Lest We Forget: refugees in Scotland discover legacy of Belgian refugees during WW1

at NLanarkshire Heritage Centre credit Ayeh Deris
Image by photographer Ayeh Deris

A group of refugees and local Scots has come together to document the heritage of the thousands of Belgian refugees who were resettled in Scotland during the First World War.

Coordinated by Scottish Refugee Council and supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, Lest We Forget brings together new and established Scots to discover more about the experiences of Belgian refugees and their host communities in Scotland over the period 1914 - 1918. Official records from the time estimate a quarter of a million Belgian refugees came to Britain during WW1 with approximately 8000 resettled in Scotland.

The Lest We Forget team includes people from Eritrea, North and South Sudan, Iran, Syria and Scotland. Together they will examine the many similarities between the resettlement of Belgian refugees during WW1 and the experiences of refugees and host communities in Scotland today.

As well as uncovering the past, the group will share stories about their own journeys of migration to Scotland and their experiences of settling in a new country. The project has just launched but already members of the group are seeing clear parallels between these historical refugees and their own lives as new arrivals in Scotland.

Project Producer at Scottish Refugee Council Suzi Maciver said: “It’s fascinating to look back at how Scottish communities welcomed refugees one hundred years ago. We’ve already discovered so many similarities between the way people in Scotland responded to the Belgians fleeing WW1 and the way people are responding to today’s refugees seeking safety from the war in Syria and other conflicts. We’ve found, for example, that back in 1915, lots of people donated goods and raised money to help the new Belgian families, just as people in Scotland today are fundraising and gathering clothes and toys for refugee families in need.

Working with a mixed group of refugees and local Scots is a really powerful way to uncover this often overlooked aspect of the First World War because people can see themselves and their own personal experiences in this history.

Some members of the group have only been in Scotland for a couple of months and have not had any opportunities to meet local people or to make friends so it’s great to see friendships developing among the group as they share their personal histories with each other. It’s really only when people get to know each other like this that we are able to see the individual behind the media headlines about refugees.”

Khosrow Zanganeh, one of the Iranian members of the group, said: “Working on this project is a great opportunity to gain new skills and meet very talented and interesting people. I think this project is worth all the effort I’m putting into it because history is so important. Because we are doing this in a mixed group including refugees, we can tell refugees’ stories more accurately. It's absolutely a pleasure to have this chance to work with everyone involved.”

Lucy Casot, Head of HLF Scotland, said: “The impact of the First World War was far reaching, touching every corner of the UK. Since April 2010, the Heritage Lottery Fund has awarded more than £70million to more than 1,100 projects – large and small - that are marking this global Centenary.With our small grants programme, we are enabling even more communities like those involved in Lest We Forget to explore the continuing legacy of this conflict and help local young people in particular to broaden their understanding of how it has shaped our modern world.”

As the group prepares for an exhibition of their findings, they’ll be visiting museums, libraries and conferences and developing skills in archiving, research and storytelling.

Lest We Forget is coordinated by Scottish Refugee Council and funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.