From Aleppo to Paisley: the battle to make refugees feel welcome in Scotland

Published in the Guardian, 28 November 2015

When a group of Syrian families arrived in Paisley this month, some locals came out and hugged them, but others posted racist abuse online – and stuck to their guns when exposed by the local press. So is there a problem in Paisley or across the country? And if so, what’s the best way to take it on?

Photograph: Murdo Macleod for the Guardian

Photograph: Murdo Macleod for the Guardian

The smirry rain seemed relentless as people milled around the grounds of Paisley’s 12th-century abbey, babies in buggies with the rain hoods up, kids running around in trainers with LED lights flashing, others hoisted on to the shoulders of daddies. Here and there were reindeer antlers, Santa’s helpers outfits, the odd Christmas jumper, and almost everywhere hands were clutching little paper flags supporting the west of Scotland town’s bid to become the UK city of culture in 2021.

As “buddies” – denizens of Paisley – gathered for the two-hour build-up to the switching on of their Christmas lights (postponed from the original date of 14 November, the day after the Paris attacks), few would have noticed that among their number was a group of refugees recently arrived from Syria – one in a wheelchair, another with a limp, a small group of adult men and young teenage boys. They didn’t stay long: the rain was perhaps too heavy, the crowd too big, the square not entirely wheelchair-friendly. Or perhaps they simply ducked in to the dry of Paisley town hall to watch the Punch and Judy show, join the queues for the face painter or the balloon twister. Just like all the other families.

In the weeks before 17 November, when Paisley was due to welcome its 50 Syrian refugees, the multi-denominational, pan-political Renfrewshire Refugee Support Group was set up with the aim of helping their guests’ arrival run as smoothly as possible. Toiletries, warm clothes, toys and all kinds of small gifts had been collected, and church halls, student unions and lockups were stuffed to brimming. The bishop of Paisley, John Keenan, who heads up the support group, said: “We wanted it to work so that when those wee ones walked out of the door, no one said anything bad to them, nothing that makes them sad.”

But as their plane touched down on the tarmac at Glasgow airport, less than three miles away, a volley of vitriol came spewing from a small number of members of Paisley Legends, a Facebook group more usually peppered with posts offering last-minute hairdos and questions such as “Does anyone know anyone who makes kids’ Christmas gift baskets?”

James Collett, owner of the town’s James Martin hair salon, wrote that the country had no backbone. “All your welcome banners and welcome messages, fuck off. You won’t be saying that when they start killing, bombing and taking over your local area.”

One of the vilest was from a keyboard warrior named Stevo Riley, a member of the Scottish Defence League who has told the Guardian that his real name is Steven Robertson. He wrote: “The pilot should have took a nose dive in the Clyde with the lot of them, this place will erupt soon.”

His girlfriend, Rebecca Borthwick, posted that families should “fuck off back to the deserts”, but both she and Robertson now claim that he had taken over her Facebook account after he found himself banned. He also wrote: “You won’t be saying all this when the filth rape your own women and children, like they’re doing all over the UK. Allah was a paedo, Muhammad was a paedo and Islam promotes paedophilia.”

Photograph: Murdo Macleod for the Guardian

Photograph: Murdo Macleod for the Guardian

It’s not the first time refugees have been greeted with such venom, and it won’t be the last. But this time, something else happened. The couple, along with Collett and others, were exposed as trolls by the Paisley Daily Express. The front page headline read: “SHAME ON YOU”. With that, an ugly underbelly to opinion in the town was exposed. And a set of crucial wider questions were raised: are those voices of the fringe, or do they really represent, as they claim, a silent majority? Are their attacks mere posturing, or do they represent a genuine threat? And is this Paisley’s problem – or one that the rest of Scotland and the UK must brace itself to fight?

