WATCH: “No one can stop them singing:” How one small choir is helping to give Scotland’s asylum seekers a voice

EVERY Monday evening, a quiet, sleepy road in Maryhill erupts into a joyful cacophony as a group of Glasgow’s most vulnerable women gather in a defiance of despair.

The Joyous Choir, run by Maryhill Integration Network (MIN) is a colourful hub of nationalities and ages – a smiling troop of welcome giving a voice to women often living in hidden silence.

Run predominantly for female refugees and asylum seekers, The Joyous Choir’s goal is to give a fleeting moment of uplift and activity from the destitution many travel across the city to escape from, if only just for two hours a week.

While their applications are being processed by the Home Office – which can take years to fully complete – thousands of asylum seekers are entitled to just under £38 a week and have no idea if they will eventually be sent back to the lives they have fled from.

Glasgow has the largest number of asylum seekers in the UK, (approximately 0.05% of the city’s population) all of whom are fully barred from working in any way to earn money whilst they await their fate.

Far from having backgrounds of extreme poverty however, many of the desperate people who end up in Glasgow studied at university, had good careers and fully participated in rich cultures before they had to flee the likes of conflict and political unrest.

While the financial constraints being denied work leads to are obvious, this loss of control, identity, purpose and wider social networks can lead to a further sense of despair and mental health issues for those seeking asylum in Scotland.

But this is where projects like The Joyous Choir make such a difference. The choir is a distracting, mentally rewarding respite for women who through no fault of their own, have been dealt the cards of deprivation and hardship.

The choir is a chance to escape this reality once a week through song, give a semblance of structure to a week and grant something to look forward to.

And in more practical terms, it’s an opportunity for the women to improve their English – another problem many refugees face when trying to get jobs once their asylum is granted.

Even though the authorities can end their right to be here, no one can stop them singing.”

Indeed, many of those who arrive as highly educated or with impressive careers behind them, often end up washing dishes in restaurants, working as cleaners, delivering pizzas or in a continual cycle of job-hunting, often because of language barriers.

Remijze Sherifi, director of Maryhill Integration Network, has first hand experience of life as a refugee driven from an impressive profession and position.

Previously working as a radio journalist in Kosova, she lost her job and almost her life as the Milosevic regime steadily tightened its grip on the Albanians who lived there in the 1990s.

She, her husband and her three sons were evacuated to Glasgow in 1999 and her career is now one fully focussed on helping others in her adopted city.

And, she believes, the escapism and therapy of the expressive arts are one of the best ways refugees and asylum seekers can be helped indirectly.

“Maryhill Integration Network works with communities from across the globe, and to bring people together, we use all platforms of the arts and expression,” she says.

“We treat every single member of the Network as our equal partners, so we listened when our service users said they’d like to form a choir.

“It was their initiative to come together to sing, empowering them to share their stories of pain, loss and love.

“It was later named the Joyous Choir because of all that it brings to them.”

The choir also gives the women a chance to bring a little piece of home with them and to share their pride in that home with others, believes Remijze:

“When these women come together, they share songs from different countries and get the chance to keep alive the voices of beautiful cultures they have had to leave.”

In addition, the choir and singing act as a defiance of the constraints put on asylum seekers by the Home Office. While many of their basic desires to work, integrate or have a permanent home are restricted, the ability to express themselves through song is something at least that cannot be taken away.

“Many of the women in the choir are in the process of asylum or waiting on their letters of deportation. It’s hard to keep hope and feelings of worth alive in these times,” says Remizje.

“But the choir gives them a voice, and a chance to share the richness of their cultures with the Scottish people. It allows Scotland to see all the glory these people have in their spirit and soul.

“Even though the authorities can end their right to be here, no one can stop them singing.”

Women have said to me that this is the only good thing that they get to do in their week.”

As well as being barred from working while they await their fate, asylum seekers are also banned from studying in higher education. Taking away these defining aspects of personhood is something that not only can keep people in a permanent state of unrest and infulfilment, but also imposes a hindrance of the opportunity to make constructive contributions to UK society.

Song leader Cath Campbell, who has worked on a number of singing projects for vulnerable people as well as women’s projects for gender based violence, explains how the choir has become a lifeline because of this:

“A lot of the women have said to me that this is the only good thing that they get to do in their week – one of the few things that allows them to feel happy and alive and valued.

“It’s certainly difficult for them to feel that very often given their situations.

“But what I find remarkable is that although everyone here is going through something, by the very action of coming in and the motivation to participate in the choir, they show it won’t let it defeat them or their spirit.”

The choir has around 20 members, many of whom have fled war, the threat of murder, arranged marriages or human trafficking.

But songs of solidarity, friendships, freedom and dreams visibly combat these experiences and help empower the women into confidence and happiness:

“We know that singing is good for our physical health, but in this case, its most important benefits for the women are unity and positivity,” says Cath.

“Over the course of a session, I reflect on this change, because women will come in, often looking like they’ve got the weight of the world on their shoulders.

“You can see it physically, the look of worry on their face, the way they’re looking at you, their body language.

“Then at the end – after singing these powerful songs – you can see they’re much more open, they’re smiling and really engaged.”

The choir have performed at festivals, local and national events, with a small number performing at the Theatre Royal in Glasgow alongside 100 opera singers from across the world.

In 2015, they were awarded the ‘Unique Story Award’ category at the Chorus Awards by Scotland Sings.

It’s really opened my eyes to the differences but also the similarities between us all.”

But it’s the weekly sessions themselves that seem to have the most impact on members.

For Anastasia, who has Pakistan and Roma heritage, finding the choir amongst negativity and intolerance she was facing felt like coming home.

“I was feeling really deflated and I knew I had to do something positive and productive to combat it. Although it was a small step, you can only really do so much on your own, so I joined the choir,” she says.

“When I sing with the women, I feel so uplifted. It helps create a release of positive and negative things I’ve been feeling. When life is heavy it just lifts you up and because it’s in the collective, the group energy is so powerful. It just feeds my soul.”

Although many of the women are attempting to integrate themselves into Scotland and life here, the choir group also allows them to experience the backgrounds of people from a wide range of countries while uniting in their combined experiences.

For Boatemaa from Ghana, it’s this fusion of cultures that she most enjoys about being part of the choir:

“Although I can’t really sing, I love being a part of such a diverse group of people and singing songs from so many different places.

“All the songs have a background, so it’s really opened my eyes to the differences but also the similarities between us all.”

Indeed, these similarities are what the Maryhill Integration Network builds its core values on.

And as Remjzie says, what she and the rest of the MIN staff offer is an “extended family” that intends not just to help asylum seekers survive, but to feel alive. In simpler terms, it offers something educational, expressive and constructive to occupy their minds and help define themselves by, when all official routes to this are barred.

While a little choir can’t grant people their physical asylum in Scotland, at least, for just a couple of hours a week, it grants a mental refuge. And in a world of unpredictability and lack of stability, it provides one small, indisputable certainty: Joy.

All images by Megan McEachern.