Banding together in Scotland to welcome Syrian refugees
When she saw refugees making desperate journeys in the news, Sharon Gray felt powerless. But teaming up with local people, she's made a huge impact on the lives of refugees in Edinburgh.
Name: Sharon Gray
Occupation: Volunteer with Meal on Me and the Edinburgh Central Mosque’s food bank
In 2014, Sharon Gray helped start Meal on Me, a charity that provides coffee and meals at participating cafes around Edinburgh city centre for the homeless and poor. At the time, Gray, a mother of four, was herself in temporary accommodation.
Meals on Me grew out of cooperation between the Central Edinburgh Mosque, the Bethany Trust and the Rock Trust. Gray, who studied anthropology at the University of Edinburgh, converted to Islam during her studies and started volunteering for the food bank at Edinburgh Central Mosque. When Syrian refugees first started coming to Edinburgh in 2015, they looked to Sharon for help.
"Last year, I was contacted by someone from the local Syrian community asking me whether I was aware of newly arrived Syrian refugees in the city. I had of course seen the news and the response and I felt kind of disempowered. ‘I cannae do anything, I’ve got two young kids, I have nae got the money, I have nae got the physical ability’. All of that.
What does it mean to stand and chat at the school gate? That’s a big culture here. It’s about taking children to the park together, or inviting people over for dinner. That’s integration.
But then he came to my doorstep and asked me directly: ‘What can you do’? Straight away I thought we can give meal vouchers, we can give bus passes. So we did. We found a small group of ladies who said they would get involved, so they held collections for food and toiletries.
We had a small storage space at the mosque, and when the refugees did arrive, we arranged with the council for them to visit. And we had collected shoes, clothing -- the minute somebody knows you are collecting, you end up with more than you can manage. And it gave us this connection with the council.
For myself, the motivation was two-fold. Yes, there were these people coming here in need of help. But I also wanted to reach out to our fellow Scots to reassure them that, look these are just normal people, these are people who have just lost theirs homes and houses and they need a helping hand. People don’t understand even the terminology: refugees, migrants. All these words are bandied about and people – I generalise, of course – have this concept that they come here and they get everything: benefits, housing, help, support.
We approached a local library to ask for a room. Then we found somebody who did play therapy. Her sister-in-law could teach English. So we asked them to volunteer and brought them together.
So it’s the small things that help. I think it’s hugely important that people are integrated. It’s about humanising on both sides. What does it mean to stand and chat at the school gate? That’s a big culture here. It’s about taking children to the park together, or inviting people over for dinner. That’s integration. It‘s on that micro-level that it works.
We approached a local library to ask for a room to use for refugees. They gave us a room, and through a mutual contact we found somebody who did play therapy. Her sister-in-law, it turned out, could teach English. So we asked them to volunteer and brought them together. We’ve now had six sessions of English and we’ve had women coming from as far away as Leith, an hour or more on the bus.
I was homeless myself. I have been skint and I know what it’s like having to choose between paying your electricity meter or buying your food. Meals on Me came from knowing what it’s like to be so skint that when someone asks you to go for a coffee you don’t have the confidence to accept.
And that applies to refugees. Here in Scotland there is a saying: 'We’re all Jock Tamson’s bairns, we’re all the children of Adam.' We’re all from the same stock. When I hear stories from refugees and I hear how they lost their mums, their dads, their cousins, and so on, I think it must be a rollercoaster. I’ve lost family members. I get it, a wee bit. Of course, I’ve not lost my house and I’ve not had to leave my country.
People in Scotland are very welcoming and tolerant.
People in Scotland are very welcoming and tolerant. But people also have very short memories. At least the media has a short memory. There’s a dumbing down of people’s understanding. During the Second World War, refugees went to Morocco, to Canada, even to Syria. But we have this fear, all you see on the news is masses of boats, swarms of refugees and people are so fearful.
But we have space here, not just physically, but in our hearts. We just need to open it up."
Sharon's story is part of a series about people across the UK showing refugees a #GreatBritishWelcome.