Theo Wilcocks talks to Loa from the Glasgow Refugee and Asylum Seeker Solidarity society about their values and surging turnouts
GRASS is a University society which was formed five years ago. It aims to educate students on issues surrounding refugees, asylum seekers and other migrants in the UK. It also acts as a bouncing board to other organisations in Glasgow such as charities, and provides creative opportunities for students who want to get involved. I spoke to the current board leader, Loa, who - in her own words - “bit my ear off” at the opportunity to speak about the society and current issues.
Glasgow Guardian: Why did you get involved with GRASS?
Loa: Over the last few years, I have found myself becoming increasingly drawn to the ongoing refugee crisis and was always sharing articles and videos on social media. I think that one of the reasons why I became so engaged in these issues is because I myself have always felt like a nomad, being the daughter of two Iranian immigrants but not being able to visit my “home country”, and spending my childhood moving around.
I did some work in Northern France and in Italy with people who were literally “straight off the boats” before I came to uni which just cemented my drive to start talking about the suffering people go through. In both places, I met so many people and heard so many stories and honestly can’t describe the gut-wrenching feeling of being made aware that these journeys weren't just for us to witness and hear about, but for others to live through. When I got to uni and found out about GRASS, I had to be part of it. I told them about my experiences with MRS (Mobile Refugee Support) and it all clicked really. Now I’m on the board for a year!
GG: What is GRASS trying to achieve?
Loa: We always try to break it down into three main points when we’re explaining it to people: the first is accessibility – making the issues understood and simplified. A way to get students to learn about specific issues like asylum and immigration in the UK and how they work. By having a range of event styles we’re also making sure that everyone’s way of engagement is being catered for.
The second is relatability - getting people to understand how these issues could relate to them or affect the people around them. The point is to stop distancing ourselves from issues that we feel don’t affect us, but rather look at ways in which we are able to identify with them.
The third is inclusivity – you realise when you run an event that everybody who turns up is at such a different stage of knowledge. We want to bring the opportunity for everyone to take part creatively and in their own ways. For people to stay, we need to suit their needs and skills, so they get involved and stick around.
Right now, our drive is bringing lesser-known issues into the limelight, such as the mental health of asylum seekers – a really neglected topic at the moment.
GG: How come you don’t charge anything or have a membership system like other societies?
Loa: It comes back to inclusivity really. You don’t need to pay to do good. We’re not a business and we’re never going to turn any of our activities into one. We do run fundraising events like club nights and workshops where people can donate, but all the money raised goes to a different grassroots organisation each time. Our club night at Broadcast recently raised £346 which we donated to Ubuntu Women’s Shelter.
GG: What kind of reception have you had?
Loa: We’ve had the biggest turnout that we’ve seen before this year! Undergrads, master's students and some postgrads have also started to turn up and see what we’re all about. Last year we only had about five or ten people on a good week, and we never expected to do so well. I think it’s probably because of the more engaging events that we’re doing now – our screening of a film on the realities of the Calais “jungle” filled a lecture theatre which was amazing, and people loved that there was a live video stream Q&A with the director afterwards. The crowds that we see are incredibly diverse too, from both inside and outside the uni, which is a sign we’re doing something right.
GG: Have you made any new connections through GRASS?
Loa: In terms of connections: a lot of ethnically diverse individuals from professionals who work at the frontlines, to artists who want to help us run workshops, to DJs and musicians willing to play at our events for free, from across Glasgow. It’s inspiring how many people want to get involved in their own specific way.
GG: Do you have any comments on society right now?
Loa: Right now we’re at a stage where people are only just starting to learn about colonisation and immigration troubles. Some people might think these issues are in the past or temporary but they’re not. There’s no excuse to be ignorant now we can see problems, so we need to engage people and educate them on social issues and let them know that even if you are aware, you are still complicit, benefitting from a system which has racism embedded into a lot of its institutions – if we can at least teach people about that then we’ll get somewhere.
Also, social media can be such a powerful tool for accessing and sharing information, but if it isn’t taken advantage of in the right way, it can become a bit of a mindless hole. People might get shocked once by some harrowing pictures of war or starvation but then just become desensitised and scroll past it, not making the connection that this is actually happening.
For me, I want people to leave uni with better principles. I think Brexit has touched a lot of nerves because of various family connections in Europe, and that’s exposing the fact that we’re only starting to care about immigration and human issues now it’s close to home – and affecting white people. The stuff going on in the asylum system may not affect you directly, but it affects the people around you, from the local shopkeeper, to your neighbour, even the people you study with.
Some people really are inspiring though. Take Amal Azzudin for example. One of the Glasgow girls! I’d encourage people to research her story - her mother came to Glasgow after fleeing the Somali Civil War. She runs mental health programmes for women and campaigns for human rights. It gives us some hope for humanity…
GG: What advice would you give to people wanting to do more?
Loa: Regardless of how much time or money you have, there are so many ways in which you can help. In the first week I went to Calais we started a fundraiser which raised a lot more than I thought it would. I think that’s because people saw the little stories I was posting online and it was really hitting them. They hadn’t talked about it before.
This is really happening and there is always a way to get involved. To have the best impact you can, it isn’t always about doing the biggest thing or travelling the world to volunteer, sometimes it’s about dialogue and paying attention. Every little bit is as useful and valuable. Community organisation starts with changing the narrative that exists around asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants; with supporting grassroots movements and taking action; with support groups and more importantly, integration programmes.
These are all things that GRASS are pushing for in the coming year.
You can like us on Facebook to find out more about the events we’re running. If anyone wants to discuss or expose something, they can talk to us confidentially and anonymously.