Interview: Amal Azzudin, human rights campaigner (Positively Scottish)


It began with a campaign 12 years ago which achieved national prominence and became a notable play and musical.

But for one young woman at the heart of the story, the real-life lessons of then are very relevant to today.

Back in 2005, 15-year-old Amal Azzudin joined six classmates at Drumchapel High School in forming a group to fight the detention of their friend, Agnesa from Kosovo.

And so the Glasgow Girls were born, their remarkable campaign later dramatised by David Greig and directed by  Cora Bissett for the National Theatre of Scotland.

Twelve years on from her school day activism, Amal is still motivated by the injustice she witnessed as a teenager. “We need to be a voice for people who are in fear,” she says assertively.

Since graduating from the University of Glasgow with a Masters in Human Rights and International Politics in 2014, Amal has been a campaigner and human rights activist and is now equality and human rights officer for refugees at The Mental Health Foundation.

Last August, she was recognised by the Saltire Society as a Young Outstanding Woman of Scotland, on a roll call which also includes figures such as JK Rowling and Annie Lennox.

In person, Amal is quiet and composed. She is softly spoken but has a determination in her voice which is most evident when the conversation turns to the subject of asylum seekers and detention centres: “You don’t put people seeking sanctuary and safety into jail, because ultimately that’s what it is.”

The UK is currently the only country in Europe to exercise indefinite detention and, despite the efforts of Amal and other campaigners to achieve an end to child detention in 2010, “we know over 600 children have been detained since”.

She sighs when I ask for her opinion on the Home Office’s recent setback on securing planning permission for a new detention ground at Glasgow Airport.

“I think it’s just a delay, there’s no positive in it at all, I think campaigners’ hearts are in the right place and they are right to demonstrate, but it’s just a setback. In Dungavel, the only detention centre in Scotland (which is to stay open meantime), it’s horrible.

“I remember going there and visiting one of the families, the girl was in our school and it was her Mum’s birthday so we went to the local Tesco and bought her a wee cake and they didn’t let us in because of health and safety reasons. You could see clearly it was a cake in a box from Tesco. There is just no humanity there.”

Humanity is a word Amal uses a lot. It is a concept, she believes, in which our political leaders are lacking and one which is key to the work she does.

She explains why the detention system seems, in her words, “designed to cause mental health problems”, where people are left dispossessed, stuck between the inability to deport and an unwillingness to provide welfare.

“We have left people living in limbo, not knowing what will happen to them tomorrow. Destitution is another problem as well where people don’t have access to any benefits or housing or anything so basically they’re homeless. The Home Office recognises that they can’t be sent back, but they won’t give them status either so they’re just left. You can see why that causes serious mental health issues. I’ve worked with women who will just burst into tears because the system has messed them up.”

It must be frustrating, I suggest, witnessing the failings of a deliberately aggressive system. She agrees: “The myths around just now in the media are unbelievable. Let’s blame (refugees) for everything. They are the cause of austerity, homelessness, anything bad just blame it on them.”

“But,” she adds, “I remember recently in George Square there were about 4000 people saying welcome refugees. When I went to Calais (and the French migrant camp, nicknamed The Jungle) there were lots of volunteers from Scotland.

“Lots of container vans sent from the Highlands which said ‘from the Highlands with love’. It’s the everyday people that I meet that make me feel that, you know, the world is not as bad as it seems right now.”

If Amal’s faith is driven mostly from her confidence in the goodwill of ordinary people, how does she reconcile that with the current global climate of right-wing populism?

“Austerity has left people looking for an alternative. And (in the US, Donald) Trump was the only thing they had. It’s scary, it’s in most of Europe and America that we’re moving to the right. But, you know, I would think back to the Second World War. That was the same in that people thought what can we do? It’s too big. But they managed to get through it. I feel like we are heading that way right now. It’s a really scary time I think.

“The rise of xenophobia, racism and discrimination…and I completely, whole-heartedly champion freedom of speech, but I think that once it comes to inciting hatred and violence against groups like women, it’s actually horrifying. It feels as though we’re going back in time.  For me, it’s like how did we go from Obama to Trump? ”

As for the upcoming French elections and the rise of the Front National: “I don’t even want to think about it. Nothing surprises me any more.”

At a time when mainstream political discourse seems increasingly hostile towards the values and beliefs to which Amal has dedicated herself, it would be forgivable if she felt a little disheartened.

However, what is perhaps most striking about Amal is her resilience. “I’m always optimistic. Even though we’re in a negative bubble, we still have hope. We need hope and we need to be positive otherwise we give up and we can’t give up.

“I love going into schools to speak more than anything else right now, because you are not really preaching to the converted which is important. And sometimes people will challenge me but I love that too.”

As our conversation draws to a close, Amal returns to the subject of the Glasgow Girls. “We have strength in unity,” she explains, “because it wasn’t just about seven school girls, it was about a movement.

“We had people from the local community, we had Glaswegian grannies, our teachers, politicians, journalists, professors, our neighbours, everyone just came together. That’s what we need to continue to do and I’m so proud of Glasgow for having that history of justice.”


The article was originally published in Positively Scottish

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