Shafiq Mohammed. An appreciation

Born: 3 September 1966;

Died: 8 September 2021

Sometime in 1993, a 27-year-old Pakistani-Scots university student dropped by my office. He asked if he could volunteer. Shafiq Mohammed said he was interested in social housing.

He took a great interest in racial discrimination in social housing affecting poor people. We discussed discriminatory policies, the lack of access to housing for our communities, and black-led housing associations as solutions to the housing shortages affecting ethnic minorities.

Born in the Anderson area of Glasgow in 1966, Shafiq was the first child to his parents who had migrated from the Punjab area following the partition of India and the formation of Pakistan.

He grew up with his four younger sisters during a time of overt racism and bigotry in Glasgow, something which no doubt shaped his thinking and influenced his choice of career and a desire to combat injustices in the community, particularly in relation to migrants into the country.

In his early years, Shafiq was ever present in his father’s shop in Paisley Road West, close to Ibrox stadium, which led him to become a lifelong supporter of Glasgow Rangers FC.

He attended Woodlands Secondary School (now Glasgow Gaelic School) and was encouraged by his mother to continuously learn, study and read, something which became an integral part of his life.

From an early age, Shafiq earned money working in restaurants, initially washing dishes in Indian restaurants. He continued his studies at university, initially in social housing, but soon moved to the charity sector where he started his work within the refugee community.

In January ‘94, we organised a delegation of people from housing associations, Scottish Homes and others to visit black-led housing associations in England to learn about their best practice. This in part led to the setting up of a similar initiative in Glasgow, Access Apna Ghar, which later became embedded within a local housing association.

After the forced dispersal programme began in 2001, Shafiq began working for Home Office Accommodation contractors, YMCA, Orchard and Shipman and then the Angel Group.

His friend, Douglas Orr, recalls: “I first met Shafiq in 2002 when we both worked at YMCA Glasgow. YMCA Glasgow had been given a contract to house and support refugees who had arrived in Glasgow and Shafiq worked tirelessly, and he always had the best interests of the service users that we supported, often working out of hours, and advocating relentlessly for the rights of refugees and asylum seekers.

“He would particularly be vigilant with the more vulnerable groups to ensure that they were treated with empathy, respect, and dignity and he often presented as a one-man crusade against injustice. This was a trait that he carried with him throughout his working life with vulnerable groups. We both left YMCA Glasgow in 2010 but we remained in constant contact whilst our career paths took different directions.

“The mutual support and friendship that developed over the years was never in question and we often spent an evening trying to put the world to rights. We often joked about us being the modern Jack and Victor from Still Game”.

Shafiq joined the board of a non-profit in 2010 for a couple of years. He then went to work for another organisation, Community InfoSource, working directly with asylum seekers who had problems with Serco. Shafiq brought much-needed support and advice to people in the hotels at a time when accessing Home Office support was impossible.

In November 2015 (following 150 Syrian refugees being granted emergency accommodation at the Adamton Country House Hotel in Monkton, near Prestwick), Shafiq attended an anti-racism protest with Stand Up To Racism against the far right. He found himself charged with racially aggravated behaviour. When he rang me up and told me, he seemed deflated, I had no problem providing the court with a character reference.

At his court case in 2017, Shafiq told the court he faced Nazi salutes and yells of “Sieg Heil” at a protest by the Scottish Defence League (SDL). Sheriff Robert Weir said the atmosphere at the demo had been “rendered toxic by other people”. He ruled that Shafiq should receive an absolute discharge. It was a ridiculous charge in the first place. Shafiq always conducted himself with dignity. However, the experience and the way he had been treated by the police left him traumatised and whenever I’d bump into him, he seemed quieter.

Shafiq was instrumental in highlighting the disgraceful treatment of asylum seekers and the detail of commercially sensitive Home Office accommodation contracts. He was never afraid to challenge organisations and companies who made profit out of the suffering caused by those who had migrated to the country in search of a better life.

On several occasions, he would send me documents and, with his incisive analysis, tear through the grand self-pronouncements of certain organisations; he drew my attention to the unethical behaviour of partnership funding bids where our charity’s name was used; funding was granted, but we got nothing, and not a single peer organisation spoke up.

Shafiq and I kept in touch over the campaign to stop SERCO’s lock change evictions in 2018 and 2019, and the legal actions thereafter. Every now and then, I would get an email or a text from him, out of the blue, giving a crucial piece of information that helped us with our campaigning. Once or twice, he dropped by for a coffee and he would reminisce about the “old days” and how he and Bob Hay, who worked at Shelter Advice Centre, were mischievous and thick as thieves.

Shafiq would spend many hours in the Mitchell library where, in between working and reading, he would offer informal support to many refugees and asylum seekers who were there just seeking warmth and shelter from the Glasgow weather. He would even pay for a cup of coffee or buy something to eat for those who were destitute, and he would always be willing to offer moral support where possible, often to his own detriment. He felt the pain and suffering of those he was trying to help.

There was plenty of humour too; after the BBC aired Liam McDougall’s documentary on the treatment of asylum seekers, I congratulated him on his piece to camera. He replied, with self-deprecating humour, “I think I was on because (apart from you) the rest of the Refugee Sector is in self isolation and they couldn’t get anyone else”.

At a time when investigative journalism is so under resourced, Shafiq Mohammed worked like an investigator to provide information to asylum campaigners and the press, about important human rights issues at key moments in the city’s life. His insight and knowledge was incisive and sharp. He was both unassuming and reserved to the end.

In today’s era of shameless self-publicising on social media, Shafiq remained at the back, in the shadows, pushing for change, giving information that would help tear down the PR words of large corporates. Asylum campaigners have lost a lot. If things seem quiet now, it’s not because nothing’s happening. He ought to be honoured and remembered.

Shafiq died suddenly on September 8th at his home in Glasgow, shortly after celebrating his 55th birthday, he is survived by his four younger sisters and his growing number of nephews, nieces and great-nephews and nieces.

Back in 1993, that young student gave me a book about Malcolm X, which I had meant to return. He believed its message – community empowerment and Black Lives Matter. I’ll treasure it.

Robina Qureshi