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Embraced by Glasgow

by Lily LaRegina

When the first refugees from Syria began to arrive in Scotland in 2015, their stories of loss – loss of home, family, and possessions, motivated Selina Hales to help. She was shocked by the images and news reports of the conflict in Syria but moved even more so by the number of people fleeing their homes and seeking shelter in other countries.

She couldn’t work directly in refugee camps in the Middle East with her young children and family in Glasgow. But she could collect donations and deliver them to the newcomers as a gesture of hospitality.

What began as one woman’s effort to welcome refugees to Glasgow evolved into a volunteer-based charity that Hales founded in 2015 and now directs. The charity, known as Refuweegee, has grown in donations, volunteers, and staff to the point of needing to relocate from their small office in the city’s Kelvinbridge neighborhood to a bigger office space right next to Glasgow’s city center in early 2022.

Sporting a black Refuweegee hoodie, Hales reflected on the beginning of her mission, wide eyes gazing upward in thought. She recalled how watching the Syrian refugee crisis from afar prompted her to question the role of the United Kingdom and Scotland in the crisis.

“Seeing thousands of people being forcibly displaced and the welcome that people were receiving in different countries just made me really start to question and think about what happens when people come to Scotland. What do we do? Do people arrive in Scotland? How many?” Hales said.

Selina Hales in her office in early March. ~ photo by Lily LaRegina

Refugee resettlement is not new to Scotland, as the country has been a sanctuary destination for many different ethnic groups over the decades. The Scottish Refugee Council notes the influx of refugees and asylum seekers from areas of conflict in the 1980s and 90s from Vietnam and the Balkans. According to the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, as of 2014 about 3,300 asylum seekers and refugees were living in Glasgow.

Many recently arrived refugees have come from Syria, which descended into civil war in 2011 and remains a war zone. In 2015 with the enactment of the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Programme, the U.K. committed to taking in 20,000 refugees from Syria by 2020, according to a report by the BBC. Since then, Scotland has taken in hundreds of Syrians. Refugees from other areas of conflict, including those who fled from Afghanistan and Taliban rule in 2021, have been welcomed to Scotland.

Currently, Scotland’s government is sponsoring Ukrainian refugees who fled their homeland after Russia’s invasion in February of 2022. The BBC reported in mid-March that the Scottish government had committed itself as a super sponsor of Ukrainian refugees, allowing entry to the country immediately and placing them in temporary accommodations with government support. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announcing that 3,000 refugees could be taken in immediately. Sturgeon said she is counting on organizations and charities to help provide permanent sanctuary and resources.

Those at Refuweegee are ready to help.

The charity has its own term of endearment for Glasgow’s newcomers, a term that provides the charity with its name.

“Refuweegee is made up of two words, refugee and Weegie, and Weegie is the colloquial affectionate term for somebody from Glasgow,” said Clare Bury, Refuweegee’s education coordinator. “So a Refuweegee is somebody who has been embraced by the city, somebody who has arrived here and has become part of the city because of the welcome that they have received.”

Currently, Refuweegee supports refugees in Glasgow through a myriad of programs. Welcome pack assembly and distribution is the charity’s signature project and one of its most far-reaching.

The packs, which include clothing, Scottish items like shortbread or scarves, toiletries, and a welcome letter from a Glaswegian are symbols of welcome. They are also an easy way to involve new volunteers and community members. According to Bury, distribution numbers are around 100 per month currently, and Refuweegee’s website says that  over 10,000 welcome packs have been given out to date.

“We [distribute] by passing them on to the organizations who provide housing so they know the number of people who are arriving, and they will know how many men and women and children there are, and they will request welcome packs for those numbers,” Bury said.

Ahmed Issa, a volunteer living in Glasgow, folds men’s shirts while helping to organize donations in Refuweegee’s office near Glasgow’s city center on Wednesday, March 9, 2022. ~ photo by Lily LaRegina

Refuweegee has education initiatives in development as well. The charity facilitates a book club that focuses on diversity, the refugee experience, and racial inequality. It hosts craft workshops for refugee children as well as workshops for local school children. It also plans to begin holding English and Arabic language classes.

As a testament to the charity’s impact on Glasgow’s refugee population, many individuals who have received help from Refuweegee return to the charity as volunteers. Up until 2020, the charity operated with a full-time staff of three – the staff has increased to nine. With a small core team, Refuweegee relies heavily on its network of roughly 300 volunteers.

Kira Muir, a student at the University of Strathclyde, is a recent addition to this network. A native of Edinburgh, Muir reflected on her volunteer experience, comparing the stories of refugees she has met in her few weeks with the charity to her own privileged upbringing.

“I know I can’t click my fingers and fix everything, but even if it’s just little things, like giving them a welcome pack when they enter the country or helping them get food, get clothes, even just doing little things like that because the whole point with Refuweegee is it’s not just about them surviving here. It’s actually about them enjoying life like everyone else should be able to do,” Muir said.

For some volunteers like Muir, the work allows them to give to others the resources that they’ve always been able to take for granted. For Hales, Refuweegee gives her an undeniable purpose.

“I’ve never felt more comfortable in what I’m doing, I’ve never felt happier in getting to do the work that we do,” Hales said.


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