Meet the organisations behind Refugee Festival Scotland

Refugee Festival Scotland volunteer Shona McCallum highlights the work of six amazing organisations that are running events as part of this year’s festival 

As UK government legislation makes claiming asylum more difficult and nurtures the hostile environment, it can be difficult to find hope. But in the grassroots groups and organisations contributing to the festival, there is plenty of cause for optimism.  

I spoke to representatives from six organisations across Scotland to find out more about what they do, the communities they work with, and how they find hope in a system which can sometimes feel hopeless.  

Survivors of human trafficking in Scotland (SOHTIS), Scotland-wide 

Joy Gillespie is the leader of SOHTIS which advocates for and provides support to survivors of human trafficking and modern slavery. Joy explained that human trafficking occurs in both urban and rural areas. SOHTIS has identified cases in every local authority in Scotland.  

While Scotland is considered to have progressive legislation on this issue, it often conflicts with the UK Government’s asylum and immigration system. SOHTIS works closely with lawyers to navigate this tricky terrain and improve policy on this issue. The group also provides survivors with long-term support and has helped more than 200 people to begin rebuilding their lives.  

Working for SOHTIS can be difficult – the brutalising nature of human trafficking is a painful field to advocate and support people through. But Joy insists that this essential work is rooted in optimism. She said: “at times… it just does feel so hopeless. But we’ve got to believe; I mean, I wouldn’t get up and do this job every morning if I didn’t think that human trafficking is not inevitable in Scotland.” 

Joy remains focussed on the question, “How can we bring hope to this situation?”, and how can each individual be supported to change their life for the better. 

SOHTIS is holding two events as part of the festival, both with hope at their heart: 


Breaking Borders, Ayr 

Leah Loftus and two of her friends formed Breaking Borders last year. They were moved to do something to support neighbours who had been granted asylum in Scotland and resettled in Ayr. The group understands the needs of people in their local community and the challenges associated with living outside the major cities where many refugee services and communities are based. Their main goal is to provide friendship, kindness, and community, stepping in to “fill the gap” between official services (such as housing or ESOL classes) and actually helping people to feel settled in a new place. With the help of Hope Wellbeing Centre, they have begun weekly drop-in cafes where women from refugee backgrounds can make new friends.  

The group is aware that in response to crises such as in Ukraine or Afghanistan, there can be a surge of support which decreases over time. But Breaking Borders hopes to be able to run well into the future. Ultimately, their goal is for refugee women who have settled into Ayr to take over leadership of the group and welcome those who come after them.  

 At times, Leah finds the way that mainstream media covers refugee and asylum issues extremely disappointing and misleading, but she explains: “While we sit with this sadness and frustration, it is important to remember the dignity of hope.” She finds inspiration and optimism in the women she has got to know through Breaking Borders; “if you met any of them, you would know hope too!” 

 Braking Borders held a pop-up café as part of Refugee Festival Scotland on Monday 19 June. Find out more about their event here. 

Unity Sisters, Glasgow  

Virginie Clayton from Unity Sisters explains: “Whatever we do, we support women… and we empower ourselves.” 

The group was established in 2014 by a group of women in Glasgow who have lived experience of the asylum system. It is an off-shoot of the Unity Centre, a support and solidarity organisation for asylum seekers and migrants in Scotland. Unity Sisters supports women across greater Glasgow with issues such as breastfeeding, accessibility for prams and helping newly arrived women integrate into their communities.   

Unity Sisters meet every fortnight at Langside Parish Church, in the Southside and have a space in Kinning Park. Projects include practicing English for everyday life, running sewing and jewellery classes, and providing community and peer advocacy for women. They work closely with other community organisations including MILK and Govanhill Baths.  

Ultimately, Unity Sisters find cause for optimism in the community they have created and women sharing their struggles and positive experiences. According to Virginie, hope comes from “us telling our stories and empowering us to do what we wanted to do.” 

Find out more about their festival event The Journey to Peace, which took place on Saturday 17 June. 

SAWA, Isle of Bute 

Hugh O’Hagan is involved with SAWA on the Isle of Bute. ‘Sawa’, which means ‘together’ in Arabic, was formed two years ago by two ESOL teachers in the town of Rothesay, in partnership with local refugee families.  

