Roza Shalih aims to become Scotland's first elected asylum seeker

When Roza Salih first arrived in Glasgow as a 12-year-old girl, she and her family were housed on the 22nd floor of a tower block in Knightswood in the north west of the city.
Roza Salih is running for election for the SNP in Glasgow in May's council vote. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire.Roza Salih is running for election for the SNP in Glasgow in May's council vote. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire.
Roza Salih is running for election for the SNP in Glasgow in May's council vote. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire.

It was 2001, and her family were seeking asylum in the UK after her grandfather and two uncles were executed for opposing Saddam Hussein.

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In May this year, the 27-year-old from Kurdistan is hoping to become the first asylum seeker ever elected to public office in Scotland.

If she is successful in the council elections, she will be representing the ward containing the tower block from which she once gazed down upon Glasgow as a child.

Salih says her childhood experience – which saw her witness the inflexibility and cruelty of the UK asylum system first hand – sparked her interest in politics.

She currently works in the constituency office of Chris Stephens, the SNP MP for Glasgow South West, specialising in constituents with immigration cases.

“I really like to help people,” she says.

“Every case is different, but I try to do my best to speak to them and calm them down.

“I tell them that we’re here to support you and not to worry.

“I don’t take the position for granted, because you can really change someone’s life.”

Salih knows the value of such support, recalling a friendly Glasgow social worker who helped her family settle into their flat and brought her colouring books so she had something to do.

At the time, she did not speak a word of English.

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When she travelled to the UK from Kurdistan with her mother and sister, she had no idea she would end up in Scotland’s largest city.

Her first description of Glasgow came from a British immigration official, who told her it was covered in ice “like Norway and Finland”.

Glasgow girls

The reality may have been different, but living in the city was hard on her family at first.

Her father was a teacher and her mother an accountant, but neither could get jobs due to their immigration status.

The family waited eight years until they were finally granted leave to remain, when Salih was 20.

“We used to get vouchers for food which the supermarkets were supposed to recognise,” she remembers.

“I’m against it, because it’s like in World War Two when the Nazis gave badges to the Jews.

“I remember a woman at one till told my mum: ‘We don’t recognise this. What is this? This is not money’. I cried.

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“It must have been so hard for my mum, but that was our life.”

As a girl, Salih attended Drumchapel High School where she was thrust into the public eye at the age of 15 as one of the “Glasgow Girls”.

The seven pupils set up a campaign group highlighting the poor treatment of asylum seekers after one of their friends, Agnesa Murselaj, was detained in a dawn raid. Salih says she started cutting classes to dedicate more time to the campaign.

“I didn’t have status [to remain] at the time, so I was worried it could be me next,” she says.

“In breaks and lunchtimes we used to send letters to MSPs, MPs and journalists and organise petitions.

“Campaigning has kind of been my life since I was 15 years old.”

Public eye

Salih went on to study law and politics at Strathclyde University, so running for election at this summer’s council vote might seem a logical progression. But she admits being worried about stepping into the public eye again.

“This is the first time I’ve gone into politics and it’s a bit scary for me, coming from my background.

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“I don’t think there’s ever been an asylum seeker standing for election, so I’m breaking that. Lots of people might be judging me.

“I could get criticised for it, and I have a fear of that.”

Since it was announced that she was running for the SNP in Glasgow, she says she has been subjected to several “hurtful” online comments from people telling her to “go back home and fix your own country”.

Undeterred, Salih says she would be happy if her story inspires other asylum seekers and refugees to seek election.

“I hope it gives people hope, that even though you’re an asylum seeker and you believe the world is ending and you don’t have any rights, that’s not true.

“We’re all human beings at the end of the day – some people are just not born in the right place.”

She adds that she decided to join the SNP because she believes in fighting for self-determination. Having voted Yes to independence at 2014’s referendum, she says she was “devastated” when the result went the other way.

“Independence has always been in my blood,” she says. “Kurdish people want independence and their autonomy and we fought for it – literally people died for the cause.

“Here it’s only a signature in a referendum and people can do that in a democratic country. Back home, you have to fight for it and die for it.”

This story first featured on our sister site.