Dr Maggie Grant believes that this country and she means “us/the entire UK”, not just Scotland, where she is based, has been severely damaged by the deliberate dehumanising of migrants and the specific othering that occurs in everyday discourse about immigration. The hostile environment and the conscious shift towards using language and policy to make people’s lives more and more complex and how this impacts young people, mainly trafficked and separated children, with whom she is concerned, is to deprive them of their futures and grounding in life: “The asylum system as it’s currently constructed is ‘broken’, and deliberately so. It makes it easier to blame the people than the systems. We blame the people being forced to move rather than those making decisions about what kind of country we are and how we allocate our resources.”
Her dad, a Scotsman, decided to do something about the kind of country he wanted to live in. In 2015 amidst divisive Brexit rhetoric about migrants, he was part of a small group that set up Stirling Citizens of Sanctuary, which later became “Forth Valley Welcome”. It announces on its website that it welcomes “New Scots” who have come to the UK as refugees from Syria, Sudan, Afghanistan, and Ukraine. Its initial purpose, Grant says, was to pressurise local authorities in the Forth Valley area to participate in the Vulnerable Persons resettlement scheme. It began with Syrian families and later Afghan families. “I also know that for him, part of the reason for setting it up was because he had been to Syria when I was there and met my Syrian colleagues.” A combination of his compassion, natural sense of justice, and direct exposure to the human realities and context, strengthened his resolve, rather than passively watching it on the news.
In 2006, Grant’s family visited her in Syria. At the time, she had found a place in Aleppo, learning Arabic and falling in love with the City’s history and culture. “It’s a cliche, but people are so generous with their time and are so welcoming.” She had a job with the UN agency, UNRWA, and was assisting with a refugee employment project. She had just come from London, where she had worked at a refugee employment centre for Brent Council, so she was not wholly inexperienced. “There were already a lot of Iraqis there, and obviously, from decades back, Palestinians had also moved to Syria. But during the 2006 invasion of Southern Lebanon, I saw Lebanese families fleeing war who also needed sanctuary in Syria. It feels so hard to think about it now because when I was there, Syria was the refugee-receiving country in the region. The idea of how fast and how much things have changed, just how much pain and tragedy there is, is hard to wrap your head around. I have very fond memories of that time and often look back at the photos and wonder what those areas would look like now. My parents and I have talked a lot about it.”
Grant’s family are from Scotland, but growing up, they travelled. She was born in London but soon moved to America where her father got a job. Seven years later, the family returned to live in Scotland, where she remained until, at 18, she went to England to study at Newcastle University. Her undergraduate degree in Combined Studies in Japanese, Korean and Understanding Asian Cultures would take her to Fukuoka University in Japan, and then to Sogang University in South Korea. Various administrative posts kept her in Japan for a couple of years before she was accepted to do an MSc in Social Policy and Planning at the London School of Economics and Political Science in 2003. In subsequent years, post-Syria, and a job with a charity where she was involved with qualitative research and children, Grant decided to settle on research as her career. She began exploring family issues but was also drawn to better understand the lives of young people in care (foster, kinship, residential) or in adoptive families, writing about unaccompanied and trafficked young people whose long but invisible presence in Scotland was coming to the fore. Her PhD in Mental Health from the School of Health Sciences, City University, London, completed in 2012, used data from The British Chinese Adoption Study to explore the perception and lifeways of women who had been internationally adopted in childhood.
Currently, a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Stirling, Centre for Child Well-Being and Protection, Grant juggles her time between her work there and third-sector research projects. Academics working with social workers, medical advisors and lawyers will, she hopes, become a more formalised praxis, where academics become of greater use in their communities, informing protection policies and influencing policy change. She notes the inspiring work of academic colleagues like Paul Rigby whose research and scholarly work draws on his experience as a social worker, grounding policy in genuine practice.
In the past ten years, she has made a significant contribution to several large third sector research projects, such as an AHRC-funded study looking at essential support for trafficked children through the Modern Slavery Policy and Evidence Centre, and a study on maltreatment in foster care for the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry. One of her many projects in Scotland is the Adoption and Fostering Alliance of Scotland, a multi-disciplinary organisation that supports all those working in adoption, fostering and caring for looked-after children, which she co-founded.
Back when Grant worked at Brent Council supporting refugee teachers to requalify, if an academic walked in, then Cara was amongst the first organisations to which they were referred. She admired Cara’s work, and had already considered supporting it when, out of the blue: “she received a last-minute memo about the Cara Syria Programme looking for research team mentors. Some of the projects listed involved young people and I thought, now that is something I probably could contribute to! I had also missed working in multilingual environments, so the idea of getting involved in something like the Syria Programme just appealed. I thought I might be too late because the email was very close to the deadline, or the deadline had passed by this time.”
That was over a year ago and is how she was partnered with Syrian colleagues and now friends: Dr Ahmad Korabi, a Syrian legal theorist who works with the Syrian Dialogue Centre, and Dr Husam Al Saad, a Syrian Sociologist who works at the Aleppo Free University. They had submitted a research proposal to explore young Syrians’ participation in local political structures and, more broadly, in civil society in Syria. Her co-mentor was Johan Siebers, a Dutch Professor of Philosophy based at Middlesex University. He would advise from the viewpoint of politics and philosophy, and Grant would support the research design and frameworks and the ethics approval process. It was a multilingual group, so one of her dreams had come true, and learning from one another highlighted how crucial cross-cultural communication is, especially when different perspectives call for more challenging and reflective discussions. As Grant adds, “just more fun!” In the beginning, they used interpreters, but improved English by the end removed the need, and she found this transformation to be “astounding”, inspiring her to rethink learning languages all over again.
Grant was apprehensive about the ethics process, given the Syrians were not affiliated to the University of Stirling, but the ethics committee members themselves appeared to benefit from the way Ahmad handled their questions about the project. “He raised a lot of good points about the different perceptions of risk when you are working in a context like NW Syria versus working in the UK, and the importance of his community relationships and networks in the region, quite different from a team parachuting in to do research in an area where they haven’t lived or worked before. I thought about that a lot and ethical considerations linked to my own research and what we’re teaching our students about research. Somebody on the panel asked a question about the role of interpreting, which was a good reminder of hugely important role of interpreters’, which was invaluable.”
Relying on Ahmad’s extensive relationships, networks and connections, the team was able to collect good data. Over 300 young people were surveyed in three areas of NW Syria: “Ahmed and Husam were phenomenal in just how quickly they collected data. I remember a meeting where they apologised that after a week of their survey, they only had 180 responses or something, and I’m so used to people saying, ‘Oh well, we’ve only got four responses!’ So, seeing how quickly they could do that, again because they’re so well embedded, was so motivating!”
Due to Covid 19, the team initially met over Zoom, and then finally in-person in Istanbul in March 2022, although without Johan who had contracted Covid. In November 2022, Ahmad was supported by the Cara Syria Programme to make a research incubation visit to the UK, spending 3 weeks at Middlesex University with Johan Siebers, and 2 weeks at the University of Stirling. She felt sorry for him as he navigated his way around icy Stirling in the middle of December, but “he made the most of it, and she marvelled at his use of English.”
Three months later, the data was analysed and ready to be shared; the paper was almost ready, but then came the earthquakes, upended all their plans. Ahmad and his family, who were living in the worst affected area, were forced to move, supported by friends and Cara: “It was awful, but one thing I know about Ahmad is that he’s very determined and the paper will be published.”