IT HAS only been ten minutes since Roza Salih welcomed me in, offered tea, served up gaz (a kind of chewy pistachio nougat, a Middle Eastern sweet treat) and already she is in full flow about everything from women’s equality, zero hours contracts and maternity and paternity rights to refugee education and the unfair treatment of young workers.

Injustice, in all its many forms, makes Salih angry and she wants to speak up. She has much to say.

It is not surprising, given the 27-year-old’s background as one of the Glasgow Girls, a group of high school students who, with the support of the wider Drumchapel community, forced the Home Office to stop dawn raids on asylum seekers back in 2002.

But Salih’s drive to change the world can be traced back even further, to her childhood in Kurdistan where she lived with her parents Saleem and Tania, and younger sister Raz.

“I come from a very political family,” she nods. “My grandfather and uncles fought against Saddam Hussein’s regime and were executed because of it. They died fighting and because of them, I am here today.

“Both my mum and dad were political too. There are not many women’s rights in my country but daily, my mother fought for them. She spoke out against honour killings, campaigned against domestic abuse.

“It did influence me, seeing what she did, listening to her stories, even though I was young. One story she told sticks in my mind, about a woman in our community who was imprisoned in a basement, tied up and locked up without any food, left to starve to death.”

Salih pauses, frowning. “All because she loved a man of her own choice. That was a strong image and it had an impact on me.”

Her smile returns. “My mother was named after a Russian activist, I am named after Rosa Luxembourg, the anti-war activist and revolutionary socialist. You see? I come from a family of Lefties…..”

In May this year, Salih is hoping to become the first asylum seeker elected to public office in Scotland.

She is standing for the SNP in Ward 13, which includes the tower block she first lived in when she came to Glasgow in 2001.

“I remember looking out of the window and seeing Glasgow below, and it was really lovely,” she recalls. “We could see the city centre in the distance, and all the lights and the cars. The view is the only thing I miss about living on the 22nd floor.”

She laughs: “I don’t miss the stairs, or the lift that always broke down. But people were kind to us – we had nothing, knew no-one, spoke no English.

“We were told in London that Scotland was like Finland, and was always snowy and icy. But a social worker gave me colouring-in books, and my sister toys, and tried to make us feel better.”

Salih and her friends at Drumchapel High became known as the Glasgow Girls following a high-profile fight with the Scottish and UK Governments to end the deportation of asylum seeker children, often dragged from their beds in the early hours of the morning. When one of their friends was detained they enlisted the support of their teachers, neighbours and local politicians, sparking a media frenzy. The story has been turned into a television drama and a stage musical.

“I don’t think we realised at the time how big it was,” she says, simply. “We just wanted our friend back. But now looking back – we were just high schoolgirls, and we made a difference. We were not voiceless and we changed things for the better. It definitely had an impact on me, on the path I have taken.”

Having experienced the worst of the asylum system and having seen the shortcomings of the political world first hand, Salih could be forgiven for running a million miles in the opposite direction. Instead, she wants to embrace it and ultimately, influence it.

“It was empowering what we did, and what I have gone on to do in student politics and in my trade union work,” she says.

Salih, who was 19 when her family’s asylum application was officially approved, studied law and politics at Strathclyde University, where she was vice president for diversity and advocacy.

She was elected to the National Union of Students’ International Students Committee and the NUS UK Student trustee board. She is co-founder of Scottish Solidarity with Kurdistan, and recently returned from a trip to Kurdish regions in Turkey as part of a delegation of trade unionists and human rights activists.

Last year she campaigned successfully, working with the Scottish Refugee Council and Education Strategy Commission, for funding for scholarships for asylum seekers. She is also involved in campaigns against zero hour contracts and is keen to support young workers’ rights.

She speaks three languages – Kurdish, Arabic and English - fluently – “four, if you count Glaswegian,” she jokes, and is currently working for MP Chris Stephens in his Glasgow South West constituency office.

“I want to speak out against inequality,” she says, earnestly. “I’m a very honest person, if something comes into my brain I say it.

She smiles: “People say this may not be such a good quality for a politician.

“My mum and dad have said – you know what you are getting into, right? But they would not stop me. Neither is that kind of person.”

Her decision to stand for the SNP comes, she says, from her deep-rooted belief in independence.

“I understand how oppression by another nation can affect people’s rights – often the most vulnerable people in society,” she says.

“I see how austerity and social security cuts affect people in my community every single day, working here.

“I see how they struggle to put food on the table, heat their homes, get a job; and I see how asylum seekers are treated – often like criminals.

“Things have gone really wrong, and I believe we can have a different society in Scotland, a more humane one.

“And if things go wrong, then we can challenge our politicians in Edinburgh. I believe in self-determination.”

She is full of praise for Nicola Sturgeon, whom she met recently at an International Women’s Day event.

“I think she has great courage,” says Salih. “She knows she will be criticised and yet she does what she is sure in heart is the right thing to do and I believe that is the best way to live.”

She breaks off in frustration. “I know I can’t change everything, but I believe real change is possible. Despite what is happening, here and in America, I believe it. We all have to believe it.”

Salih is out campaigning “as much as possible” in the run up to the May elections.

“Mostly, it has been positive,” she shrugs. “I don’t read the comments online now. Some people say - go home and fix your own country. I don’t like that – I have been in Scotland longer than I have lived in Iraq. I grew up here.

“I had such a rough time when I came here, going through the system, the fear, feeling isolated, suffering discrimination. I worked hard, to learn English, to beat that isolation and always studied and asked lots of questions. I think that has put me in a good place.”

Salih is cautious about her future in politics.

“If I am successful in May and go on to enjoy working in local government, and feel like I am able to change things, I will stay,” she says, firmly.

“So much needs to be changed. There is so much inequality out there. But I believe in people. I believe if good people speak up, light will overcome darkness.”

Away from work and campaigning, Salih is close to her family and a small group of friends, but she admits: “I don’t relax, except when I sleep. I think my campaigning life means I have lost some of my friends. I do still have close friends but I wish I had more time to spend with them.”

She adds: “Eventually, I want to get married and have children and settle down but I feel that if I do that right now, it will restrict me, in a way?

“I will have those things, but just not yet. I have too much to do first.”


Favourite film: There are too many! I love films. If I had to choose, The Notebook.

Favourite music: Anything hip hop.

Last book read: Revolution in Rojava by Michael Knapp, Anja Flach and Erica Ajborg.

Career high: Working for Chris Stephens.

Carher low: When I was working as interpreter to make ends meet. It was hard.

Best trait: My honesty

Worst trait: Maybe I’m too honest? People tell me in politics, I won’t be able to say the kind of things I want to say.

Best advice received: Knowledge is power. I read it somewhere.

Biggest influence: Leyla Zana, the first Kurdish woman to win a seat in the Turkish, who was then jailed for 10 years for giving the oath in Kurdish.

Hobbies: Swimming and running, they keep me calm.

Ideal dinner guests. Leyla Zana and Nicola Sturgeon. I think they could learn a lot from each other.