The Daily Express’s editor, Cheryl McEvoy, is a feisty terrier of a woman, locally born, and what she saw appalled her. “We got a phone call to the office on the night the plane touched down saying there was a discussion on the Paisley Legends group, and the man said the content was ‘absolutely disgusting’,” she explains. “Within 10 minutes of being in the office the next morning we thought exposing them was the right thing to do. There was a discussion about the consequences, and whether it could create negative publicity for us, but my gut instinct was that it wouldn’t. It takes one person to post something like that, and that gives others permission, and then there’s no stopping it.”

Chris Taylor, a reporter on the paper’s small team, wrote a follow-up story exposing Robertson as a member of the SDL. The paper printed a picture of him in a ski mask, to which he responded in comments: “Fucking absolute wanker that Chris Taylor is knew he would twist things fucking reporter need taking care off.”

Taylor says: “Clearly, it’s a bit unnerving when a member of the SDL declares publicly that he wants to do you in, or is recruiting someone to do you in. But I don’t think fear or threats are any reason not to publish an important story like that. And to be honest, the Scottish Defence League is one man and his dog.”

The vast majority of the town and its politicians rallied behind the paper. McEvoy says: “Paisley isn’t any different from anywhere else, it’s just that it has been discussed openly now, and that’s a good thing. We are talking about the issue of intolerance and it has made people think twice before opening their mouth and venting their spleen.”

Robertson doesn’t seem to be thinking twice. His brief spar with the local press has prompted little regret in the man who has only lived in Paisley for six months. But he admits his mother didn’t like what she read – “she thought I called children filth but I was misquoted” – and his former partner called him a “racist scumbag”.

“What I wrote in the post I will stand by 100%,” he says. “I am not personally bothered for myself, but Rebecca got a lot of hate mail on her Facebook. This has had no implications for my [roofing] business. I had the car window open when somebody shouted ‘racist bastard’. I gave a laugh and took my seatbelt off and gave a jerk motion and he said: ‘I am joking mate, I am sorry.’ It was just to give him a wee fright. Dinnae get me wrong, 90% of them are probably fine. I shouldn’t have worded it ‘they are all filthy refugees’ or ‘going to rape your women’. I meant [that] if a minority got the chance they would be Islamic terrorists or jihadis. We have got our own problems here.”

This is not the first time that elements of the town have persecuted others without much evidence: in 1696, seven people were to be tried as the Paisley Witches, the accusations against them made out of spite. One killed himself, one died in prison and five were strangled and burned at Gallowgreen. A horseshoe set in a road to stop their evil spirits returning can still be seen.

Paisley has a happier history, too. It is a handsome town, redolent with industrial, architectural, artistic and cultural heritage. It has more listed buildings than any other Scottish city outside Edinburgh. Aside from its bid to become city of culture, it has ambitious plans for regeneration, including a £56m scheme to build a national museum of textile and design – the town is famous for its textiles and threads, none more so than its Paisley-patterned shawls.

Yet it is also the location of the most deprived “data zone” in Scotland. The Ferguslie Park estate on the north-west edge of the town was ranked the first most deprived area in the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation. Here, many council houses lie empty, windows boarded up with perforated steel. It is a place where resentment festers, where other people seem to be getting what you are not.

In his diocesan offices behind Paisley cathedral, Bishop Keenan says the welcoming committee prepared itself for animosity but the “arrival and settling of families in Paisley has been very serene”. He speaks having just returned from meeting his first family, still aglow from the experience.

“A mum, dad, a 13-year-old and two grownup sons. The woman opened the door as naturally as if she was living here her whole life. She said: ‘Come on in.’ Her husband had suffered a stroke and he was asleep in his wheelchair, maybe 50. She spoke very good English. They are Armenian Syrians [Armenians sought refuge in Syria during the Armenian genocide] who settled in Aleppo but travelled to Lebanon when IS began its ethnic cleansing of the Christians in that city. She made us a wee cup of coffee and told me she had been to mass, she had been on the high street and had checked out some of the shops, though she is restricted because of her husband’s illness.”

