AMAL Azzudin remembers, with the etched clarity of sharp pain, the Sunday morning seven years ago when immigration officers came to take her school friend away.
“I got a phone call saying Agnesa had been dawn raided and detained, that her father was handcuffed,” she says. “I was absolutely disgusted and had so much anger. I was scared for my friends and all the other asylum seekers in the school. On the Monday, I said I wasn’t going to go to my classes until we got Agnesa back. The girls followed what I did. We took a stand and it took off from there.”
Azzudin, now 22, is one of the so-called Glasgow Girls – the seven school friends who, in 2005 and 2006, campaigned against efforts by the Home Office to remove from their homes and deport asylum-seeking families whose bids for refugee status had been refused. Immigration officers were arriving in force at the flats of asylum seekers, often while the families were still asleep, and taking them to detention centres. The children of such families, instead of getting up and going to school, found themselves in the custody of the state and awaiting return to countries of origin which, if they had any recollection of them at all, were remembered as places of blood and fear.
In response, a group of teenage pals at Drumchapel High, hailing from such disparate locales as Kosovo and Knightswood, Somalia and Scotstoun, began lobbying politicians and the press, and holding morning vigils, aimed at preventing further dawn raids, around the high-rise flats where the asylum seekers lived. They had a notable success in securing the return of 15-year-old Agnesa Murselaj and her Roma Gypsy family. They were the subject of two BBC documentaries, hoisted the issue of asylum high on the public agenda, and burst open the doors which led to changes in law. Now, the Glasgow Girls are the subject of a play of that name – a musical – conceived and directed by Cora Bissett, written by David Greig and staged by the National Theatre of Scotland.
“It’s a great story about young girls finding a political voice,” says Bissett. “Extraordinary events brought them to Glasgow, and then a frightening, tragic event happened when their friend was ripped away in the middle of the night. For me there was something incredibly celebratory about this group. We hear so many stories about disaffected teenagers and gang culture and riots, so I’m really buzzing about telling a positive story about young women from all creeds and ethnicities who don’t see the boundaries at all. They all speak with a Glaswegian accent and they are mates and they want their friend back. It’s as simple as that.”
In 1999, Glasgow began providing accommodation to asylum seekers. By the end of 2001, some 8,000 people had arrived in the city, travelling from countries including Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Congo, Somalia and Sudan. By 2006, the period when the Glasgow Girls were active, one in every eight pupils at Drumchapel High was an asylum seeker. There are, at present, approximately 2,000 young people from a refugee and asylum-seeking background in Glasgow schools, roughly 2.5 to 3 per cent of the total school population. At Drumchapel High, pupils speak around 20 languages.
Amal Azzudin was 11 when she and her family fled the civil war in Somalia. They were moved by the Home Office north to Glasgow. “Another asylum-seeking family said they felt sorry for us because Glasgow was a terrible place and everyone was racist,” she recalls. “I wish I could see that family again and tell them how wrong they were. This is one of the friendliest cities in the world.”
It would be wrong to paint too rosy a picture. There was and still is some racial tension. In the summer of 2001, a Kurdish man was murdered in Sighthill where, at the time, a fifth of residents in the area were asylum seekers. Five years later, outside Drumchapel High, an Algerian teenager was stabbed and came close to losing his life. Within the school, however, bonds were being forged.
“It wasn’t a conscious decision to become friends with asylum seekers, it just gradually happened,” says Emma Clifford, 24, another of the Glasgow Girls. “When I first started school there was a clear divide of them and us. At lunchtime, when everyone used to play football, it used to be Scotland against the rest of the world. But within a couple of years there were all these mixed teams and everyone started to integrate.
“So that day when we heard what had happened to Agnesa and her little brothers, it wasn’t just the asylum seeker kids who were crying about it, it was loads of indigenous Scottish students as well. Everyone was hugging in the halls and asking, ‘How could this have happened?’ I had a lot of friends who were asylum seekers and I was just so outraged at what had happened.”
Euan Girvan, a bilingual support teacher at Drumchapel High, recalls that the disappearance of children from the school, as a result of dawn raids, had the same impact on classmates as if there had been a sudden death. When the children told him of Angnesa Murselaj’s detention, they collapsed in grief. “It was at that point I realised we had to do something,” he says. “The children were extremely fearful that they were going to be taken away.”
So he and some of his colleagues supported and offered guidance to pupils in their campaign. It built from there.
The artistic roots of the Glasgow Girls musical lie in Cora Bissett’s acclaimed 2010 play, Roadkill. It concerned a young Nigerian woman brought to Scotland and forced to work as a prostitute, and was performed in front of a small audience in a Leith flat. Glasgow Girls is an attempt to produce work which is similarly socially engaged, but which has the potential to reach more people – and inspire them to action on the issues – as a result of being staged in a proper auditorium and taking as its genre that most populist of forms: the musical.
Bissett had the idea that it should be a musical when she watched the BBC documentaries, which featured a mix of pop and the indigenous music of the countries from which the girls had come. According to Emma Clifford, music was what kept them going during the campaign. Amal Azzudin recalls Hope by Faith Evans and Locked Up by Akon as the signature tunes of the period.
Seven years on from Agnesa Murselaj’s detention, life can still be difficult for asylum seekers, with many suffering financial hardship and homelessness. Although child detention was supposed to end in August 2009, the charity Unity has details of at least six families with children who were detained in their homes before being transported from Glasgow to the south of England where three of them were returned to their countries of origin and the other three were released back to Glasgow after a week in a family detention centre.
The issues raised by the musical are, therefore, far from historic.
For the Glasgow Girls themselves, that period of their lives appears to have been formative. All but one still live in Glasgow and a number remain engaged with politics, community projects and the media. Clifford, who works for Radio Scotland and is a volunteer presenter on Sunny Govan Radio, credits the asylum campaign with making her a more confident person. Amal Azzudin went on to study at Glasgow University and now works at a charity which attempts to improve the mental health of asylum-seeking and refugee women.
“I think the campaign definitely made my future,” she says. “It made me realise who I am.” And Glasgow? In the 2005 documentary, Azzudin said she hoped to one day be happy as she didn’t know how that felt. Did the city make her so?
She nods. “Glasgow is my home. I wouldn’t live anywhere else.” «
• Glasgow Girls is at the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, from 31 October until 17 November