Starting Again: how refugees are making new lives in Scotland

Starting again cropped

Renowned photographer Conor Ashleigh captures the lives of refugees in Scotland

Graham Martin's photo

26th October 2015 by Graham Martin 1 Comment

In 22 years of marriage, Mohammad had never spent a night away from his family, then in late 2012, the unthinkable happened.

In the middle of the night, a rocket tore through the home Mohammad and his wife Kamar shared with their seven children. Theirs were just some of the millions of lives torn apart in the maelstrom of Syria’s continuing civil war.

They had gone to bed that night a normal family, with Mohammad running a flourishing business, but when the rockets struck, everything changed.

Fortunately, they all survived, but eight-year-old Yamat’s hearing was permanently damaged by the blast, and they found themselves pitched into a nightmare of homelessness.

Initially they moved to Egypt, in what they thought would be a short-term move till the fighting stopped.

However, eighteen months later, with their life savings spent and no end to the conflict in sight, they decided they could no longer stay.

Mohammad with one of his daughters

Mohammad with one of his daughters

Being apart from my family was terrible. I was constantly worried about them while they were in Egypt and couldn’t sleep

In May 2014, Mohammad left his family for the first time and made the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean with 450 others on a fishing boat.

They were afloat for 15 days before landing in Italy, from where he made his way to Calais and then on to the UK hidden in a refrigerated lorry.

His asylum claim was approved and he contacted the Red Cross, which was able to help him re-establish contact with Kamar and bring the whole family to Glasgow, where they are now making a new life.

Mohammad said: “Being apart from them was terrible. I was constantly worried about them while they were in Egypt and I couldn’t sleep.”

He and Kamar are among those whose stories feature in a new photographic exhibition called Starting Again, which has just opened in Glasgow.

Staged by the British Red Cross, it shows how they are trying to construct new lives in a city they never imagined they would end up in.

Powerful pictures by renowned photographer Conor Ashleigh captures families from Iran and Sri Lanka, as well as Syria.

The images show the pain of being separated from their loved ones, the joy of being reunited and the challenges they face as they start new lives together in Glasgow.

Ashleigh said: “Through this project I’ve gained an understanding of some of the difficulties that refugee families face when starting life again.

“As I reflect on the past six weeks and the friendships I’ve forged and the stories that have been shared with me, I can only hope my photos do justice to the wonderful privilege I’ve had, the window into homes and hearts of these four families."

The Red Cross is using the exhibition launch to call on both the Scottish and UK governments to make it easier for families torn apart by conflict or persecution to be reunited in Scotland.

It wants the Scottish Government and local authorities to make sure that the specific needs of those arriving through family reunion are fully planned for, built into policy and met by the services that they need to access.

The charity also wants to see councils given powers to grant financial assistance to families on arrival while they wait for benefits to be granted.

It is calling on the UK government to simplify the family reunion process in order to minimise the length, stress and impact of separation on families – this would include expanding the criteria for family reunion to include parents, grandparents and other family members at risk

Phil Arnold, Red Cross refugee services manager in Scotland, said: “We believe that families belong together. We know that forced separation can have devastating consequences for people in an already traumatic situation. There is immense joy and relief for families who are brought together again, but it is not the end of the story. 

“For many, reunion can be another crisis point when they are at a higher risk of experiencing destitution and homelessness or severe overcrowding. These risks place additional strain on families at a critical time as they attempt to rebuild a home together after what can be years of separation and disrupted family life.

“These outcomes are not inevitable. Making some changes to the way we plan for family reunion would really help people settle into their new lives in Scotland.

“As the humanitarian crisis that has seen the highest numbers of refugees since records began unfolds and the number of people who are displaced continues to grow it is important that family reunion is viewed as a safe and legal route by which people can seek sanctuary in the UK. Extending eligibility to include parents, grandparents and family members at risk, and making it easier for them to seek reunion has the potential to save many lives.”

Mohammad and his family, meanwhile, seek to get on with their lives and are still coming to terms with all the changes that have taken place.

Speaking through an interpreter, he said: “At least we are all together. I want to focus on getting my English better and restarting my business and making the best of the opportunities that have been offered to us in Scotland.”

Starting Again…A New Life in Scotland can be seen in the Moir/Dyer rooms at the Mitchell Library, Glasgow, till Saturday 31 October.

From 3 November till 30 November the exhibition will be housed in the Kibble Palace at Glasgow Botanic Gardens before being toured around various Glasgow communities.

3rd November 2015 by Philippa Kemp, Multi-Cultural Family Base

Very interesting article and exhibition. As an agency that has been working with children and families that have settled in Scotland over the last 17 years, many of these stories are familiar to us. We recently had a film made, funded by Awards for All Big Lottery, which highlights the experiences of young people that have recently migrated to Scotland. The film, Many Voices, Many Journeys, shows the young people talk about the challenges they have faced in adapting to a different culture and gives a glimpse of the individual and groupwork programmes offered by MCFB to help with this transition: https://vimeo.com/117609114