This Glasgow Girl still changes lives

Glasgow Girls
The Glasgow Girls - Roza Salih sits on the front row, second from the left.

As ‘Glasgow Girls’ returns to stage later this month, we’ve talked to Roza Salih, one of the original Glasgow Girls about how the experiences have affected her life.

Blog by Jack Tannock, Media Volunteer

The story of a seven young asylum seeking girls who fought against the detention and deportation of one of their class-mates might not seem like an obvious topic for a stage musical, but in 2012 that is exactly what it became.

And  with the ‘Glasgow Girls’ musical returning to Glasgow on 20 February, I spoke to Roza Salih – one of the real life Glasgow Girls about her memories of the time, and what it has been like to have her life made into a musical.

A Daunting Trip

Roza was just a young girl when her family came here from Kurdistan in Northern Iraq to seek asylum. This was two years before the Iraq War and the regime of Saddam Hussain was still in power. Under Hussain’s Ba’athist regime the Kurdish people had long been the target of oppression and ethnic cleansing but for Roza’s family there was a special danger as they (particularly her father) were vocal political activists. Tragically two of Roza’s uncles and her grandfather were executed by the regime and a third uncle was tortured. Roza’s father feared for his life and came to Britain to seek asylum in 2001. Roza and the rest of her family, fearing reprisals, followed on in 2002.

Roza recounted how they came to the UK by plane and arrived in London. Leaving her home to come to a far-off land where she could not speak the language was in Roza’s own words “daunting”. From London they were sent to Glasgow though the dispersal programme.

Her first thought about Scotland was: “there’s too much rain” (just like the rest of us). She had to overcome language and cultural barriers, and so a place at Drumchapel High School was soon found and Roza began learning English. A Mr Girvan in the school’s bi-lingual base was an inspiration to Roza and many of the other asylum seeking girls who were trying to learn English. They soon integrated and were studying alongside their Scottish classmates, preparing for exams, when bad news struck…

Detention

One of their friends and classmates had been detained. The friend in question was Agnesa Murselaj, a Roma from Kosovo. Her family had come here to escape persecution of Romas in their homeland, but their claim for asylum had been rejected. The harsh reality for rejected asylum seekers is dawn raids, detention and deportation, and for Agnesa reality was no different. The police came in the middle of the night and took her and her family away while they were still in their pyjamas. They were taken in the back of a van and driven to Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Centre and held there.

The next step would have been to deport them back to their home country.

When Roza and her friends found out what had happened they were left angry and confused. To begin with they didn’t even know what detention meant, but when they realised the full extent of the situation, they were devastated.

They felt certain that Agnesa and her family would not be safe in her homeland and feared for her future.

Not only that, but as asylum seekers themselves they feared for their own safety and wondered if they could be next. Having come to this country for safety they now felt unprotected and betrayed.

They wanted to do something.

Taking action

Roza and her friends decided to campaign for Agnesa’s release and an end to detention and dawn raids. To begin with their campaign was nothing more than collecting signatures from their fellow pupils but from there they went out into the local community and eventually spoke to politicians and journalists.

They held candle lit vigils and peaceful demonstrations and set up a look-out system in the local community and what’s even more impressive is that they managed to fit all this in around their school work, campaigning before and after school.

In addition to this it just so happened that Roza and her friend Amal Azzudin were to take part in a documentary about integration for young asylum seekers. After meeting with the producers and directors of the show they decided to make the main focus about their campaign, which drew even more attention to the issue. They even visited the Scottish Parliament and spoke to first minister Jack McConnell who promised that action would be taken.

Eventually Agnesa was released and the girls enjoyed a well-deserved party but the victory was bitter sweet. As Roza put it: “We saved Agnesa but we couldn’t save everyone” – many families were still detained and deported.

Achievements to sing about

The Girl’s campaign achieved an amnesty for young people who are studying to not be detained, and it ultimately played a huge part in ending the detention of children in 2010.

When I spoke to Roza she said she still felt that their biggest achievement was just to raise awareness that such unjust and heartless practices occurred towards asylum seekers. When I asked her, why this campaign had caught on when others hadn’t, Roza said it was because they were young, passionate and spoke their mind.

When she was told that their story was to be made into a musical, Roza was initially sceptical, but when she saw the final product, she was overwhelmed and realised how inspiring it could be to others. It truly brings their story to life and askes the audience to put themselves in Agnesa and her family’s shoes.

The campaign had a big impact Roza’s life. She is now the Vice President of Diversity and Advocacy at Strathclyde Student Association and is continuing to make differences to people’s lives – and she still fights for equality and inclusiveness for asylum seekers. Her final thoughts on the matter, when we spoke, were on the impact of togetherness:

“When people come together, they can achieve so much more.”

‘Glasgow Girls’ will be performed at Citizens Theatre in Glasgow from 20 Feb 2014 to 8 Mar 2014. More information can be found on Citizens Theatre’s website.  

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