From refugee to chief executive: Zazai’s story of hope

Coventry-migrants

Sabir Zazai, the new chief executive of the Scottish Refugee Council, wants to build on Scotland's special relationship with refugees 

26th September 2017 by Robert Armour 2 Comments

Eighteen years ago Sabir Zazai arrived in Dover as a refugee from Afghanistan with only the clothes on his back. Today he is chief executive of the Scottish Refugee Council.

And the irony doesn’t end there. His last post was director of the Coventry Refugee and Migrant Center — the first place that supported Zazai shortly after he’d arrived in the UK.

He tells me these achievements won’t ever leave him, so much so each day he takes time to remember his perilous journey to the UK and the nine long years he and his family lived in a refugee camp.

There, he says, they counted the “days months, years” when he they could return to their home in Kabul.

Sadly that return never came as the war between the mujahedeen and the Taliban worsened. But crucially he never gave up hope: “It’s human nature to believe,” he says. “Whether that’s a dream or for something more practical, we never give up. We all have that survival instinct.”  

Two weeks into the job, 42 year-old Zazai says his appointment should encourage other refugees that anything is possible and to realise that life presents “many opportunities.”

“With my appointment I can send the very strong message you might have lost everything but it’s not the end,” he says. “It can be a new beginning and new opportunities will come your way.”

From his unique background, Zazai knows how important services are if newcomers are to have hope of integrating into Scottish society. And he understands what’s at stake because he's been through the process himself.

“You end up in a strange world where you don’t even speak the language, your qualifications are not recognised and you’ve left family behind. You lost people in war and conflict, you’ve got the tremors of the journey, the conflict, and also the treatment of the system, and that all stays with you for a long time.”

The UK – and Europe - has a refugee crisis which, despite trauma and destitution, sees this growing population of dispossessed people becoming the scapegoat for a whole hoard of social ills.

Tackling this stigma won’t be easy but he contests that people aren’t against refugees. On the contrary he says the tide of opinion has changed with recent events creating empathy as opposed to hatred. 

He refers to the tragic images of Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy whose image made global headlines after he drowned on September 2015.

“We were all appalled that we couldn’t help,” he says. “We saw a child without its dignity. And everyone related to that indignity. There was a revolution of generosity. The prime minister was forced into action, taking in 20,000 Syrian refugees.

“It showed to us there’s a big gap between public opinion and public policy. Usually policy is informed by opinion: we are full, refugees take our jobs. But that has changed. While we see overwhelming evidence of the public’s empathy for migrants, the government isn’t being influenced enough by it.

“So the public does want change. People will welcome refugees if they are allowed to.”

Indeed Scotland has welcomed more Syrian refugees than any other part of the UK under the government’s official resettlement scheme, accepting more than 1,200 people compared to just 33 who have been taken in by London local authorities

However what government currently does is invest more in enforcement than integration. “If the public response was coupled with government investment we’d be in a very different society,” says Zazai.

He adds: “Sadly instead it’s left to charities, churches and local communities to support refugees.”

Yet, he says, even on his first few weeks in Scotland’s biggest city it is apparent refugees and migrants are woven into the fabric of Glasgow and that the idea they are not accepted is a mistruth.   

"If you walk out this building and get in a cab chances are you’ll meet a driver who’ll tell you he’s from another country,” he says.

“I speak to people in shops, in the street from different backgrounds. Everyone in Scotland has a refugee story. It’s become the fabric of this city and, of course, that’s a great thing.”

What first attracted Zazai to the Scottish Refugee Council, replacing John Wilkes, was the country’s track record on human rights and the greater opportunities to influence policy. Despite immigration being reserved to Westminster, Zazai hopes the SRC will develop its presence and build on its success in being able to shape legislation as well as design bigger and better services for its growing numbers of clients. 

We saw a child without its dignity. And everyone related to that indignity

“Just now it is a great time to achieve social justice,” he says. “Scotland has unique voice in refugee protection. SRC has developed that voice as the leading organisation of its type, so much so the charity has become part of Scotland’s identity.

“Of course I’m just started in the job but I think that’s something that presents a great many opportunities where our services and our experiences can influence politicians and others.”

