On 18 December 1999, Sabir Zazai, then 23, arrived in Britain as a refugee from . He is still not sure how exactly he made it to the UK, dressed in only a T-shirt and trousers, with the merest of possessions. “The way we were trafficked – we didn’t see much,” he says.
“The traffickers would put us in houses that were boarded up. There was one place where we were doped, given tablets, so we kept quiet going through the border. Speaking to other people, I suspect we came through central Asia, Uzbekistan, maybe. And then maybe through Russia and Ukraine, then the Czech Republic and on to Germany.”
Zazai talks about all this with palpable surprise that he survived. “Sometimes, the traffickers would forget about you and just leave you there, for weeks and weeks.”
He thinks the final leg of his journey may have started in Belgium. In Dover, he was discovered by the police in a lorry, along with around 50 other people, the end of a journey that had begun more than a year earlier. “The first thing I saw in Britain was a police dog,” he says.
“I was sent to Coventry,” he continues, with a laugh. And at first, he says, his life was inevitably trying. “I was anxious, frustrated. I couldn’t communicate with people, or services, or organisations. I felt isolated. I didn’t have any friends.”
He began to make progress thanks to the help he got from the city’s , and eventually studied for a degree in business and human resource management at Coventry University. In 2008, he was given British citizenship. He well understands the resonances of where he has ended up: a city once ravaged by war, which offered him and others a refuge from equally traumatic conflicts.
For the last eight years, Zazai – who is now the centre’s director – has been one of the prime movers in the of , a nationwide network of groups that work to create “a culture of hospitality and inclusiveness” for refugees. It now has about 30 offshoots, not just representing cities and towns, but whole boroughs.
Its reach extends from Belfast, Glasgow and Liverpool, through Huddersfield and Nottingham, and on to new and emerging organisations in such places as Stroud in Gloucestershire, Skipton in North Yorkshire, Hay-on-Wye in Powys and the Wirral.
The essential idea falls three ways: working with businesses, charities and public services to make them as understanding of refugees as possible; raising public awareness and changing people’s perceptions; and, perhaps most importantly, directly helping refugees – offering everything from clothes banks to English lessons – in circumstances that, as Zazai well knows, can be massively disorienting and dispiriting.
In Coventry, City of Sanctuary operates partly as an umbrella group, and includes people from the city council. Among its first big steps was the drafting of a pledge “to be welcoming and understanding of the needs of refugees”, which was eventually signed by about 70 organisations, from businesses to GP surgeries.
One secondary school has agreed to be a , and more are apparently set to follow. And since about 80 Syrian refugees arrived in Coventry (by Christmas, there will be close to 120), City Of Sanctuary has worked to try to connect them with sources of support and potential job opportunities: last week, a meeting was held at a local mosque where, says Zazai, “you’d hear someone say, ‘I used to be a chef in Syria’, and another person who owned a restaurant would say, ‘I can help you.’
“People were making real connections,” he tells me. “Ten or 15 years ago, that kind of thing just wasn’t there: to find work, I had to go round the city alone.”
Forty minutes north of Coventry is the university town of Loughborough. Its Town of Sanctuary group began to come to life about two years ago, after an initial local meeting: the people involved work on a smaller canvas, but with no less passion. Issues surrounding refugees are particularly visible in this overlooked corner of the East Midlands, because Loughborough is the location of a UK Border Agency reporting centre, where refugees living in such urban centres as Nottingham, Derby and Leicester must periodically turn up, to be informed of the progress – or not – of their asylum cases.
Around 160 people come each day and, eight times a week, volunteers from the Sanctuary group stand outside the centre, handing them helpful telephone numbers, telling them about help they can get, and distributing vouchers for food at a nearby community centre.
“We’ve got a total mixture of people – from churches, and the university ... and just general people who feel awful about what’s happening,” says Marion Smith, a former Labour councillor who is on the group’s organising committee. In a lot of what she says, there is a sense of little things meaning a lot. Over the summer, she says, the group put together children’s activity packs full of “pens, pencils, crayons, balls, and those little aeroplanes you slot together”, which she says moved some of their recipients to tears, and they planned to do the same at Christmas.
And what of the local population? Here, it seems there is proof of the fact that we live in a more accepting and compassionate country than some people might think. “Very few people have said anything critical,” she says. ‘In fact, a lot of people have come up and said, ‘Well done.’”