Robina Qureshi pays tribute to a tireless campaigner for the rights of asylum seekers
Sometime in 1993, a 27 year old Pakistani-Scots university student dropped by my office. He asked if he could volunteer. Shafiq Mohammed said he was interested in social housing. He took a great interest in the area of discrimination in social housing affecting poor people. We discussed discriminatory policies, the lack of access to housing for our communities, and black led housing associations as solutions to the housing shortages affecting ethnic minorities.
In January ‘94, together we organised a delegation of people from housing associations, Scottish Homes and others to visit black led housing associations in England to learn about their best practice. This in part led to the setting up of a similar initiative in Glasgow, Access Apna Ghar, which later became embedded within a local housing association.
After the forced dispersal programme began in 2001, Shafiq began working for Home Office accommodation contractors, YMCA, Orchard and Shipman and then the Angel Group. He left disenchanted and later said he had thought he could make change by working from “the inside”, but no longer believed this. The only way for our communities to get ahead was to be in positions of influence and power.
Shafiq joined the board of a non-profit in 2010 for a couple of years. He then went to work for Community InfoSource, run by Sheila Arthur, working directly with asylum seekers who had problems with Serco. Shafiq spearheaded the outreach in hotels over the Covid-19 crisis, bringing much-needed support and advice to people in the hotels at a time when accessing any other support was extremely difficult. He was unyielding in his pursuit of better conditions and more rights for all.
In November 2015 (following 150 Syrian refugees being granted emergency accommodation at the Adamton Country House Hotel in Monkton, near Prestwick), Shafiq attended an anti-racism protest with Stand Up To Racism against the far right. He found himself charged with racially aggravated behaviour. When he rang me up and told me, he seemed deflated, I had no problem providing the court with a character reference.
At his court case in 2017, Shafiq told the court he faced Nazi salutes and yells of “sieg heil” at a protest by the Scottish Defence League. Sheriff Robert Weir said the atmosphere at the demo had been “rendered toxic by other people”. He ruled that Shafiq should receive an absolute discharge. It was a ridiculous charge in the first place. Shafiq always conducted himself with dignity. However, the experience and the way he had been treated by the police deeply affected him.
Shafiq and I kept in touch over the campaign to stop Serco’s lock change evictions in 2018 and 2019, and the legal actions thereafter. Every now and then, I would get an email or a text from him, out of the blue, giving a crucial piece of information that helped us with our campaigning. Once or twice he dropped by for a coffee and he would reminisce about the “old days” and how he and Bob Hay, who worked at Shelter Advice Centre, were mischievous and thick as thieves.
Shafiq was instrumental in highlighting the disgraceful treatment of asylum seekers and the detail of commercially sensitive Home Office accommodation contracts. On several occasions, he would send me documents and, with his incisive analysis, tear through the grand self pronouncements of certain organisations; he drew my attention to the unethical behaviour of partnership funding bids where our charity’s name was used; funding was granted, but we got nothing.
There was plenty of humour too; after the BBC aired Liam McDougall’s documentary on the treatment of asylum seekers, I congratulated him on his piece to camera. He replied, with self-deprecating humour: “I think I was on because (apart from you) the rest of the Refugee Sector is in self isolation and they couldn’t get anyone else”.
At a time when investigative journalism is so under resourced, Shafiq Mohammed worked like an investigator to provide information to asylum campaigners and the press, about important human rights issues at key moments in the city’s life. His insight and knowledge was incisive and sharp. He was both unassuming and reserved to the end.
In today’s era of shameless self publicising on social media, Shafiq remained at the back, way back, in the shadows, pushing for change, giving information that would help tear down the PR words of large corporates. Asylum campaigners have lost a lot. If things seem quiet now, it’s not because nothing’s happening. He ought to be honoured and remembered.
Shafiq died suddenly on September 8th at his home in Glasgow.
Back in 1993, that young student gave me a book about Malcolm X, which I had meant to return. He believed it’s message – community empowerment and Black Lives Matter. I’ll treasure it.
Shafiq Mohammed’s Funeral Ceremony took place in Glasgow Central Mosque on September 15th 2021.
Robina Qureshi is the director of Positive Action in Housing, a refugee and migrant homelessness and destitution charity based in Scotland.