Toryglen: between safe haven and hell

THE white cherry blossom is out in Prospecthill Square. Look up and the sky is as blue as anywhere else. Look down and the grass is as green as anywhere in Scotland.

Look around and a different picture emerges. The grass is strewn with empty Buckfast bottles and Budweiser cans, the detritus of yet another all-day drinking session.

At least 11 of the 15 small shops surrounding the square - including the ill-named Community Renewal Office - are barricaded with graffiti-covered metal grilles.

Wooden boards that once advertised forthcoming attractions at the now-closed Beacon pub carry a message for the council scheme’s newest arrivals. "Black refugee bastards. Let’s have a war."

It was into this blighted scheme in Glasgow’s Toryglen that the city council decanted Mehmet Gezer, a Kurdish asylum seeker, his wife and his then 13-year-old son, Ibrahim, under the government’s refugee dispersal programme.

Last week, the High Court in London heard the family had endured considerable "hostility" from local residents. While rejecting a claim for compensation, Mr Justice Moses said: "No one should be subjected to the sort of treatment which this family faced, still less when they have left their country of origin and assert a fear of persecution. The intimidation and violence this family suffered brings shame upon any country which holds itself out as a safe haven."

In an instant, it was Toryglen and not the Home Office in the dock. All those who had laboured for the past two years to make a small community with more than its fair share of urban problems a welcoming place for more than 60 asylum seeker families were mortified.

"We just don’t feel it is fair," said community volunteer Ann Rooney, a member of the Toryglen Asylum Seeker Project, set up to build bridges between the two communities. "This was one incident almost two years ago and you feel a little bit hurt and angry that the whole community is being condemned as racist because of it. This was caused by a couple of thugs of the kind you get anywhere and who chose an easy target."

Built largely in the 1950s and 1960s to provide new homes for those displaced by Glasgow slum clearance, Toryglen’s rows of tenement and tower blocks straddle both sides of Prospecthill Road on the south-east flanks of Glasgow. Hampden Park, the national football stadium, lies immediately to the west and the old royal burgh of Rutherglen to the east.

But the signs of urban deprivation are easiest to see in Prospecthill Circus, the sprawling scheme in which Toryglen’s share of asylum seekers have been housed.

On the square, what should be the centre of the community, only four shopkeepers have had the courage to stay open: two grocers, a hairdresser and a chippy, who serves his fish suppers from behind the safety of a floor-to-ceiling metal grille.

"Most of the businesses have moved out because they can’t take the constant vandalism and the abuse any more," said one of the shopkeepers, who declined to give his name for fear of becoming a target himself. "The kids congregate on the grass about 3.30pm and the drinking and the drug-taking starts. Then around 6.30 onwards all hell can break loose. We don’t see any of the asylum seekers because they would be afraid to come here."

Gezer, a victim of torture in his native Turkey, and his family arrived in September 2001, just one of a number of asylum seekers "dispersed" to Glasgow schemes such as Prospecthill Circus, which had a number of unoccupied council flats in tower blocks with picturesque names such as Hampton Court and Glen Court. The approaches are covered by security cameras monitored from permanently manned concierge stations on the ground floor.

In what is now openly acknowledged as a mistake, the Gezer family were given a home in two-storey decked housing which could be easily accessed, unseen, from the street. From the time they arrived, they claimed in court, they were shouted at in the streets, threatened with dogs and spat at. Then on October 7, their home was attacked by a group of men, and Ibrahim threatened with a knife. Before they could be rehoused elsewhere in the city, the family fled to London.

A second family of asylum seekers also underwent a similar ordeal at about the same time but they are now no longer housed in such vulnerable surroundings.

Community workers in the area say there have been no repeats of the incidents but some asylum seekers claim verbal abuse is so routine they no longer bother to report it.

A Congolese mother, who has lived with her family on the estate for six months, agreed to talk as long as we didn’t use her name. "People will shout at you and refuse to let you in the lift," she said. "One night they trapped me in a telephone box until my partner arrived. Another friend had rotten fruit thrown at her. We dare not go out at night in case something happens."

There is resentment, even among those who say the asylum seekers never cause any trouble. One running sore is the delivery of new household goods to people who by their very definition have arrived in Scotland with nothing.

"You see them getting brand new sofas with the wrapping still on," said George Thomas, a retired labourer. "I pay 37 a month for Sky TV and they get it for nothing, and I think that’s what upsets some people. They think, ‘I can’t get that and yet I was born in this country’."

Fighting against the tide of prejudice is the Toryglen Asylum Seeker Project, a consortium of local volunteers, charities and public agencies.

Over the past two years, a weekly drop-in centre with access to legal advice and translation services has been set up at a local community centre. English classes are held three times a week for a group of nationalities that includes Somalians, Congolese, Turks and Iraqis. A creche is provided and older children have been absorbed into local schools. There have been outings arranged to the theatre and sports activities. Last year the first community festival was held.

"There may be people here who still hold certain negative attitudes but there is an awful lot of goodwill too," said Rooney. "If a mistake was made at first, it was probably bringing in people almost under cover of darkness so that many of the other residents didn’t really understand what was going on. But all that has changed now and we feel these families are now integrating very well. We must not let the actions of a tiny minority two years ago undermine all the hard work we have done."

From her second-floor flat, Margaret Bryson, who has lived on Prospecthill Circus for more than 30 years, can see directly into the children’s play park. She says she rejoices when she sees local children playing football with those from asylum-seeking families, because eventually it will be contact like that which will break down the barriers. In the meantime, the asylum seekers were not the problem.

"It is not the asylum seekers that are covering the place with graffiti," she said. "It is not the asylum seekers who are dealing in drugs or lying around on the square getting drunk.

"There are people who need removing from this scheme as quickly as possible, but it certainly isn’t them."