Extra-ordinary Lives: how Radiant and Brighter work with M&S to help refugees (and explain Scottish buses)

Scotland takes pride in welcoming refugees. Plenty of our local charities offer food, clothing and advice but perhaps only an African who has made a similar journey knows precisely what they need. Cups of tea and language lessons are great but, to feel truly at home here, they’ve got to know how the buses run.

Micheal and Pheona Matovu are from Uganda and came to Scotland in 2007. They know what it’s like to be a stranger in a strange land, and understand how seemingly tiny things affect the larger ones. Food, shelter and jobs are crucial, but so is fitting into your new community and, for that, look to the small matters like being able to catch a bus.

Pheona explains that public transport runs differently in Africa so when a refugee arrives here and needs to catch a bus to get his cup of tea or English lesson, he won’t realise that the bus runs in one direction while, across the road, another whizzes past on the return journey. In many African communities, bus journeys aren’t mirrored like this, so while a refugee might know which number to get, and which road to catch it on, he won’t consider that, when he boards, it might carry him off in the wrong direction.

An ordinary Scottish road might have buses of every number, one going east, one going west, some every 10 minutes, some on a Sunday service, and – yes – some arriving all at once. It can be baffling to a person newly arrived from Africa and, in our rush to help refugees with food and housing, who stops to consider something as mundane as the buses?

The Matovus formed Radiant  and Brighter to provide such practical support, but also comfort and hope, to refugees and other disadvantaged groups in Glasgow. They take a holistic approach, offering a combination of English lessons, pastoral care, work placements and business advice, but this is no faceless organisation. Micheal insists they “are like a family”: one refugee might offer to interpret for a new arrival, and there are often tears and laughter in the training sessions as they share their stories.

But comfort and hope doesn’t get you a job, so Radiant and Brighter formed a partnership with Marks and Spencer, with the company offering eight-week work placements to refugees after which they’re guaranteed an interview and a reference – and that piece of paper, stamped with the trusted M&S logo, is invaluable when looking for a job.

Pheona explains that male refugees tend to have fixed notions of the work they can do in Britain, having heard that their best prospect lies in the construction or security industries, so when she offers them the chance to abandon manual labour and work amidst the soft lighting and perfumed air of Marks and Spencer “they are amazed! They ask can this be true?

The idea that only manual labour awaits an African refugee is hard to dislodge and many arrive in Scotland resigned to it. Radiant and Brighter has welcomed people with a spectacular range of skills, from mathematicians to graphic designers, most of whom are fixed in low career expectations so a placement at M&S is glad proof that Scotland will recognise their skills.

One refugee was a banker in her native country and M&S were able to offer a placement in their accounts department, proving this is not a box-ticking exercise but a genuine effort to let the participants know their skills are recognised. They become individuals, not tabloid headlines or shaky footage from the Mediterranean.

But the various designers, mathematicians and lawyers who embark on the M&S scheme are already highly trained, so what can a stint in the stockroom do for them? It’s not just about skills, insists Micheal, but confidence. An M&S manager will act as their mentor and this often seems incredible to a refugee because, he explains, “In our culture you don’t get to see the manager.”

Back home, a boss would never deign to mingle with the workers so when a manager takes the time to get to know his staff, and speaks with them as an equal, it’s a massive confidence boost. Pheona smiles, remembering how one refugee returned to the office, having received personal advice from his M&S manager, and was in near disbelief, saying, “I’m important!” She adds, “That goes much further than any training.”

MubarakMubarak (above)  is one of the highly-skilled refugees offered a placement at Marks and Spencer. Only 28, he was a lawyer and journalist in Sudan but was forced to flee when the situation in Darfur became intolerable.

Asked what conditions were like in the country, he looks up at the ceiling and struggles silently for the words. “It was like hell,” he says eventually – and says it with such fierce assurance that you feel foolish for asking. But in talking about his work placement the mood lightens and a brilliant smile breaks out.

He does everything, he says, from operating the tills, to working in the stockroom, to being on the shop floor helping old ladies find a particular shade of blue lambswool jumper. The work experience, and the references it will give him, are small steps towards establishing a home, bringing his wife here, and earning the qualifications he’ll need to practise law in Scotland. It’s easy to believe he’ll do it all.

MohammedHis colleague, Mohammad (above), is quieter. He was studying Aviation and Economics in Sudan when he was forced to leave and he arrived in Scotland after a horrific journey via the Calais camps. He spoke no English until he found Radiant and Brighter and is thankful to be on the M&S scheme but has few ambitious plans, like Mubarak. Instead, he follows the painful news from Sudan and prays daily for peace so he can go home. He is softly-spoken and polite, quick to say how welcoming Scotland has been, and that he has made so many friends but – and here he falters – “It is not like your old friends.”

Meeting these two young men showed how different reality is from some commonly accepted attitudes. Young refugee men tend to travel alone, not because they’re abandoning families, but because they’re going ahead to establish a home for them.

They’re not here to steal our jobs because they literally cannot get one until they’ve acquired Permanent Residency. Neither are they here to claim benefits because, as Pheona explains, they’re guided by an African “community mentality” which means they must earn enough to care for others.

A life on benefits, were it possible or desirable, simply wouldn’t be enough. They have a duty to family which war and barbed wire cannot sever.

All are invited to the “Welcoming Refugees” event, to be held on Thursday 23rd June at Cathcart Baptist Church, 96 Merrylee Road, from 5pm – 9pm. Find out more at http://radiantandbrighter.com/


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