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Selina Hales
of Refuweegee

"It doesn’t feel like work, it feels like an incredible privilege to be part of something that brings out the best in the community."

Blindly following signs through a vast converted community building in the east end of Glasgow, I stumbled through the cafe area, passed art installations, and encountered friendly characters all eager to help me find the correct door to knock on. Inside the Refuweegee donation centre (they now have a new space more centrally located) I found a hive of activity.

Offering welcome packs to incoming refugees, the place was filled to the brim with volunteers and donated items. Boxes piled full of practical clothing, food items and toiletries share space with more emotive gifts, often with a Scottish twist: bottles of Irn Bru; shortbread; tartan umbrellas; and, of course, the most personal of touches – hand-written cards and letters from local ‘Weegies’.

Selina greets me warmly even though she is incredibly busy doing final prep for the next arrival of people in need of a friendly welcome to the country which will be the following day. Having started the enterprise on her own in 2015, it is now bustling with volunteers helping to lighten the load and I sense that she thrives on the energy, as do I for the whole time I’m privy to it. As with all of these interviews, I walk away feeling inspired to do more.

Selina Hales of Refuweegee

Could you briefly tell us about your background and what lead to the formation of Refuweegee?

Until May 2016 I worked full time as Project Manager at the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce. I have always been surrounded by socially aware and active people, protesting has been part of my life right from being very small, so it has become quite a passion.

Around September/October 2015 I caught the tail end of a news clip that was about the closure of the Hungarian border. I was totally horrified that these people had a war behind them and a fence in front of them. Police were using tear gas and water canons to move them back towards the war that they were fleeing. I am a mum with two small children, so until then I had always put off volunteering because I thought I didn’t have the time to commit to helping. But at that point I realised I couldn’t watch this any longer without doing something to help.

I started to wonder what happened to refugees when they get to Glasgow. Because of working at the Chamber of Commerce I had a very good network and some good connections in the city, so I started to wonder if there was a way that I could pull all these things together. Was there a better way to utilise the business and social communities alongside the actual Glasgow community by offering people a chance to connect when they arrive here?

I did a bit of research on whether anybody did welcome packs [to incoming refugees] and eventually Refuweegee was born.

So no-one else was offering welcome packs?

There was nothing in Scotland that existed at that time. There was a community project down south that does something similar, but nothing north of the border and nothing established. When I spoke to Glasgow City Council about trying to help the asylum community, they were like ‘yes, we’ve needed something like this for ages. We can do housing, benefits, education and welfare but we don’t have the time or the resources to do the community integration part’.

The first thing I did was launch on social media so that I could get a measure of whether people would donate, volunteer their time and whether the public thought it was a good idea. I think the name Refuweegee has helped massively because the ‘Weegie’ part meant that the Glasgow community instantly got it. ‘Weegie’ is a slang term for a Glaswegian, so Refuweegee by definition became a word that meant it doesn’t matter whether you have just arrived in Glasgow, you have been here for 10 years, or you were born here, you’re a ‘Weegie’. We welcome everybody. That meant that we just tapped into something in the community that people believed in. The welcome packs were designed in ways that were useful, they were a gesture but they also gave everybody an opportunity to do something. You didn’t need to have things to donate, you didn’t need to have money or time, but you could write a letter. That gave people a way to say ‘actually I don’t have much to give you, but I can give you my words’. It’s a lovely way for people to connect and a lovely thing for people to receive, but it’s also led to the realisation that it is actually a great way to get people to engage with this topic in a very different way. We rarely take sufficient time to sit down and properly think about something, but in the process of writing a letter you’re going to be thinking about who is going to be reading it, where have they been, what have they seen, where are they coming from and what might they need to know.

Schools have really embraced it because it’s a great way to get young people to think about what being a refugee actually means, where people have come from and why they are here.

"I remember at the very beginning wondering where we were going to be in five years and thinking, wouldn’t it be lovely if we weren’t needed..."

Do you see people opening and reading the letters?

Refuweegee launched at the beginning of December 2015, the first packs that went out were distributed through providers so we’d deliver them to Migrant Help and to the council who would then distribute them on our behalf. Part of that was because we didn’t want to be viewed as doing that sort of tokenistic ‘look who we support’ kind of thing, we took a more background position.