In the run-up to the arrivals, many were aware that there would inevitably be shrill voices pitched against them. “The politicians were long in the tooth and just knew from a remote experience of this that people would say ‘they are getting our houses’ and ‘why are they getting benefits?’,” explains the bishop.

“We thought there would be people who would be open, with compassion, then people closed on principle and then we thought there would be a group in the middle who were, in principle, open but very easily got at to be afraid. So we really thought that that’s the group that we have to work on. I think there’s a battle for hearts and minds … I heard of one woman meeting a small group of refugees on Paisley High Street. She asked, ‘Are you one of the Syrian families?’ and when they said yes, she hugged them and burst into tears.”

George Adam, the SNP member of the Scottish parliament for Paisley, says he is proud of his town and the way it has reacted, for the most part. “We know it’s challenging and we live in difficult times. We have 52,000 constituents, and have only had two clients in our office to talk about the refugees, and of the two, only one could be regarded as a racist … I know the vast majority of Paisley buddies are very supportive.”

As far as the trolls go, he is glad they were named and shamed. “We all have responsibilities and I do feel sorry for anybody who might lose their job, but we live in a world where there is such a thing as hate crime.”

Paisley is not the only small British town to receive refugees or the only one where some have reacted unkindly. Across the river in Clydebank, another group from the 400 people that Scotland has agreed to take – from a total of 1,000 souls arriving in Britain before the end of the year – has this week been settled. On one community Facebook group, most “Bankies” were welcoming, but again some couldn’t restrain themselves from espousing hatred.

On the down-at-heel, almost desolate street where the refugees have been located, people tell stories of a street protest a few nights ago. There is evidence of mud bombs on windows. One resident was indignant at the bile she had heard from her neighbours. “They should think what it would be like if the shoe was on the other foot. There’s 47 of them – three babies under a year old, 10 adult women, nine adult men and the rest are all kids – all of them fleeing something,” she says. “There’s none of them that have been in a refugee camp for less than four years – it’s the people that need it most, the people that can’t afford to flee their own country.”

Against that view is the 16-year-old girl who says she is in the interview stage to join the army. She is adamant that people from Syria are going to come and bomb the refugees. When the flaws in this logic are pointed out, she shrugs her shoulders: “They should be in their own country. It’s not really fair for us to have them here, we will get bombed … they shouldn’t be coming here when it’s nothing to do with us.”

Her friend, 17 and in the RAF, is equally angry: “They’ve all got plasmas, couches, coffee tables – they are getting better living conditions than the homeless,” he says. Somebody who works for the council who was doing up the flats took pictures and showed me them. It’s a disgrace what they are getting.”

Scotland itself has so far agreed to take more than its fair share of refugees per head of population in this first dispersal tranche through the Syrian Vulnerable Peoples Relocation Scheme – simply because it is well organised and has co-ordinated work in advance of the arrivals. First minister Nicola Sturgeon has also stressed that any hate crime in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris is “totally unacceptable”.

But there are still those rabidly on the scent of something they believe they can turn to their advantage. Twelve days ago, SDL members turned up at the Adamton Country House Hotel, on the outskirts of the Ayrshire village of Monkton, after it offered to give 150 refugees emergency accommodation. Outnumbered as they were by counter-demonstrators, they still managed to gulp some of the oxygen of publicity they were so desperate for.

Back at the lighting celebrations in Paisley, most buddies are compassionate. Grandmother Mary McEwan says she could never turn anyone away from her door, and neither should the town: “We have to help them. We can’t leave them distressed in their own country or they will not be there for long – they are going to be dead. Even more so the kids that are coming – being cruel about them is just deplorable. People here have all come out for their kids – what’s the difference with refugees and their kids? They are entitled to have a wee bit of stability in their life.”

Her words are echoed by Bishop Keenan. “In the run-up to Christmas,” he says, “we should remember that Jesus was a refugee and homeless in Bethlehem, an asylum-seeker in Egypt and a vagrant before he was even four.”