I came to this country in 2002 when I was 12 years old. I couldn’t speak a word of English and tried my best to learn as much as I could in high school. After I arrived here, I thought I was safe, however instead of the horrors that I faced in my own country; the UKBA became the face of my nightmares.
It was a normal day when I heard that one of my best friends had been detained. I was in an English class at the time. My teacher told me that Agnesa had been detained by the UKBA and she and her family where in a detention centre waiting to be deported. There was one question going through my head: Why?
She was an Asylum seeker, who did not have her papers to stay.
I want you to put yourself in my position. Think about how you would feel, if your best friend had been snatched away. No goodbyes, no more school, nothing. How would that make you feel?
I was angry, but I was also afraid. Like Agnesa, my family and I did not have our papers either. Were they coming for me too? When was it going to be my turn for the knock at the door in the early morning?
It was the fear and the anger that helped me and my remaining friends find the strength to fight back. The injustice of the situation that we were in drew others to our cause. They were other people from our area – asylum seekers, Scottish people, even former refugees came together and we formed a community. A community that campaigned for social justice. The Media called us ‘The Glasgow Girls’.
We ran a successful campaign and challenged the status quo. We won some and lost some. Against all odds, us girls from secondary school in Drumchapel High managed to stop the UKBA from detaining children, who should be at school, in prison-like detention centres. We shone a light on the sinister things that were happening to those who had already fled from terror and intimidation and raised awareness of the horrors of dawn raids.
Yet some experiences never leave you. The fear that you live in, waiting for the knock at the door. Waiting to be told that you can’t stay and that you have to go back to a country where your family is in mortal danger affects me even today. It leaves its mark. Even though I have my papers now, I guess a part of me is still waiting to be told I have to leave.
The Westminster Government and the British Media don’t help to allay these fears. They seem to encourage society to hate and fear those that are seeking asylum. People have become desensitised to what this means. They forget it means seeking sanctuary from people who are trying to kill you and your family.
Not long ago, there was a student called Yashika Bageerathi. She is 19 years old and until very recently was studying for her A-levels. She was deported last year – separated from her mother. Sent back to a country which she fled, fearing for her life.
People say that she shouldn’t have been allowed to start studying; she shouldn’t have come over here at all. Some people say that ‘it’s a good thing that she’s been sent back; one less asylum seeker to claim benefits and drain the NHS’. How would they feel if it was their daughter? Or their sister? Or their friend?
Take me for example.
I was born in Iraq. I am a Kurdish Iraqi but don’t consider Iraq to be my home. I wasn’t safe there. Members of my family were executed, by firing squad. They were taken away, blindfolded and shot. Does that happen in your home?
You might be wondering what their crime was. They spoke out against the regime. They put themselves at risk to try to make the country a little better. Do you think they should have been shot for that? Do you think I should have waited there until they came for me too?
Can you imagine the police coming to your home, rounding up your family members and executing them without a trial? Can you understand what it feels like to have actually lived in that situation? That’s not a home.
Glasgow is my home. Here I feel safe and I can make a difference. Like my family before me, I can speak out to make our country a little better for those who live here; but unlike my family before me, I don’t have to do so in fear.
But there is still a lot to do.
Since the Glasgow Girls, I have campaigned for equal access to education for those seeking asylum. After I came to this country, I had to wait for 8 years before I was allowed to stay. During that time I attended school and achieved high standards. But when I finished school, there was no place I could go. I wasn’t eligible for a student loan like my school friends. I wasn’t allowed to work and I didn’t have the independent financial means required to fund a University degree.
Education is very important. It’s a vehicle for progress for the individual and for society. Nelson Mandela was right to say that “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world” .
In Scotland, some asylum seekers are eligible to have their tuition fees paid for by the state – like Scottish Students. But they remain ineligible for vital Student Award Agency for Scotland loans and grants. They are barred from employment and as a result, higher education is inaccessible to those without independent financial means.
This is why I get out of bed every morning to campaign for the rights of migrants. I want to make the UK a better, more accessible and welcoming place for asylum seekers as well as international students to come and study, so that we do not lose the students who bring so much to our country. I am not campaigning for migrants to be granted more rights than our native friends, but simply to be treated equally and as human beings. Is that so much to ask?
I graduated with an honours degree in law and politics in 2013. I am currently the Vice-President Diversity and Advocacy at the University of Strathclyde Students’ Association. I am one of the original Glasgow Girls - the group which campaigned across the UK to stop deportations of vulnerable asylum seekers. I recently got elected to NUS UK International students committee and Trustee Board.