Now we have built trust and have been engaging with those organisations for a long time. Tomorrow, for example, we will be going to the airport with the council and giving the kids welcome packs at the airport. We have some of our volunteers from the refugee community translating letters and talking to people, so it’s developed over time and that’s exactly how I wanted it to happen.

You need everyone to be given the breathing space to adjust to the situation that they’re in. There are enough people that refugees need to engage with and answer questions from, to talk and explain situations to without us becoming another harassment. Whether that’s a friendly hug being offered or whatever, it’s still someone else for them to wonder how they are supposed to behave in front of. So we take a real step back, but we do put in each of the welcome packs a stamped addressed envelope and ask the partner organisations to encourage people to get in touch with us and to write back to us. Again the whole point of that is so that the ball is in their court, it’s their decision whether they want to get involved or attend events in our community.

What have been the main hurdles thus far and what do you see as the main challenges going forward?

Space. I remember in January/February time in 2016 looking around and thinking ‘wow we’ve snowballed’ and then six months later we thought ‘wow, now that really was a snowball’.

Time as well. There is always 101 things we would like to, or are trying to do. It’s often very difficult not to get caught up in all these things and get pulled in too many directions.

We are lucky that the community is very used to having a diverse population and we have been welcoming refugees for about 15 – 20 years in Glasgow, so the council and local authority have been very receptive to what we are doing. I’m involved in a wider Scottish group called ‘Refugees Welcome’ and it’s really interesting looking at the different community groups and how they work with their local authorities. It can be very different across Scotland, mostly based on fear. If a local authority hasn’t worked in this area before they are very cautious about who they open up to and engage with, quite rightly, because on their head be it! So it’s interesting hearing those other perspectives.

I think Glasgow is recognised as a bit of a model in terms of how our local authority engages because we have welcomed the highest number of people through the VPR [Vulnerable Persons Resettlement] programme UK wide.

It doesn’t surprise me in the slightest because at Glasgow’s City Council they are a phenomenal bunch of people. They are not just doing a job, they really care and really go above and beyond. They use a model where there has to be flexibility and fluidity because every single person, let alone family, is in an entirely different situation meaning you’ve got to be completely flexible with how you work with and react to them. We are lucky that they see us as plugging a gap that they couldn’t previously fill and they are also very open to our suggestions.

I recently met with another council and they were saying the frustrations of the community groups is that nobody is willing to set one up, everybody wants to be directed and the council don’t have time to do that. That side of it never even crossed my mind when we were setting up. The letters and welcome packs were all about making people feel welcome but actually it’s given the existing community a way to respond to the crisis, and that is so incredibly important, and that is what other areas don’t have and end up going round and round in circles with.

Probably one of the biggest hurdles I have had to deal with is recognising what we have achieved, rather than looking at all of the things we’d like to achieve because you will never ever get to that point. Every now and again I’ll do a facebook post breaking down what we have done during the week and it makes you realise just how much there is.

"...it doesn’t matter whether you have just arrived in Glasgow, you have been here for 10 years, or you were born here, you’re a ‘Weegie’."

What have been the highlights?

Probably the fact that every single day there is a message or an email, or something happens where I think I can’t believe this is work. It doesn’t feel like work, it feels like an incredible privilege to be part of something that brings out the best in the community. I trusted that Glasgow would respond, and it really has, and it continues to. There is just not a doubt in my mind of people being incredibly welcoming and engaged in this area.

It’s lovely to be part of and on days where it’s overwhelming and work is so busy that you think you’re never going to get through, it just takes reading a couple of letters to remind you why you’re here.

There was a time when we met some unaccompanied teenage girls who came over from Calais. We took donations and toiletries and bits and pieces and it was amazing, we just did a pop up so that they could come and pick stuff. But one of the girls at the end of it was just like ‘I’d just really like some new clothes, I’d really like to feel like a normal teenager’ and I thought, I am so glad that you are comfortable enough to say that because of course you do, I am so sorry I bought you second hand shit! We bought you new toiletries though!

What does success look like to you?

