Hugh MacDonald

THE past is a different country. They do things differently there. The past is Algeria and the trauma that cannot be spoken, may even be unspeakable, certainly before casual inquirers.

The present is Glasgow, cold on a traditional December day, but warm in its embrace for Inaam. She is a 30-year-old mother of a three-year-old. She is a dedicated, hard-working student. She is a refugee.

She sits in the communal room of a college high above the city that is now her home and reflects with an extraordinary gentleness, a distinct lack of drama on how life has changed.

“When I came to the United Kingdom I felt my life was over. I reached that point, yes. I sometimes wanted to die. It seemed the only escape from the hell I was living," she says. Inaam is not her real name. It has been changed to protect her anonymity. Similarly, the circumstances that forced her to flee her homeland are not discussed.

It is enough to know that there was once desperate anguish and there is now joy. Her daughter was the original catalyst. This is a story of life, after all. But Glasgow was the stage. This also a story of how people not only make Glasgow but make the lives of other people. It is a tale of how Inaam continues to overcome struggles but it is also a chronicle of how anonymous people all over the city did something to help her, her daughter, or any one of the up to 100 refugees arriving in the city every month.

Inaam, too, serves as a cipher to Refuweegee, the charity with the gallus name and the pure dead brilliant purpose. She also points to the importance of such as Celtic FC Foundation, the official charitable arm of a club set up to provide food for the needy. More than 100 years later, the foundation serves to honour that instruction by Celtic’s founder, Brother Walfrid.

But, first and crucially, there is Inaam. She whispers her explanation of how she survived. “I was fighting because of my daughter. She was pushing me. I wanted to make a life for her,” she says of arriving in the country in January 2018 and then moving to Glasgow.

“I had no one,” she says. “No one. No family. No friends. I was scared. I didn’t even know Glasgow. I didn’t even go out. I didn’t even want to see the light.”

Much, of course, cannot fully be articulated. The trauma of the past inflicted deep wounds but Inaam was gently warmed and nurtured by Glasgow and its people. She talks brightly of the help from her doctor, the close relationship with Refuweegee and a growing circle of friends and a narrowing of purpose.

“I feel like I am alive,” she says simply. "I slowly felt the doors opening and I felt I could see the light.”

The revelation was powerful. She says: “I am human. People here told me: 'You have rights. You are a woman and you can say what you want'. I was really surprised. I have never felt love like the way I love here. I love Glasgow to bits, I love Scotland to bits. It gives me life. It gives my daughter life.”

Was there a moment when the pain of the past subsided and Inaam realised she was wondrously happy?

“I wake up in the morning and I sometimes cry. It is from happiness,” she says. “I take deep breaths and say: 'Thank you Scotland, thank you Glasgow'. I cannot fully express that happiness.”

ANOTHER bed, another thought. This is where the name of Refuweegee was born. Selina Hales dreamed it up in a moment of repose. The organisation has since demanded hard work, commitment and an ability to react to the needs of refugees rather than the imperatives of those who seek to welcome them.

“It started just three years ago. With just me,” says Selina who now has one full-time co-worker and part-time worker. They are all on the Living Wage. Selina is called director but there is no hierarchy – just a focused, single purpose.

“I worked with Glasgow Chamber of Commerce so I had faith that people here cared about creating a nice place for us to live in. The idea of what became Refuweegee just grew from there,” she says.

There is something powerful about the simplest of sentences. “I very much wanted a gesture of kindness to be passed to people coming to our city,” she says. This was distilled into welcome packs. It was expressed through words from locals, with Selina asking people to write a letter to someone coming to the city. These passed on tips but most importantly carried a central message. It was: “Please understand there is someone in the city who cares for you.”

Other organisations charged with helping refugees appreciated the packs. The refugees bathed in the warm welcome and learned from the practical advice.

“But the response from Glasgow grew into so much more,” says Selina. “I hadn’t worked in the asylum system and I had no idea of the numbers we would be dealing with. But within a few months we recognised we were averaging 80-100 welcome packs a month. It then became 120 month. It was 207 last month.”

Refuweegee had to be responsive, too. "It grew though social media with us saying to people in Glasgow we can all do something small to make a big difference in someone’s life,” she says. “But we were largely cashless in the beginning, we didn’t even have a bank account. People would offer us money and we would tell them to buy toothpaste, toys, whatever and drop them off.”

The specific needs change daily. “We have to be able to react. There may be 20 mothers with children coming or it might be 15 young lads. We have to adapt to that,” she says.

The organisation is funded though community projects, donations and directs grants but Selina says: “We are incredibly selective about who we work with. We don’t want to get bigger. We have trust and faith in Glasgow to keep it moving so we can focus on doing a good job.”

And what is that good job? “Be kind in kind. Buy us a toy, shampoo, a jacket. Send your good wishes. Be welcoming,” she says.

The immediate future is bright in terms of help. Celtic FC Foundation is adding its considerable muscle. “They have been phenomenal,” she says of the association with the foundation. “They come up with tickets to games, they had a massive donation drive at a match and they continue to help. They get it, they completely and utterly get it. We will be one of the beneficiaries of their Christmas appeal and that helps us enormously. The foundation has worked with charities for years and they understand where the effort and the money needs to go and it is not about box-ticking but getting the help to the people who need it.”

There is, of course, another powerful element to Refuweegee. People who have been helped want to help others. “It’s a lovely circle,” says Selina.

It is one that has been joined by Inaam. “I feel grateful,” she says. “The doctor helped me a lot. More than I can say. I feel people welcome me here. My daughter is treated like everybody else. I feel happy, so safe. So I like to tell other refugees that it can be okay.”

Inaam speaks French, Arabic and English. She has already been the interpreter for those from Sudan, Iran and Syria who cannot speak English. She wants to take these skills into a new life where she also hopes to work in the media. She is in college now but hopes to move on to university. Her past is humbling but so is her gratitude and her ambition to make the best of every opportunity.

But she is keen to emphasise her first debt. “I would give my life to them,” she says of Refuweegee.

“I would do anything. I would like to help people. I talk to other refugees. I would like to tell them this can be the beginning of something new. I feel happy when I am helping. I see the tears of gratitude and know that was and is me.”

Both Refuweegee and Inaam are consumed by the present. The demands, the opportunities, the changing circumstances leave little time for mapping a precise future. Inaam craves education, then work but adds: “I see in my life Glasgow.”

And what does a Muslim refugee from Algeria think of a Glesca Christmas? “It is the best season ever for me. I will celebrate with others,” she says.

Outside a city bustles and trembles with all the benign symptoms of festive fever. Inaam looks out and accepts her blessing.

“It’s a miracle. I feel like a queen.”

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