From a war-torn Kurdish homeland to knocking on the doors of Scottish political power, Roza Salih has lived a life of standing up for one good ‘fight’ after another
FROM her 22nd floor bedroom window, 12-year-old Roza Salih had one of the best views in Glasgow. Peering out of a high-rise flat in Knightswood, the city’s glistening grey panorama may as well have been the back end of the moon for all the familiarity her outlook provided.
Today, Roza takes her glances out the seventh floor of the city centre Strathclyde Union building, where her days and nights are filled with representing and campaigning for student equal rights as the university’s Vice President for Diversity and Advocacy. Roza’s road in between is one much less travelled by few.
In 2001, Roza and her family had just arrived in Scotland following a difficult asylum dispersal process in London. They’d escaped their home of Kirkuk, the Iraqi Kurdish city less than 150 miles north of Baghdad, during the reign of Saddam Hussain. As a respected teacher, Roza’s father’s only ‘misdeed’ was in speaking out as a political activist against Saddam’s regime of oppression and ethnic cleansing in Kurdistan. Her grandfather and two uncles were executed under the dictatorship, while her father remains a wanted man in his homeland to this day.
Recalling the uneasy transition between her two cities, Roza says, “I saw things that no child should ever have to see in Kurdistan, or anywhere. The memories will stay with me forever. But when I arrived in Glasgow there were a new set of barriers.” Separated from her father while he was held by Immigration in Birmingham, Roza, her mother and two-year-old sister, Raz, struggled to adapt to a new life and find comfort in their unfamiliar Dear Green Place.
“I didn’t speak a word of English,” Roza says. “I would take the 22 flights of stairs just to avoid people in the lift. Opening the fridge, sometimes there was only bread and eggs to feed the three of us.” Roza recalls the kindliness of a female Social Services worker, which helped balance out the stares and racist calls to “go home,” heard around her tough new surroundings. “It was very isolating. In the flat we had no television or books. We had no idea about the geography of the area, so when we had to go to a particular shop with our food vouchers, we’d take this really long way round for what was actually just a five minute walk in the opposite direction.”
While it’s difficult for Roza to recall her start in Glasgow without emotion, she is most definitely not the wallowing type. It’s the steely determination born from frustrated formative years that helps her appreciate the direction her life has taken in spite of those early days rather than because of the them. With her dad having now joined the family, Roza was of secondary school age, though she didn’t enrol fully into education until Third Year. Attending the bi-lingual classes taught by Drumchapel High School’s English teacher Euan Girvan gave her the confidence to step into the mainstream.
“Mr Girvan was a fantastic teacher,” she says. “He would stay back after 5pm just to help us with our English. Many of us in the same situation learned so much quicker due to his dedication and kindness.” At the time, Drumchapel High had one in eight pupils from asylum seeking families. Roza would form a tight bond of friendship with a group of seven girls for reasons they would’ve been unable to predict at the time.
“I didn’t have any trouble at school,” Roza says. “I was a fighter,” she adds lifting up her fists and pulling them straight down again, “but not in the physical sense. I stood up for all the asylum seekers whenever I saw an injustice against them.” Despite the comfort found in making friends of the same age who shared her refugee status and similar background of native persecution, the fear of deportation hung heavy over Roza and her peers. Their worst nightmare was realised when close friend Agnesa and her family were removed from their home in a terrifying dawn raid at the hands of 14 unannounced Immigration Officers.
Coincidentally, Roza and her friend Amal were the subject of the short film series, Tales from the Edge, devised by Glasgow documentary producer Lindsay Hill, exploring the subject of young people in the city living ‘different’ kinds of lives. Agnesa’s plight and the subsequent campaign to free her from deportation back to Kosovo, where her fellow Roma population remained persecuted, became the core storyline of the short film as Roza and Amal videoed the journey that took them from collecting signatures at Drumchapel High School to the door of then First Minister, Jack McConnell.
Within weeks the injustice against Agnesa’s family was picked up by the Scottish mainstream media. With headlines such as Glasgow girls who shamed our first minister into asylum U-turn, the story caught the imagination of ordinary people as the fighting spirit of a mixed group of local and refugee schoolgirls made waves among the centralised domain of white, male middle class policymakers.
Caught on camera was the elation when news filtered through that Agnesa and her family were being released by Immigration. Later it was revealed the Home Office had contravened a UN law in attempting to deport her family against the precarious political and cultural circumstances of the case. As a result, so hatched their collective moniker, The Glasgow Girls – the seven school friends who’d fought the system and won. In the decade since, their inspirational story won an Amnesty International award, and was the stimulant for two BBC documentaries (including the original short documentary), a National Theatre of Scotland musical and a BBC drama adaption.
Of the Glasgow Girls legacy, Roza says, “It’s been a growing movement, not just us original seven girls. It has always been about social justice and migrant and asylum seekers rights. Even though Agnesa came back we had friends who didn’t.” While each of the seven girls have followed different lives in the decade that’s passed, Roza remains the most active, fuelled not least by her role as VP for Diversity and Advocacy. Upon turning 16, according to controversial legislature, asylum seekers cannot stay in full time education, leaving Roza with the challenge of working twice as hard to achieve her way towards a law and politics degree which launched the path to her current role.
At 19, Roza’s family asylum application was officially approved after eight previous rejections. Though witnessing the stress that it put her father through was deeply painful. “I could see it affecting his mental health,” she says. “My dad would always be waiting for letters from Immigration to drop through the door. He is a trained teacher and my mother a qualified accountant, but none of their qualifications are recognised here. I’m proud of him as he has returned to studying now.”
In her role as VPDA, last year Roza worked with the Scottish Refugee Council and Education Strategy Commission to spearhead a case for funding directly from Strathclyde University for three scholarship for asylum seekers, the first of its kind in Scotland. Proud and modest of her contribution in guaranteeing the scholarships, Roza says, “When I started this job, I didn’t think real change was possible. But I’ve learned through hard work that I can make a change. The scholarships were a great win for equality and education.”
The same steely grit and no non-nonsense attitude were on display at the Stand Up to Racism and Fascism Rally in March, as Roza grabbed the tannoy and led the marchers through the streets of Glasgow. With End Detention Now and Scotland Says Nae Nazis placards held aloft behind her, her battlecry, SAY IT LOUD AND SAY IT HERE, REFUGEES ARE WELCOME HERE! could be heard from George Square to the River Clyde.
With that bolshy, underdog mentality, Roza also campaigns against the inhumanity of refugee detention centres, the plight of destitute asylum seekers and the harsh cultural realities of female genital mutilation. Despite a love of Glasgow, she keeps her heart close to speaking out about the violent political struggles that continue to blight her Kurdish homeland. While the
family connections to Kirkuk have been severed through time and circumstance, Roza avidly follows media reports released from the turmoiled area. With a heavy heart she admits, “I couldn’t go back there to live. Glasgow is my home now. I have been here for over half my life. I feel like a Glasgow girl in many ways.”
Whatever Roza chooses next in life after her vice presidency term concludes this summer, she’ll bring to her role a deeper life experience and determined gumption associated with most who’ve lived just a quarter of a century. Before that next step in a remarkable life and burgeoning career takes off, Roza shares one ambition yet to be fulfilled. “Do you know, I’m 25 and I still can’t learn to drive. I should really take time out for myself,” she smiles.