As take my seat at the packed-out theatre in Stratford, I overhear a couple reading from the programme of Glasgow Girls, the performance we’re about to see: ‘the asylum system works on a one size fits all basis...the system is bad at hearing people’s individual stories.’ I’ve seen that, I think. But my heart is also slightly sinking. I’m wondering if we’re about to be subjected to two and a half hours of people singing the stories of refugees. Asylum Monologues, a play in which real life transcripts from people’s asylum interviews are performed on stage, is great. But this is a musical. There will be singing. And dancing. A friend once told me he saw an opera singer belting out excerpts from the UN Refugee Convention at the Liverpool Biennial arts festival. I’m not sure I could manage that tonight, I think.
Suddenly my thoughts are interrupted. The lights dim and the show begins. We’re given a whistle-stop tour of the UK government’s policy of dispersing asylum seekers to undesirable accommodation across Britain and then we find ourselves in the Scottish city of Glasgow in spring 1999. Here we meet the show’s protagonists. They are Mr Girvan, a Scots language enthusiast and a group of girls from Chapel High School, the ‘toughest school in one of the toughest cities in Glasgow’. Some of the students have grown up in the city. Four others have been sent to live in the infamous high rise flats with their families while their applications for asylum are considered. They include Agi, who fled Kosovo when her house was attacked by militia, and Roza, who sought sanctuary in the UK with her father to escape political violence in Baghdad. The girls’ narratives are textbook portraits of integration. We’re told that the school results improved once the asylum seeker students arrived and that ‘the street fights were a sign of integration’.
Red Row flats, Glasgow. Photo: Stephen Sweeney
Stepping into someone else’s shoes
The show’s first song paints a picture of Glasgow itself, a place where asylum seekers occasionally get ‘dog shit’ through their letter boxes but where people are ‘basically OK’. We’re given an insight into the social worlds of the asylum seeking students. They sing about chips and cheese, going out dancing, deep fried Mars bars and what they love most about Glasgow, that it’s ‘where my friends are’. ‘While their asylum claims were on-going’, we’re told, ‘the kids were getting on with their lives’. Fast-forward six years to 2005. ‘Here we are’, they proclaim, ‘ordinary girls in Glasgow’.
The story of how these ‘ordinary girls in Glasgow’ become the ‘Glasgow Girls’ occupies the remainder of the musical. Based on a true story adapted for the stage by David Greig, it tells the tale of how the girls joined forces with their teachers and neighbours to campaign against the detention and deportation of their peers back to their countries of origin. Their experience campaigning for the rights of their friends leads them to establish a national campaign to end the detention and removal of families and children.
Whilst the first half of the show demonstrates the power of local mobilisation through the suspension of Agi’s deportation and the girls’ nomination for a national campaigning award, the musical doesn’t sugar-coat the challenges that come with standing up against injustice. In the second half of the musical, a local family is deported back to Congo despite a huge campaign and the girls’ engagement with national politics ends on a tragic note when they realise that First Minister Jack McConnell’s promise to ‘listen’ is half-hearted. 'Jack, Jack, what's the clack?', they sing, 'all we see is the power you lack'. If this was a real musical, interjects Noreen, an wisened older activist, ‘Jack would talk to Tony Blair and sort it out…’. But ‘this isn’t a musical’, she reminds us, ‘this is politics’. And in politics, ‘what do you do when justice doesn’t pull through?’
‘Glasgow Girls’. Photo: Robert Day
Walking in our own shoes
The show’s meta-theatrical asides serve to continuously ground the story in reality and prevent it from becoming the rambunctious, cathartic exercise some audience members might expect (but fear not, this is a musical; there is bunting, sparkly costumes and spandex clothing throughout). Alongside its celebratory songs and glee the musical contains moments of heart-wrenching poignancy that will speak to anyone who has ever campaigned for a cause they hold dear. They include a dramatic tear-jerker about hiding friends from UK Border Agency dawn raids, (‘over my dead body’, sings Noreen) and scenes which juxtapose the indiscriminate power of border guards with the dignity of family life: Roza’s father, denied the right to work, wears a suit at home, telling his daughter, ‘don’t you know what it takes not to scream?’. At another point in the show we find ourselves transported to an airport departure lounge, following a little boy, Olly, being marched past WHSmiths on his way to a plane. He shouts ‘Yes!’ as he catches a glimpse of a paper reporting that Celtic football team has won. The G4S guard finds that funny, and slightly baffling, we’re informed.
