We're all one family

As new research suggests that Muslims find it easier to integrate in Scotland than south of the Border, Martyn McLaughlin visits Glasgow's multi-racial Pollokshields area to see what the two communities think of each other

• Picture: Robert Perry

EVEN on an ordinary weekday afternoon when the men are in the mosque, the streets of Pollokshields are animated with the colour and bustle of a vintage Harry Benson photograph.

Stalls of fresh fruit and vegetable spill out onto pavements, as women in vibrant shalwar kameez keep an eye on children as they play on bikes and scooters.

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Pausing with her shopping bags halfway down the long, ambling thoroughfare of Albert Drive, Helema Saddya takes in the scene and smiles warmly.

"Up there's the Nan McKay Hall," she points out. "That's where a group of us older women like to meet. We encourage the Asian grandmothers to come along too. I'll bring along a bag of toffees and they'll take their treats. It's a good wee deal we've got going, you get to try new sweeties."

A white Christian grandmother in her mid sixties, her real name is Helen, but shyness - and a mischievous sense of humour - means she asks to be called what her Asian friends know her as. She has lived in this community in Glasgow's southside for more than two decades, and can count as many Pakistani and Indian acquaintances as she has Scottish.

"It's a good area, Pollokshields, we don't have any problems like they have in the north of England," she reflects. "Don't get me wrong, trouble can flare up now and again, and a lot of the Asian women have language problems, but folk mix well. By their very nature, Scots folk are welcoming."

A well-heeled area of sandstone tenements and villas around a mile south of the River Clyde, Pollokshields is one of the most ethnically diverse neighbourhoods in Scotland.

While the exact current make-up remains unclear, the most recent census from 2001 suggests Pakistanis account for 40 per cent of the population, while white Scots make up 50 per cent. Nationwide, the comparable figures are Pakistanis 0.6 per cent and White British 88 per cent.

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With a recent British Council report - discussed in The Scotsman yesterday - suggesting Scots are more welcoming to Muslims than their counterparts in England, this is the ideal place to gauge feelings among ordinary people.

Pollokshields' sizeable south Asian community - which is complemented by smaller numbers of Irish, Chinese and Africans - began taking shape around 40 years ago, when many Asians relocated to Scotland following the collapse of the textile industry in the north of England. Encouraged by relatives, they found that Glasgow offered numerous economic opportunities, and as early as 1971, the majority of the city's 12,000-strong Asian population resided in Pollokshields.

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"It is a unique place," says David Meikle, who represents the area on Glasgow City Council. "Not just in Glasgow, but in Scotland. It's a community which embraces its differences."

FOR all the verve and life the diverse population has brought, however, so too it has resulted in anguish. Twice in the last 12 years, Pollokshields has had to contend with a murder which threatened to tear apart the community's rich fabric.

Firstly, in 1998, Imran Khan, 15, was stabbed to death by a group of white youths. Six years later, Kriss Donald, a white teenager, also 15, was beaten, stabbed and set alight by a notorious Asian gang.

On both occasions, tensions on the streets heightened amid fears of possible reprisal attacks. In the wake of Kriss's death, the British National Party even organised a march in area, but though the atmosphere was volatile, no-one felt sufficiently enraged to champion the cause of Nick Griffin's party.

In the years that passed, Pollokshields underwent a painful yet positive self-evaluation. A certain weariness and anxiety remains in some quarters, but new generations are eager to learn from the past.

"I think that nearly everyone in the area has learned to integrate," reasons Ameer Din, 21, an articulate young bank teller whose father is Pakistani and mother Scottish. "The events of the past have shaken up communities, and people are a lot more tolerant than they were years ago."

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Meikle, 26, a white Scot, agrees. He said: "There have been issues in the past, most notably the murder of Kriss, which created a lot of resentment, but there has been a decline in that kind of feeling in recent years."

On rare occasion, ugly incidents threaten to undo such progress. Strathclyde Police are continuing to investigate the assault last week of a 14-year-old white schoolboy who claims an Asian gang threatened to take his life.

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Last year, meanwhile, the delicate relationship between the Asian and white Scottish communities came into stark focus when an innocent snowball fight escalated into violence. Meikle, a Scottish Conservative councillor, admits that anxieties remain over groups of young Asian men causing anti-social behaviour in the area.

Illustrating a similar vein of uncertainty, many young Muslim children in the area attend a local Catholic school, but a recent proposal to turn a bowling club into a branch of the Islamic Academy of Scotland has, he said, given some white residents cause to believe there is a "lack of integration".

He explained: "The white and Asian communities are still not as integrated as people might hope for. There's still a distinction between the two, almost an invisible divide.

"I think it will always be a case where there is a cultural divide between the white and Asian communities, simply in terms of language and religion. But there are good examples of both working together, such as greenspace groups, or the Friends of Maxwell Park."?

THROUGHOUT the course of our time in the area yesterday afternoon, only one resident in Pollokshields tells of ongoing problems with racism. An Asian shopkeeper in his late twenties, he tells me that one of his regular customers, a middle-aged white woman, deliberately stresses the first word when asking for a "packet of cigarettes".

"You can feel afraid at times," he says. "You don't know if she's with someone else. If I'm in the shop alone, you don't want it to escalate, because she could just call a few people on her mobile and they'll be down causing trouble."

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The majority of people, however, attest to a spirit of unity and respect. Gabriel Ritchie, 40, a Scot, relocated his business to Pollokshields earlier this year. A printer to trade, he discovered a gap in the market - his firm, Skyprint, is now enjoying an upturn in custom from its modest unit off of Albert Drive.

"It was a customer of mine who is Asian that recommended I come to Pollokshields," he said. "Now, most of my customers are Asian. I'm getting orders for the likes of takeaway menus, and stationery for Asian weddings.

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"I would count a few Asian guys as my friends as well as my colleagues. There's no issues around here."

From what he sees through his line of work, Ameer Din agrees that there is no acrimony between different ethnic groups in the area.

He said: "Every day in the bank, I am dealing with customers of every race, and people are very respectful of different customs, religions and backgrounds.

"The amount of everyday Scottish people who've been donating to the Pakistan [flood] relief fund has been a real eye-opener for some people in the Pakistani community."

So too, he says, the notion of racism towards white Scots has receded.

"In the past, there was maybe a feeling that it was dangerous to walk down the streets of Pollokshields if you were white and Scottish, but that has changed," he added. "The schools are doing their job to make sure the kids learn about different communities."

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With Pollokshields due to celebrate its 150th anniversary next year, many are proud of the fact that area has been nominated as one of the best places to live in all of Britain.

The southside enclave has been nominated for the prestigious Great Neighbourhood award by the Academy of Urbanism. The group, made up of experts in community work, planning, and architecture, notes encouragingly the diverse streetscapes of Pollokshields, a legacy of its ethnic make-up.

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"It is home to a vibrant multicultural society with neighbourhood shops offering sub-continental delicacies cheek by jowl with coffee shops, curry shops, doctors and barbers," the academy writes in its nomination literature.

Back on Albert Drive, Mohammed, a burly, jovial man in his late thirties with dyed red hair, nods enthusiastically at the nomination comments. Raising funds for the victims of the Pakistan floods, he says he has received donations from people of every colour and creed.

"I came to Scotland as a young boy, and folk here are great," he says in a strong Glaswegian accent. "In the past, I think a lot of the older Asian generation came and set up businesses but didn't integrate into the community. The younger folk now, they're Scottish, Asian, Muslim, whatever.

"That's the attitude we should all have, right? I don't care if you're Hindu, Christian, or Jew, it doesn't matter. We're all one family."

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