VIDEO: From Syria to Bute: “My people are like the Jasmine flower”

Nathanael Williams

A short film made by Shameela Islam-Zulfiqar explores the experiences of Syrian families who have taken refuge on Bute in Scotland.

DOCTOR Shameela Islam-Zulfiqar, filmmaker and winner of the Helena Kennedy Foundation from Manchester, has released a film documenting the lives of Syrian refugees who moved to Bute since last Christmas.

The film focuses on the experiences of a young family through the views and words of 'Yuri' a 30 year old English literature graduate from Damascus, who speaks about memories of her country, what she feels about Scotland and how she has adjusted to survival.

The film also documents interactions between the families and the local population from a variety of perspectives. The refugees settled on Bute have found themselves at the centre of wider media attention several times, having been some of the first refugees to settle in the UK after prime minister David Cameron agreed to accept more. The plight of refugees received a lot of public attention after images were printed in UK newspapers showing the body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi washed up on a beach after trying to flee the conflict. However, media coverage has been mixed since, and critics say it has heightened tensions in communities.

The Daily Mail last month ran an edited version of an original story in its sister title, the Mail on Sunday, which cast the refugees and Bute in what locals claimed was an "unflattering and exploitative" manner. CommonSpace ran coverage about local individuals hitting back, and media such as the Buteman running counter stories.

The introduction begins with images of Damascus and Aleppo where the original uprising against the Syrian government occurred and also where some of the heaviest fighting has been. Memories are connected thorough the piece using the native plant of Syria, the Jasmine flower, which is narrator Yuri says is as a symbol of the country and people’s resilience in a time of war.

Yuri: "And we are like the Jasmine flower, a white delicate flower which is surrounded on all sides by destruction and the rubble."

Speaking about the her first impressions of Bute, it's people and the challenges of readjusting to life away from home, she said: "It was strange when I first came but so many people were welcoming. We were lucky and that myself and my husband both speak English but for other families it can be difficult. 

"So I end up translating – some of the women will ring me from the shop."

The focus of the piece switches to interactions with locals and their opinions and strikes a nuanced tone between acceptance and guarded curiosity. The director spoke to David, a local teacher with a record of charity work and who has been keen to find out about the refugees since they arrived and aid them in any way.

As he said in the documentary film: "For generations people have been coming here and they're all individuals, all with talents.

"It must be hard and I imagine if I was in their shoes to have to rebuild their lives but I say as dark as the situation gets, they will always be welcome in this house."

"And we are like the Jasmine flower, a white delicate flower which is surrounded on all sides by destruction and the rubble." Yuri

On the other hand some locals did say that they were "cautious about the new arrivals" but believe it is just a case of people getting to know each other to prove that "mankind can find a way". The dynamic of being on an island is also explored, with locals talking about how a community is affected by what might seem to outsiders as small change.

A couple in the film states: "Well in the 1950s you had the harbour here where the Navy used to anchor and even back then there was this whole thing about an us and them mentality. An island thing."

The director, Shameela Islam-Zulfiqar, created the film on zero budget as part of a university masters module.

She told CommonSpace: "When travelling to Bute Island, I took my almost 90-year-old grandmother and her two daughters (my mother and aunt), both in their 60s with me – three generations staying at a place that has rarely seen brown faces let alone those wearing hijab and visibly Muslim.

"The three most important ladies in our family had never been to such a remote place in the UK so it was a bit of a social experiment, too. It reminded them of the days they first came to live in England around 40 years ago, and they could identify much more with what the Syrian families were going through than I could, having been born and bought up in a multicultural city like London and living in an equally multicultural city like Manchester my whole adult life."

"It must be hard and I imagine if I was in their shoes to have to rebuild their lives but I say as dark as the situation gets, they will always be welcome in this house." David

She went on: "I hope the film is a much more accurate representation of Island life with the refugees and hope to expand this project in the future as time goes on. Life may not be perfect for the refugees or the Islanders at the current set up, but it certainly isn't anywhere near as bleak as shoddy journalism would have you believe.

"Let's focus on the positivity and common ground that unites everyone and concentrate on initiatives that promote community cohesion. I hope this film is just one small step in facilitating that cohesion."

In reference to the Daily Mail article printed weeks earlier, she said: "Several islanders opined that the families should never have been sent to Bute in the first place, citing the SNP as using the refugee families as political pawns. 

"As shown in my film, rumours on the island are rampant and no one in authority seems to be clarifying anything at the moment. My conversations with the resettlement families are confidential but what I can say is there is general shock and disappointment at the misrepresentation of them in the articles that are written in papers like the Daily Mail. 

"The literal translation of Arabic words has been noted, added two bits worth by the paper and portrayed in a manner which does not reflect the views of the resettlement families."

Above all, this piece is a film about mixed reactions and how the experience of fleeing against a person’s will is traumatic, and never a simple proposition. The director has stated on her Facebook page that all the debate over refuge, people and resettlement has to take place within the context of remembering people's lives are being blighted by conflict. 

Picture courtesy of Beth Oban

Check out what people are saying about how important CommonSpace is. Pledge your support today.