with Nina Halper (she/her)
I’m walking to The Hidden Lane Tea Room in Finnieston, on my way to meet with Humam Husari, a journalist and filmmaker from Syria who moved to Glasgow as an asylum seeker in March 2022. The Glaswegian streets feel like home to me, I’ve been living here for 3 and a half years now. I wonder if Humam feels familiarised yet with these streets or has felt at all at home in Glasgow in the 7 months he has lived here.
A few months ago, I heard Humam play at a community meal in Kinning Park Complex with Musicians in Exile, a band made up of musicians who came to Glasgow to seek asylum.
The performance had me enchanted. They played a seamless blend of world music with influences from Syria, Iran, Chile and Scotland. Whilst Musicians in Exile play many gigs across Scotland, this event seemed particularly special, as they played to the Kinning Park community – a community made up of a majority of refugees and asylum seekers.
Humam is one of the singers in Musicians in Exile. I invited him to meet for tea and to chat about his experiences here in Scotland and with Musicians in Exile. Upon meeting with Humam, he tells me he’s pleased that I chose the Hidden Lane Tea Room. The china reminds him of his grandmother’s tea sets in Syria, and the place itself reminds him of the tea rooms in Turkey, where he lived after leaving his homeland.
After our introductory formalities, we start chatting about Humam’s arrival to the UK and his first impressions of Glasgow.
‘I actually started filmmaking in Brighton in 2008 because I have some friends there. I didn’t choose to come to Glasgow, but when I decided to claim asylum in the UK, I had some friends who advised me to come to Glasgow. I mean, it’s common knowledge that Scotland is a better place for immigrants because the community is more accepting of refugees. Before moving to the UK, I lived in Turkey for about 3 and a half years with my wife. I couldn’t stay in Turkey. I couldn’t participate in the community there and I couldn’t speak Turkish. As a journalist there, it wasn’t easy. I couldn’t get a stable residence permit.’
‘In Glasgow, I’m just hopeful. My English helps me to be a part of the community and I have good Syrian friends here. So far, my experience in Glasgow has been good.’
It’s reassuring to hear Humam feels hopeful in Glasgow and that Scotland is known amongst the refugee population as an accepting place for asylum seekers. Given the Conservative Party’s ruthless attitude towards immigration and their dead-end, bureaucratic processes for allowing asylum seekers the right to remain, I ask him what it is that gives him that hope.
‘The support that you get from the government is very basic. It’s support that keeps you alive. But the support that you get from the community gives you your existence, your being. The community welcomes you to be a part of it. Let’s just say, I was surprised to find out there are a lot of organisations that are dedicated to helping the minority to feel part of the community. They give you the hope that even though you may not have the right to remain here, you can start your life here.’
He’s talking about organisations like Kinning Park Complex and Musicians in Exile, which are dedicated to welcoming refugees to Glasgow, regardless of their migratory status or level of English. I ask him about his introduction to Musicians in Exile.
‘I met with a woman who is a singer, and she talked about Musicians in Exile and gave me a number to contact Paul, who runs Musicians in Exile at The Glasgow Barons. I chatted with him, and he invited me to the next rehearsal they were having. They welcomed me with open arms, and I felt compelled to continue playing with them.’
The Glasgow Barons organises rehearsal space for the musicians and provides them with instruments to play. We talk about the different instruments in the group, and Humam speaks humbly of his instrument, his voice.
‘I don’t play an instrument, I just sing. I’m not a professional singer, but I like to sing. I wish I had an opportunity to learn music at some point in my life, but it didn’t happen. When I was a child, I used to sing to the family and in school. Now I sing to my friends, I sing to my wife. I just sing all the time.’
Humam has the opportunity here in Glasgow to sing the music he heard and shared with his community in Syria growing up. His love for singing evokes a sense of connection to his family and home, though they are far away. I ask him if he has children of his own.
‘No, I don’t have children, but I think I will sing to my children when I have some.’
‘I enjoy singing in a group and the way people react to hearing me sing the music of my country. I sing Arabic music. It’s a mixture of Syrian and Egyptian music because we have the same music style. When we jam together in Musicians in Exile, we have many nationalities. For example, at a performance we did the other day, each musician was playing their own style; we had a mixture of Chilean, Persian, Scottish and Arabic. The audience was really enjoying the music. It’s amazing to me that in Musicians in Exile, you can express yourself and be part of the community without losing your identity. It’s its own form of communication. You don’t need to be able to speak English to be part of Musicians in Exile, and amazingly, you don’t need to be a professional musician.’
The sharing of culture, language and knowledge of music connects the musicians together, and connects them to their audiences too, as I experienced at Kinning Park Complex. I ask him to tell me about the kind of audiences they have played to, and the different venues they’ve played at.
‘We’ve played at many venues, including: Kinning Park Complex, The Pianodrome in Edinburgh, The Pearce Institute, and even Barlinnie Prison in Glasgow. Playing at the prison was an amazing experience. If I were asked to perform at the prison again, I would. Our performance there gave the message that communities can support each other. Within Musicians in Exile and the members of the prison, there is a lot of diversity.’
Humam seems empathetic in recognising the support marginalised communities can offer each other across Glasgow. He describes living as an asylum seeker, how awaiting the decision of the government feels like living in a ‘prison cell’. Though he has moved to Glasgow to escape the dangers of a war-torn country, whilst he waits for the right to work in the UK, he faces a lack of autonomy with his work and restrictions to what he can and can’t do.
In Syria, Humam was a journalist covering the Syrian War for ITV news. He was nominated best independent correspondent for Rory Peck in 2018 and The Royal Television Society in 2019.
‘To be able to report the war, giving the rest of the world a sense of what’s going on in Syria makes you feel like you are doing something good for your country. While I’m here, it’s (kind of) time off. Time to re-digest the things I have witnessed and focus on what else I can do.’
‘At the moment, I’m trying to complete a documentary I’ve been working on in the North of Syria. It’s a character driven story, about an internally displaced family and their journey to establish a life somewhere new. I have a team in Syria who I communicate with and we’ve been working on the story for about 4 years now. So I’m trying to work on my footage and finish that film. But at the moment, I’m just eager to get my right to remain and apply for some kind of job.’
He tells me that though it’s difficult to work with a team 3,000 miles away, he has found a way to work remotely. This online communication stretches to his personal relationships too; he last saw his wife in February. When they’re not together, he has to communicate with her online from Scotland.
In Glasgow, whilst he waits for his right to work, he is taking inspiration from his experience in Scotland for his work in the future.
‘I think I would be very happy to make some kind of documentary here focusing on the life of asylum seekers in this country. I’m just trying to find an appropriate approach and to understand the system and how it affects asylum seekers here. I have been an asylum seeker for about 8 months now. It’s not an easy time, but it makes me so crazy when I hear about other asylum seekers who have been waiting for 10 or 11 years. I mean, that’s unbearable.
I’d hope this documentary could make us more aware of the suffering asylum seekers go through. It would be good to get some funding from an NGO.’
Humam’s journalism aims to give asylum seekers a voice and raises awareness of the hardships they suffer.
At the end of the interview, he thanks his friends in Musicians in Exile and refers to them as family. It’s clear that music can be an integral glue for a community. He has faced displacement from his home in Syria and has been forced to move away from his friends and family in Turkey. Despite this, his enthusiasm towards and sense of belonging in Musicians in Exile remain strong. Human’s hope reflects the importance of a welcoming community; though asylum seekers may await a long process of receiving their right to remain, an accepting community can give them a sense of place and a reason to call that place home.