These intimate moments, juxtaposed with a catchy, sing-along soundtrack and break-dancing border guards, are what give Glasgow Girls a unique power to reach out and touch its audience. What enabled me to identify with the girls personally wasn’t the show’s key tune with its core message, ‘together we are strong’, but a scene which opens with the girls drinking Iron-Bru energy drink and eating sweets for breakfast. They’ve been up all night writing letters, and there's something comic and adolescent about the whole scene. It reminded me of the nights I’ve spent with friends, sat drinking coffee or energy drinks at 4am, because as someone who became an activist as a student myself, I’ve been there, eating sweets for breakfast; writing letters in an effort to suspend time and stop its inexorable march towards the deportation of someone I hold dear.
‘Glasgow Girls’. Photo: Robert Day
In the programme, David Greig tells us that ‘The Glasgow Girls campaign...shows us that by the simple principle of thinking how it feels to be in another person’s shoes, extraordinary things can be achieved’. When I read this I had another flashback, reminded of a T-shirt I once wore during Refugee Week displaying a quote by author Ian McEwan: ‘imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity’. Yet I think that this question of empathy, whilst fundamental, only captures part of the kind of radical solidarity showcased in Glasgow Girls.
What Glasgow Girls shows us is the stake we all have in the policies that affect asylum seekers: as friends, partners, teachers, neighbours, peers, but also as fellow humans. It’s not just about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, but recognising the relationships which bind us with others, and recognising that we can all take action in our own shoes to respond to injustice for the good of all. In a political context saturated with stigma against asylum seekers, Glasgow Girls show us that there are common principles around which we can come together: fairness, justice, dignity. It also reminds us that policies which criminalise and stigmatise asylum seekers, like detention and dawn raids, shame us all. In the words of one song, ‘what kind of country do you want this to be?’
The role of anti-deportation campaigns: towards comprehensive reform
It is important to recognise that, in spite of its force, the ‘one of us’ message which dominates Glasgow Girls also carries a range of assumptions which are not entirely unproblematic. Like most asylum advocacy, the show reifies the idea of the ‘good migrant’ and also raises questions about what role local communities should have in regulating access into and out of the national community. Because not all refused asylum seekers who have been treated unfairly by the system can rely on friends and neighbours to help fight their cause; not all can sing and dance, or bake, and not all of those who have been detained or forced into destitution by government policies are known to their community. Put more starkly still, some may simply not be deemed worth campaigning for. As one activist recently told me, ‘the guy was at serious risk of being sent back to torture, but the campaign took ages to get off the ground because, well, people thought he was a bit of an ass’.
Anti-deportation campaigns are a crucial expression of human solidarity, and most importantly, an essential device for holding states to account. This is the key motive for the campaign against the deportation of Agi in Glasgow Girls: ‘she’s not safe’, one of the girls cries, ‘the government is wrong...we have to convince them!’ But of course the way in which anti-deportation campaigns hold states to account will always remain partial; in and of themselves, they cannot be a comprehensive framework for justice. Glasgow Girls is explicit in its recognition of this. The girls transition from campaigning to ‘save our neighbours’ to seeking to reform the political system to safeguard the rights of all. This is a familiar narrative, and an experience widely echoed in other social movements, such as the DREAMERs movement in the US. For the DREAMERs, anti-deportation campaigns, and the solidaristic bonds they represent, have proved to be a core activity in the quest for comprehensive immigration reform; they run anti-deportation campaigns to directly challenge the state, but also as a crucial tool to build solidarity for the wider dream. Policies which seek to dehumanise asylum seekers and distance them from the goodwill of residents, such as detention and dispersal, can, in some respects, be seen as an attempt to block the radical power of these ties.
Through its dismantling of the ‘us’ and ‘them’ binaries which permeate the media portrayal of asylum seekers, Glasgow Girls is a cultural fight-back to populist television shows like UK Border Force, and in this respect it’s remarkable. But it also sits snugly in the popular bildungsroman genre; it’s ultimately a ‘coming of age’ story, a tale of political becoming. I think that this is why I was able to identify so strongly with the musical, and why it’s had such great reviews more broadly. Glasgow Girls helps us to imagine stepping into the shoes of others, challenges us to walk in our own and to take action in support of an asylum system that is fair, just, and worthy of us all. Now finished in London, I hope sincerely that the show gets a national tour.