A knife at Sighthill, a new life at Castlemilk

One Glasgow estate is a haven for refugees, the other literally lethal. Why?
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The Independent Online

Soudaba, seven, is playing with her doll, and translating questions into her native Afghan tongue for her mother, in that reversal of the parent-child role that is almost inevitable among immigrant families. At the Baptist church on the Glasgow estate of Castlemilk, refugee children as young as four translate for their parents.

Raven-haired Soudaba – who has already traded traditional Afghan dress for jeans with sequinned bottoms – is her mother's bridge with a new life. Her mother, still clad in the old way, is her link with the past. "I remember Afghanistan but I was very small," says Soudaba, her dark eyes sparkling as she speaks of the country her family fled just over a year ago, and her broken English laced with the lilt she picks up from "Scottish children" during play breaks from her special bilingual lessons.

"My mother tells me about Afghanistan," says Soudaba. "There was a problem... always hitting." As she says the last word, she brings the palm of her hand down on her face, setting her gold earrings spinning.

Soudaba deploys her hands again when I ask about Sighthill, the estate a few miles from Castlemilk where racial violence against refugees culminated last week in the murder of a Turkish Kurd and the stabbing of a young Iranian. "The people there are hitting and stabbing," says Soudaba, thrusting her fist into her stomach. Soudaba surprises Liz McKenzie and Gordon Maxwell, of the multi-denominational church alliance that has been helping asylum seekers settle into Castlemilk. The adults did not realise the child had taken so much in.

Glasgow's image has been battered by the violence in deprived, high-rise Sighthill. But in fact refugees have been settled in other parts of Glasgow – including Castlemilk – relatively successfully. Why the difference?

In the past decade, Castlemilk – itself once notorious for violence, poverty and hopelessness – has been transformed by huge regeneration grants. On the estate, with 100 economic and community steering committees, the refugees' arrival was simply something else for which to plan. Schools distributed books to their pupils about the difficult lives of child refugees, and Castlemilk's 12-church alliance was soon working flat out to clothe the refugees and provide a drop-in centre.

Planning was lacking at resourceless, neglected Sighthill, which degenerated from modern council des-res into heroin-ridden sink estate in the 1990s. The local St Rollox's church battled on, pretty much alone, trying to provide.

The weakest area also received most asylum seekers. Castlemilk, with a population of 16,000, and all its attendant structures, received just 400 refugees. Sighthill, with just 5,000 residents and almost no structures, received 1,200. Glasgow Council did no preparation of the Sighthill community. It was left to the mercy of the "bogus" asylum seekers debate in the run-up to June's general election. "The council saw a chance to make a few bob from flats it couldn't rent," says one local urban regeneration expert, who prefers not to be named.

At Castlemilk's Baptist church there are real friendships between refugees and volunteers, and kindness. But even with thought and resources, integration is an arduous, long-term business. And the asylum seekers – many of them middle-class and highly educated, but banned from working – themselves say that though Castlemilk is, thank God, not Sighthill, it is still no picnic. The refugees have been mostly housed in Mitchell's Hill flats, which are the hardest-to-let properties on the estate. "The church is nice, the school is nice, but the neighbours are not friendly," says a young Iranian woman, smuggled into Britain in a lorry. "They do not talk and let the [entrance] door go when they see you coming. We must be in before dark or else people shout and swear at us."

She and her Iranian friend want to leave Glasgow if their applications are successful, and move back nearer to London.

"The Scots don't even like the English," says the friend, "and I am an Iranian." She shrugs her shoulders as if to say, "What chance have we here?"