Sabir Zazai welcomed delegates at the Churches’ Refugee Network day conference to Coventry. He explained that 17 years ago he was in the back of a lorry with fifty other children, women and men en route to the UK. They arrived in Dover on a cold, foggy December day.
“It was the police who welcomed us from the lorry. A police dog barked at each one of us separately – that was the welcome that I received!”
After a few days they were split into groups and dispersed cross the UK. After two years he realised why the Home Office official smiled when she said “you lot will be sent to Coventry”.
Coventry is now his home. Sabir runs Coventy Refugee and Migrant Centre, the very organisation that welcomed him to the city 17 years ago. Set up my “three kind hearted people” the charity originally operated from a laundrette. Today it has 40 staff members and 80 volunteers offering therapy, employment support, English language lessons, and supported housing units.
Sabir reflected on the refugee crisis and the European response.
“3770 people alone in the last year lost their lives in the Mediterranean. All of them were people like me and you, people who had lives and people who had hopes and aspirations. All they wanted to do was to run away from a dreadful situation to safety. But what we did was shut our doors. We built higher walls. Instead of looking at solutions we focussed on the externalisation of our borders.”
Sabir explained how Coventry’s history has underpinned its response in “proudly” welcoming 300 Syrian refugees to date. Their story is familiar to members of the public and civic leadership.
“We don’t need to go too far away. We’ve got a cathedral without a roof. Today there are houses and places and mosques around the world without roofs and foundations.”
But the work has challenges.
“Because we are a charity open to all refugees and migrants we have seen this issue of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ refugees.”
A Syrian child arriving in Coventry with a resettled family has a very different experience to an unaccompanied minor who makes their way to the area.
“Personally as a former refugee I think all refugees need protection, all refugees need welcome. I think they need to be treated equally.”
Whenever someone knocks on the organisation’s door they are looking for help and compassion not an expression of uncertainty about their age.
“Somehow we are getting into the habit of moving people from war into poverty rather than into prosperity.”
Sabir questioned how many of the resettled Syrian refugees have jobs and are working. “These are people who had jobs … and have something really good to offer to this country and this society.” In his own experience Sabir wasn’t just looking for food and shelter but sought a way to pay back and become independent and help himself.
He finished by underlining the importance of giving refugees a voice.
“Stories can connect us better. If refugees can tell their own story of fleeing conflict and dreadful journeys and integration then we can make a difference. We can all do our best to convince people but refugees can do a better job.”