Senior social worker Malar and her police officer son, Shawn, arrived in Edinburgh from Southeast Asia in 2017 and claimed asylum on arrival at the airport. From there, they were sent to Dungavel House Removal Centre, where they stayed for eight days and immediately started to volunteer in the kitchen. They were then moved to Glasgow and have called Springburn their home for the last six years.
For East and Southeast Asian Heritage Month, they shared their remarkable journey to creating the Springburn Unity Network, a community group that connects people and builds bridges, and the heartwarming sense of community they’ve found.
How are you finding Glasgow?
Malar: Glasgow is a very welcoming place for people like us. We are surrounded by so many lovely people. The community have cared for us in every way from the beginning until today. If I’m not well, my neighbour will immediately take me to GP or take me to the shopping centre, whatever we need.
How did you begin volunteering in the community?
Malar: We took the initiative to go out and seek volunteering opportunities and immediately started volunteering in Glasgow. We are from a multicultural country so there is no problem for us to integrate with other people.
Shawn: Back home we both had community development experience where we work with the community. We wanted to share our skills and knowledge and find ways to help people. We both started volunteering as tutors at the Rosemount Lifelong Learning centre where we taught basic IT skills to refugees, as well as locals who wanted to learn digital skills.
Malar: From there we got to know more organisations because we did our networking, and we expanded our capacity to volunteer in other places as well. I also volunteered at the Central and West Integration Network and was appointed as a board member. Now I’m on the board of trustees at Interfaith Glasgow.
What inspired you to form the Springburn Unity Network?
Shawn: After a lot of volunteering and after receiving our Higher National Education qualification at Glasgow Kelvin College, we decided to start our own organisation, and to contribute to the local area, because we’ve noticed that there’s a lack of unity in the community. And there are a lot of barriers for new Scots to come to integrate or socialise with locals. We asked ourselves “how could we change the narrative, how could we break that barrier?”
So, we set up the Springburn Unity Network (SUN).We organise all kinds of events and fun activities, where we include local people from all backgrounds and new Scots, including asylum seekers and refugees. The aim is to bring the community together. We started arts and crafts activities, tree planting, litter picking and a cycling group, which now has 15 people who cycle together every week.
Malar: Most of our activities are based on tackling mental health, social isolation and building connections. The feedback we get is always positive. People tell us they want more opportunities like this and some of them even contribute their own money to help us fund the activities. Right now, we are struggling to get a permanent space to run our activities. We want to start cooking classes so hopefully we find a space soon.
What sense of community have you found in Springburn?
Malar: When we first arrived in Springburn, the community welcomed us with open arms, especially the neighbours on our street where we now live. They are incredibly helpful, kind, and caring. Every member of the community checks in on us regularly, making sure we are okay.
Shawn: I recently got my status, but mum is still waiting for a decision. The housing providers are now attempting to separate us after living together as a family for six years. The community, our neighbours, are strongly against this separation.
Malar: Not only do they show support through their words, but they also take action. When we heard that there was a possibility of being moved to another place, the entire community created a petition. When the officials came to our house, our neighbours, wearing their pyjamas came and they said, “If you’re going to move Malar and Shawn from this place, we are going to barricade the whole area and make a big protest here.”
Looking ahead, what are your hopes and goals for the future?
Shawn: If I get my leave to remain without restrictions, I will apply to work for the police force because that is what my background is in. And I would continue to contribute to the community.
Malar: I will concentrate on the SUN. and hope to expand in the next year. Maybe we will change our name from Springburn Unity Network to Scotland Unity Network because we want to emphasise unity, not just in our area, but in all of Scotland. If I get my status, I also want to start a business that offers opportunities for all the other asylum seekers who have got their right to work because I’ve noticed that a lot of them don’t know where to start or what jobs they can work.
What would your message be to others embarking on their journey to the UK?
Malar: My advice to people who are newly arrived here is: don’t be frightened of whatever barriers you face. Don’t isolate yourself, break the barrier, go out and find opportunities.
Shawn: Improvise, adapt and overcome. You need to improvise, you need to adapt to your surroundings, and you need to overcome your obstacles and challenges in life.