Not existing.
It sounds really weird but I remember at the very beginning wondering where we were going to be in five years and thinking, wouldn’t it be lovely if we weren’t needed, if there was absolutely no need for us because the whole refugee crap had stopped. It won’t, it’s a complete and utter dream, and it’s a very strange dream because I think I would be a much sadder person if I wasn’t doing what I do, but there must be nearly 67 million people that are now currently displaced from their homes and I would really, really like that number to be going in the other direction. We are getting further away rather than getting closer it feels at the moment.

What characteristic do you most admire in a person?

That’s a hard question, compassion maybe, but then also assertiveness. I love it when people are bold enough to say that this is not what I want or what I need.

Resilience is the resounding characteristic that you come across with the refugee community certainly, but there is also a real honesty and a real ability to just say exactly what you mean rather than beating around the bush with that British politeness. I suppose that sits well with me because I’m more on the side of ‘angry Scot’ than ‘polite Brit’.

So when you are having a bad day what cheers you up?

Oh letters, you can just dip in and it means you can maintain a focus on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. All the other stuff we are being asked to do can get really overwhelming but the letters just bring you back. Also, this is one of the first times we have ever actually had volunteers and it’s lovely watching the people who come and join in enjoying it and seeing what they gain from being part of it.

What are the biggest sacrifices you have made to pursue this?

Security I suppose. There is nothing quite like handing in your notice at a well paid, solid job and risking your mortgage. Also, a lot of time. I remember pitching it to my husband and telling him ‘this will be really good for us, I will be better able to balance work life and family life’. I didn’t have a particularly flexible employer and I have a 2 and a 4 year old, so I want to see them grow up and I want to enjoy that time with them as well. Then this first model started happening and I was like ‘oh my god, I’m working harder than I have ever worked in my life’, but actually it’s been completely different because it’s now not work and life as separates, it’s all one. My children are part of this, they come in here and they are the chief toy testers of the donations, so I do have more time with them. They are not shy when it comes to correcting people when they talk about refugees as well which is brilliant. Angus corrected me when he was still 3, I was talking about how I had to go and speak to some people about the refugees and two minutes later Angus was like, ‘Mummy it’s not refugees, it’s just people’. He’s picking up on all of that stuff as well.

What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?

It would actually probably be through a TED talk by a lady called Amanda Palmer about taking risks and about trusting. It’s one of the things that really shaped the leap into quitting my job and throwing myself at this full time. She says something about how we should stop thinking about our lives in terms of taking risks on certain decisions and start thinking about trusting. From that point on, I always took the certain decision that I am not taking a risk, I believe and trust in Glasgow to make this work. Every single time I have been worried about something, whether that’s if I’ll be able to pay the mortgage at the end of the month, or whether we can pay staff at the end of the month, or whether we will get the packs completed with enough donations and things like that, I have always used that piece of advice. I try and trust that people will make this ok, touch wood it has never failed me yet.

What would you tell your 21 year old self?

Stop working so much and stop being so bloody self-centred! It’s scary to think about how unaware I was of the world when I was young and about how everything seemed like a big deal when I was 21. I don’t have any of these sort of, ‘ahh, I wish I would have enjoyed myself more’ thoughts, because I did. In some respects I was living life to the full and I was happy, but I just wished I had been, a wee bit more aware.

Also, be kind. Try to give out what you want to receive back.
It all comes back to that trust.

What can’t you live without?

My phone unfortunately. I have to be totally honest in that it’s responsible for this happening, I have to be connected all the time to people, telling them what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. Social media has helped to make Refuweegee what it is so we have to keep using that.

I used to be one of those incredibly judgemental people that was like, ‘that persons on the phone all the time’, now I look at people, especially mums, and I think that mum is probably running her business whilst she is pushing her child on a swing and she is also letting her husband know that the kids are alive and are safe and probably breast feeding the baby at the same time! Whereas the previous non-tech mum me would have judged her for concentrating on her mobile phone when she should be focused on her children, I now feel like I would fight that person’s corner to the death because everything is just not what it seems.

"You didn’t need to have things to donate, you didn’t need to have money or time, but you could write a letter. That gave people a way to say ‘actually I don’t have much to give you, but I can give you my words’."

Refuweegee

Refuweegee
The Briggait
141 Bridgegate
Glasgow, G1 5HZ
Support Refuweegee

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