because of her kids –and look what they’ve done to the kids. So she went back to Uganda, she was separated from her children, she ended up getting malaria – and then we lost contact. I don’t know what happened to her.

Q: What would you say are some of the biggest challenges facing the refugee community today?

A [laughing]: The Home Office. I’m such a fan. Bet they regret sending me here!

Definitely the system, but also racism. I keep coming back to this, but I think in Scotland it’s a lot better. I’m not saying it doesn’t exist – I’ve seen it, I’ve experienced it, but I think it’s very different here. The biggest issue though is that the asylum system is not fit for purpose. It’s actively making people’s situations worse. If the human rights act is abolished they will get away with so much more. There will be no accountability. I feel like it’s such dark times at the minute, with Trump as well. I feel sorry for our generation, having to clean up the mess. We’ve learnt nothing at all from history, it’s so scary, it’s repeating itself in the exact same way.

Q: The mess is happening as we speak, and like you said we’ll have to clean it up – but what needs to be done now?

A: There’s loads we can do now. I don’t think we can stop it from happening, but we can do damage control. We need to put a lot of pressure on the government. For me, the solution is for Scotland to be independent. I don’t think we should be out of the EU and I don’t agree with the government we have right now, we didn’t vote for them. There is no democracy. If we have someone like Trump as President of the most powerful country in the world, that says it all for me. How different is he from other dictators around the world? My faith in humanity started to fade when he was nominated. I knew he would be president. I’m not surprised. I’m disappointed but I knew – look at the amount of airtime he got, the amount of airtime people like Farage and Katie Hopkins get. It’s a message that it’s ok now, to be like this. Even when Jo Cox was murdered, it was so quiet. [The murderer has] just been found guilty. The Guardian wrote something today but that’s about it. If that guy was black or Muslim, we’d be hearing about it. But there’s hope too – a Somalian refugee woman was just elected as a legislator in Minnesota. Everyone’s sending it to me saying “when’s Scotland getting one?”, I’m like, “I don’t know, when is Scotland getting one?” Don’t look at me, I am not becoming a politician! I’d get assassinated before I even step a foot in the door, I’m too outspoken. I like my campaign, I know how to control that.

Q: What can qmunicate readers do right now, in Glasgow?

A: There’s so many places looking for volunteers. The Glasgow Night Shelter is a small charity that helps destitute people get off the street and there’s also different refugee camps that people can donate clothes to – Calais has been demolished now so I don’t know what’s going to happen there but lots of people are in Greece now. What I would really like see though is more people getting involved in trying to get the University of Glasgow to accept scholarships for refugees [context: UofG does not currently provide scholarships for refugees, who have to pay international tuition fees]. Because the vice-chancellor is a refugee champion, Alison Phipps, the Professor of Languages at the University – totally adore her, she was my supervisor – she organised an event with GRAMNet through Glasgow Uni and they always have events on. So if people could sign up for that that would be great. Because when I came back from Greece Alison organised an event and over three hundred people came. There’s never been so many people, never been a meeting as big as that in Glasgow regarding this issue, it was so packed people were sitting on the steps. So they always have really good events and I usually speak at them as well.

The Scottish Refugee Council are always looking for volunteers as well. But also I think challenging the media [is important]. If they write an article which is spreading lies, challenge them. When the Daily Mail publish something, if it’s a lie and people put pressure on them they’ll write a correction but it’s tiny at the back – so student media can raise awareness that way, by publishing corrections of lies that are being spread. Also if people want to come – I’ve been asked to do a TEDx talk in Glasgow next year in March. I’m hoping to organise an event through the Mental Health Foundation next year about refugees, mental health and the arts, so hopefully we’ll have different performers, different speakers.

Q: What practical steps would you like the Scottish Government to take now?

A: I would like for them to have more control. That’s the only way we can get justice I think, because the way it is now it’s really hard. If we can’t get through to Westminster and they’re not listening at all what can we do? When I came back from Greece last year I gave evidence to the European Committee at the Scottish Parliament and I met the head of UN Refugee Agency in the UK, he was lovely and he kept saying it’s so refreshing every time he comes to Scotland because whoever he meets is always so welcoming. He said that he emailed Theresa May before she was Prime Minister to talk about the Refugee Crisis and he didn’t even get a reply, nothing. That to me says it all. If he couldn’t even get an email, what chances do we have? What the Scottish Government are doing now, publicly saying that migrants and refugees are welcome, is a big step in itself. I’m glad Nicola Sturgeon is doing that, because many people aren’t.

Follow Amal on Twitter: @AmalAzzudin

[Text and original artwork by Imogen Whiteley]

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