For more than one decade Remzije Sherifi had put her dreams in a box, with no hope for a better future for herself and her family. “The only dream we had in the nineties was to survive and be alive” – says Remzije. During the war in Kosova in 1999 more than 90% of Kosovan Albanians became refugees in different parts of world as a result of ethnic cleansing. Remzije was one of the lucky ones, with her three sons and husband, to be evacuated by British troops to Scotland for cancer treatment.
A community is a social unit of any size that shares common values – what can you say about the community you are building with your organisation?
When we got to Glasgow, it was amazing to find people with smiles who were welcoming us, and we felt freedom for the first time ever. I was on the waiting list for an operation and I didn’t know how long I was going to live for but I was well enough to support the Kosovan community to start a new life. I wanted to use each day I had, to make a better life for my own and other children, who survived the horror of the war.
It was our second chance, especially for our children to have their childhood back and to be able to have an education and build their future, so I had a calling to open my box of dreams and immediately I started setting up activities for the youth and Kosovan women with the Mother Theresa Group. I began by organising community events, sharing food and encouraging people to join us.
I made links with local schools and other organisations in order to build a partnership and work together. My engagement and the scope of the projects has grown over the years and using art as a tool of communication, we have designed and developed many projects. We were able to reach out to more people to open their minds and change their hearts with regards to new arrivals, to raise awareness and a greater understanding of new Scots and why they are here and why they have to flee their countries.
When we got to Glasgow, it was amazing to find people with smiles who were welcoming us, and we felt freedom for the first time ever.
How do women interact within this community?
Maryhill Integration Network (mIN) and Albscott have a long, proud and rich tradition of welcoming refugees and engaging with other members of the community. Working alongside other partners has demonstrated setting out a clear framework, particularly for women, which includes:
- Access to language learning
- Supporting individuals facing violence and domestic abuse
- Services for counselling
- Advising them of their rights and introducing them to more specialist support services if required
In place are a range of projects offering women chances through literary publications, exhibitions, documentary films and theatre dance performances and other platforms, allowing the women to express themselves. I believe that this holistic approach has played a vital role in rebuilding the lives of women and their families who have fled conflict and persecution, empowering them, alongside Scottish women, to make a positive contribution to their new communities, thereby promoting a diverse and flourishing Scotland.
I still support the Mother Theresa group, where it all started. There are sixty women, Albanian and women from all over the world, alongside Scottish women too, coming together on a weekly basis to take part on costume making projects, and exploring art through its International Fashion Show. With participation from service users, volunteers, and professional models and artists, the Fashion Show display costumes that are owned, designed or made by our members.
The show incorporates music and dance from across the globe to bring a colourful and exciting display of the richness of Albanian and other cultures and diversities. The idea was to create costumes by fusing designs and details from traditional Albanian and other countries costumes by using materials from around the world, combining different styles and traditional patterns, also reminding us that we are all “cut from the same cloth”.
Traditional costumes, tunes from the çiftelia, dances and songs were performed at the “1+1 = Love and Life” exhibition displayed at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow, last summer . This was a great opportunity for UK residents to meet and get to know the Albanian culture and Balkans in general.
Another way of interacting is offering women the chance to take part in large scale events. Twenty five women from mIN Joyous Choir participated in the Scottish Opera world wide production “Songs of Friendship” – as part of the cultural programme for the XXth Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.
Women from both organisations are now rehearsing hard to take part in the Scottish Community Dance Festival ‘Go Dance 2015’ and they will be involved and contribute to events for the celebration of Refugee Week and the 25th anniversary of ‘Open Museums in Scotland’.
What are the challenges you face working with your community and how do you deal with them?
Working on community projects can be one of the most fruitful and at same time most challenging types of work. The most important of which is that these type of projects bring people together and from them build a vibrant community. Watching the community that they created thrive is the greatest reward for the project contributors. Another important reward is that contributors benefit from the exchange of ideas. Many heads are (usually) better than one, and decisions taken after group consultation are often the most well-grounded in reason and are most likely to result in the best possible outcome for the community.
As the flowers with colour and beauty start off as tiny seeds, good community life blossoms best through careful nurturing – with thoughtful feeding and watering never going amiss.
Traditionally family, community and employment structures teach people what is important, how to behave and what matters. In a more mobile and culturally diverse community, channels for establishing the rules of social engagement become less reliable due to language barriers. Also, one of the most severe and crucial challenges is the asylum seekers facing destitution, deportation and their right to work is taken away.
Not being able to work kills you slowly. I have experienced this myself in Kosovo when under the Serbian police state, my right to work was taken away because I was Albanian. It was a reality I couldn’t bear and still I can’t bear the fact that asylum seekers can’t offer their skills knowledge and experiences.
So often an active member ends in a detention centre. Those are sensitive moments and can destroy motivation of other members in certain projects. It is heartbreaking but we have to find pathways to encourage other members never to give up and nurture them. In the same way as the flowers with colour and beauty start off as tiny seeds, good community life blossoms best through careful nurturing – with thoughtful feeding and watering never going amiss.
What inspires you to invest in your community?
There are three women who are my role models and are not anymore with us, my mother, my sister Shera, and Mother Theresa. My mother was the most loving and caring person I knew, my sister for all her life was dedicated to womens issues in Kosova, and Mother Theresa a great Albanian woman who dedicated her life to serve the poor and destitute around the world.
Other inspirations are my family, my children and other Kosovan children who’ve done so well at school and have gone to university, and working in professions such as architectures and design etc. We helped them to move on, gain new knowledge, share their cultures with people from different backgrounds and offered them opportunities to engage and integrate. It is always the glory and a highlight to hear people say that mIN and AlbScott premises are their second home and we have changed their lives for the better.
Is this your mission in life?
All this commitment that I have given, I’ve done with my passion and from the bottom of my heart. The Universe and Glasgow have gifted me with my second chance of life, surviving from war and cancer. Now this is my mission and opportunity to find the strength to give something back to the Universe and to Gasgow, to help and support people in their need.
What is your vision for the future?
No matter what race, faith and background we come from, all women feel happiness, pain and love the same, and should have the right to dream. Every woman should be treated equally with dignity and respect.
Who is Remzije?
Remzije is no stranger to awards. In 2009 she was the winner of ‘The Evening Times Glasgow Community Champion Public Service Individual Award’ and in 2010 winner of ‘The Evening Times’ Glasgow Community Champion of Champions Award.’ Remzije also received the prestigious Community Champion Award for Arts and Culture from the Scottish Minority Ethnic Achievement Committee.
Remzije has also written a book ‘Shadow Behind the Sun’ which was published in 2007 and was shortlisted for the Saltire Prize. It recounts her experiences as a refugee and contains interviews with asylum seekers, describing the conditions in which they live, placing them at the heart of the tragedy of exile.