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Seeking a safe harbour – Refugee Week Stories

The cavernous wooden ceilings of Glasgow’s Old Fruitmarket concert hall remind me of the hull of an upturned ship. It was a fitting reminder at the Refugee Week Opening Concert that, through countless serendipitous chances, many different peoples for a raft of reasons make their home here in Scotland.

The amazing concert ushered in a week of events, exhibitions, concerts, plays workshops and film screenings that showcase the important contributions refugees make to Scotland as well as the heart-breaking challenges they face. What struck me at every event I attended was this tension between refugee as suffering victim and refugee as resilient asset to Scottish communities.

People who flee horrendous circumstances in their home countries are, of course, both victimised and demonstrably resilient, but the UK’s asylum system obliges those seeking asylum to dwell on a narrative of victimhood. Ana Beesley’s postgraduate study presented at GRAMNet’s Research Open Day looks at the demands the asylum system makes on refugees to display physical scars, hard evidence, to continually prove their suffering.  In these situations, says Ana, the body tends to silence the voice of the person.

Joe Brady, Head of Integration Services at the Refugee Council, says obliging asylum seekers to continually play the victim is profoundly damaging because victimhood is situational. The idea of a new situation in a ‘safe’ country is to stop victimisation, not submit sufferers to renewed and sustained traumas. Joe chaired a panel discussion looking at the refugee experience in Scotland through Karen Campbell’s book This is Where I Am. Sitting on the panel was Serge, a Congolese asylum seeker that I immediately recognised from the title photograph of the Human Rights and Wrongs exhibition I wrote about earlier this year. I saw a very different side of the naked, vulnerable man from the picture. Though Serge has suffered horrible cruelty, today he told jokes and smiled, sharing stories of the kindness he has received from Scottish people.

Losing one’s home would make a victim of anybody, which was precisely the theme of the Refugee Survival Trust’s Making it Home, a presentation of poetry-inspired short films by refugee and native Scottish women. One of the most poignant films for me featured a Scottish woman who was made homeless after she lost her job as a receptionist. The woman was stripped of her outward respectability before our eyes in a stop motion that lasted only a few minutes. The film’s title: It Could Happen to Anyone.

And that is precisely what I have drawn from this beautiful, moving show of empowerment from the refugee community in Scotland: refugees are ordinary people with friends, and jobs, and families. But for them, the safety of their original home has been traumatically stripped and, with tremendous strength of heart, they are trying to rebuild the basic survival needs anyone requires to flourish. If Refugee Week is anything to go by, they, and those who support them, are doing inspirational work.


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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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