Eight years ago, several families, most escaping conflict in Syria, were resettled in Rothesay. They were recently joined by people fleeing the war against Ukraine. SAWA’s goal is to help newly arrived families feel at home in the community. They offer creative and educational activities which are open to both refugees and other locals. Weekly classes include arts, book restoration at a local historic house, bike repair, horticulture, and women’s empowerment. The group also organises trips to interesting cultural sites.  

Hugh explained that although refugee resettlement in such a remote location comes with some unusual challenges, the island community is extremely welcoming and embracing. The area is beautiful and very safe, and since Rothesay is so small, integration is guaranteed. Everyone becomes friendly and differences are easily overcome “when people actually speak to each other.”  

SAWA can boast many success stories. Since arriving on the island, many refugees have gained new SQA skills and qualifications. The town is now home to ‘Helmis Café’ which serves up Syrian delicacies and a Syrian barber shop. Ukrainian artist Volodymyr Duriskyi is creating new work on the island. Hugh concluded that these positive stories “show that hope is not unfounded”, but can be seen everywhere in Scotland where local communities embrace newcomers.  

SAWA held a food and art event on the first day of the festival. You can find out more about it here. 

Friends of Scottish Settlers (FOSS), Falkirk 

Doro Richter, explains that Friends of Scottish Settlers was initially formed by CVS Falkirk in 2016, as a befriending service to support Syrians who had been resettled in Falkirk. FOSS has since expanded to work with various community groups in the area and became a registered charity in 2020.  

Today, FOSS provides community and referral services which “enable[s] newcomers to the Falkirk district to stand on their own two feet” and know the people and services available to them. The organisation is built on the foundational values of integrity, respect, solidarity, empowerment, and welcome. 

Although Falkirk is relatively close to major cities such as Edinburgh and Glasgow, the town can feel remote for refugees and asylum seekers who have limited access to travel. Therefore, FOSS is focussed on making the local area as welcoming and integrated as possible. It aims to promote a “Falkirk District that is multicultural, multilingual, and welcoming.” FOSS works primarily with resettled families, including newly arrived Ukrainians, and people going through the asylum process who are housed in a hotel. But its services to anyone new to Falkirk and seeking community.  

The organisation is acutely aware that its services are made more necessary by governmental and legislative failures. Project Manager, Emma Kapusniak explains, “we are absolutely filling gaps that shouldn’t be there when it comes to the asylum system, which is structured in a way that it is both costly and inhumane.”  

Negative, misleading rhetoric from the Home Office and mainstream media not only makes that work harder, but also makes peoples’ lives more painful. But despite these frustrations, FOSS remains optimistic. Manager, Dr Sarah Stewart said: “I am made hopeful by seeing what joy people find in each other and how we all seem to find it in ourselves to try and try again.” 

FOSS held a Refugee Festival Arts and ESOL afternoon on Saturday 17 June. Find out more about their event here.

ESOL and EAL Class, Rosshall Academy, Glasgow 

Stephanie McKenna is a teacher at Rosshall Academy, a secondary school on the Southside of Glasgow. Around 15% of students at the school have lived experience of the refugee and asylum system and speak English as an additional language. 

Stephanie explained that the school has a unique opportunity to welcome and integrate the next generation of New Scots, and their families, into their community.  

Language skills are essential for helping people integrate into their new communities but ESOL classes can be difficult for people to access. Although Rosshall Academy already runs an ESOL class for parents, in partnership with Glasgow Clyde College, those with young families who need support with childcare can find it difficult to attend.  

As part of Refugee Festival Scotland, the school decided to pilot a new ‘Family Learning’ ESOL classes project. Childcare was provided by senior pupils from ESOL and EAL classes and students from Glasgow Kelvin College. The event took place on World Refugee Day with support from Glasgow Life. You can find out more here. 

Overall, the school finds a great deal of hope that families and pupils “will feel a sense of integration as New Scots and feel welcomed into the country.” 


The festival is made possible thanks to grassroots groups and organisations across Scotland that hold events and activities for people in their communities.


Refugee Festival Scotland 2023 runs from 16 – 25 June. Check out what’s on where you are.  









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