Scottish election 2021: Right to vote 'changes my life', says Syrian refugee

By David Shanks
BBC Scotland reporter

Published
Image caption,
Ahmad Alkhaled says the system in Scotland can be trusted

"It will be a minute that changes my life - I have the right to vote".

For Syrians such as Ahmad Alkhaled, the forthcoming Scottish election will be the first national vote where refugees will be able to take part.

For many, it will be the first time participating in a free and fair electoral process.

Ahmad, 24, arrived in Aberdeenshire last year as he and many relatives fled the conflict at home. He is now looking forward to going to a polling station.

There are about 20,000 refugees in Scotland, and work is ongoing to support those heading to the ballot box.

They are among an estimated 55,000 foreign nationals who will be entitled to vote in this election.

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For nearly 10 years now civil war has raged in Syria, sparked by demands for more political freedom and democracy.

About a quarter of the population became refugees, fleeing the conflict .

Ahmad and his family, now in Inverurie, were among them.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Civilians have fled the conflict

"We are so happy", Ahmad said, who arrived with relatives including his mother in January last year.

"I am adjusting - I am working hard to improve my English, and am now a student full-time at North East Scotland College."

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He explained: "The main reason I left Syria is the war.

"I want to build up my future as soon as possible.

"This country gave me a lot of things and a lot of chances to live. So I want to do my best for this country, and to return the favour."

SCOTLAND'S ELECTION: THE BASICS

What's happening? On 6 May, people across Scotland will vote to elect 129 Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs). The party that wins the most seats will form the government. Find out more here.

What powers do they have? MSPs pass laws on aspects of life in Scotland such as health, education and transport - and have some powers over tax and welfare benefits.

On voting, he said: "In Syria it is very hard, here it is much easier.

"Here you can trust the system, there you can't. This makes me feel very welcome."

He said the hardest thing about living in Scotland was the driving theory test.

'The right to vote'

Sarah Mackie from the Electoral Commission said: "The Scottish Parliament last year voted to expand the franchise to anyone aged 16 and over who has the right to live in Scotland.

"That includes refugees, people of all different nationalities who are resident in Scotland.

"So our message is wherever you were born, if you're 16 and over, you've the right to vote in Scotland."

Image caption,
Ahmad is pictured before leaving for Scotland

Aberdeenshire Council refugee resettlement manager Katie MacLean said a lot of activities and programmes in recent years had tried to give people a sense of identity and belonging within Scotland and within Aberdeenshire.

"That's been something that's really important. It's helped them settle, and build new identities and homes for their families again," she said.

'I want to feel democracy'

As the election nears, work is being carried out to ensure those new to the Scottish system know what to do.

For those who have fled conflict, seeking democracy, it is a significant moment.

"It will be a minute that changes my life", Ahmad explained. "In my feeling it will mean I'm a person, I live. I have the right to vote, it's an amazing feeling inside myself.

"I want to vote by going to a polling station and give them my vote.

"I want to feel democracy, because I've never felt that in my life."