In just a matter of weeks Zazai says he’s been hugely impressed by the amount of people and communities interested in engaging with refugees. “It’s happening at every level: local authority, NHS, the police. They want to actively improve their services. It’s phenomenal; you won’t see this anywhere else.”

For Zazai, the difference in thriving rather than just surviving is the challenge of playing an active role in the life of your community. He believes giving others that opportunity is vital if Scotland’s refugees are to continue their journey of integration.

 “There are many refugees like me,” he says. “They have a huge wealth of talent and ability. And they want to actively engage in their communities, to support others and wider society.

“I see my role as assisting that – of helping these people contribute as best they can as well as giving them the support to do so. That’s the very definition of a healthy society.”

Third sector leading the way in supporting refugees

It is difficult to work out precisely how many people who have been granted some form of refugee status in the UK have chosen to make their home in Scotland. 

A person with refugee status can decide where in the country they live and just like anyone else will be influenced by a number of factors, including their individual housing options, employment prospects and links to family, friends and community.

The vast majority of asylum seekers in Scotland have been living in Glasgow as this has been the only asylum dispersal area in Scotland. Consequently Glasgow has been a substantial focus for the work of new services and initiatives by the third sector. 

In 2015 Scotland committed to respond to the increasing humanitarian crisis and took in Syrian refugees. Charities like Refuweegee - a community-led organisation set up to ensure that all refugees arriving in Glasgow are welcomed to the city - have flourished. As has the Bridges Programme which supports the social, educational and economic integration of refugees.

The good practice first established in Glasgow is helping to inform work to support refugees across Scotland. 

Nearly all Scottish local authorities have now received refugees under the Syrian Resettlement Programme. A number have also provided homes for unaccompanied child refugees.

Jane Cranston, an integration manager with the Scottish Government's refugee resettlement unit, says: "The work by the third sector has been vital. The innovative way it has responded has been incredible. It is also hugely heartening."

Comments

Please enter the word you see in the image below:


27th September 2017 by Angus McKay

Sabir Zazai arrived in Dover as a refugee from Afghanistan - did he arrive from France - if so why didn’t he claim his asylum in France?"Tackling this stigma won’t be easy but he contests that people aren’t against refugees. On the contrary he says the tide of opinion has changed with recent events creating empathy as opposed to hatred." Wrong there, Mr Zazai, the people who are against refugees and asylum seekers are the people who are being forced to take them into their neighbourhoods and schools. Those who aren’t against refugees and seekers are those MPs, MSPs and councillors who welcome them into other peoples backyards, not theirs.Yes Mr Zazai, we are full, Glasgow’s poor areas have circa 10,000 refugees and asylum seekers and they are taking our jobs, you being an excellent example. People who are being forced to do your welcoming will not welcome your refugees and seekers - but we’re not allowed to.Yes indeed Mr Zazai, Scotland (Scottish Government) has welcomed more Syrian refugees than any other part of the UK and sent them to the poor areas of Scotland, mostly Glasgow’s poor areas.“Sadly instead it’s left to charities, churches and local communities to support refugees.” - All paid for by the UK taxpayer to the detriment of our own people - every £ spent on a seeker and refugee is a £ siphoned off our own people.And I can enlighten you, Mr Zazai, "they" are not accepted - I know not who you are listening to, but you’re not listening to those (me) who are being forced to "accept" them.Ah, your Scottish Refugee Council, they who relocated from Edinburgh to Glasgow to be beside their customers. They who helped block the relocation of some of Glasgow’s thousands of seekers and refugees because they didn’t want to lose their customers, "its growing numbers of clients.""“There are many refugees like me,” he says. “They have a huge wealth of talent and ability." Really Mr Zazai, then why does no other constituency in Scotland take them in any great numbers - having witnessed the absolute turmoil since they were placed in Glasgow, the other 31 constituencies ain’t biting.You are wrong, Mr Zazai, the people who have, are being forced to have, your asylum seekers and refugees do not want them, we have too many. How many asylum seekers and refugees do you have living via the thickness of a wall to you?

27th September 2017 by Angus McKay

Angus McKay · Sorry about the lack of paragraph, I posted such, website omitted paragraphs - no edit facility available.