It’s an incredible statistic: There are now more than 65 million displaced people in the world – people who have had to leave their homes to flee wars and conflict. That’s more than the population of the UK. More than half of them are women and children, all of them making tortuous journeys looking for safety.
As we’ve seen on our TV screens, the journeys are themselves highly dangerous. Tragically, for many refugees seeking a safe haven their flight ends with them losing their lives. In 2015 alone, 3771 people died crossing the Mediterranean trying to get to Europe. Many more died at other crossings or borders.
And the lucky ones who make it to a safe country find that their journey to a new life is far from over as they face the grim and grinding business of finding a way through often inhumane asylum systems that are mostly aimed not at welcoming people in need, but at keeping them out.
Putting down roots in a new home and restoring some dignity can be a lengthy and frustrating process – doubly difficult for people whose only fault is to have hopes and aspirations for themselves and their children. Having lost everything in their escape from war and persecution, they find themselves victims again – victims of the politics of fear, and increasingly polarised public attitudes as rich western states focus more on reinforcing their borders rather than on identifying ways of dealing with the crisis.
I am no stranger to this: I arrived in Coventry in the UK in the back of a lorry as a refugee from Afghanistan, and now I run a charity which seeks to help other refugees arriving in the city. It’s the very charity that did so much to help me.
My story as a refugee goes back to 1992, and the start of the Afghan civil war. Religious fighters soon took over the capital Kabul where I lived with my family, and toppled the communist regime, but then came heavy fighting between different factions.
It was terrifying and bloody and amid heavy bombing and shelling, my family left Kabul for the eastern city of Jalalabad where we ended up in a refugee camp, just another family among the thousands of people displaced by the fighting. We had no desire to leave Afghanistan. We thought the war would end soon and looked forward to going home to rebuild our lives. That was not to be.
Life in our huge camp was grim. I was lucky because I had my family, but it was intensely distressing and frustrating as the days stretched out with nothing to do and nowhere to go, missing everyday things like going to school, playing with friends. It is often forgotten that there are some 30 million people displaced by conflict within their own countries, all of them counting the days, weeks, years, before they can go home.
But in Afghanistan things got even worse. In 1999 with the Taliban regime under attack from the West, many young people were being forced to join either Taliban fighters or the forces of an opposing warlord.
My family, thinking only of my safety, decided that I would have to leave. Heading off to the unknown, thinking that I may never see my family again, was traumatic. Although my journey was so difficult I often came close to giving up, I was constantly haunted by thoughts of what my parents and my brother must be going through.
How they must have felt to see me leave is impossible for me to imagine, especially now I am a father myself. I occasionally have to travel for my work but I can’t bear for a day to go by without seeing my young children.
I pray they never have to endure a journey like mine. There were many times along the way when I thought I was about to die. The threat of violence or starvation was ever-present as I and 50 men, women and children crammed into a lorry, made our way across Europe. The agents who take your money and organise the travel never warn of the dangers, and people can be hugely misled. There were many times I wanted to just give up, but there was no going back.
I could not have betrayed the faith my parents had placed in me. With me on my way to Europe, they and my brother had meanwhile got to Peshawar in Pakistan where they still live as refugees.
Finally, on a gloomy, drizzly day in December 1999, I and my fellow travellers arrived in Dover. We clambered out of the lorry to be greeted by the police whilst being barked at heavily by their dogs. Not a bad welcome!
Through an interpreter a Home Office official told me “You are a person liable to be detained because you have entered the country illegally” – as if there was a legal way of fleeing the situation in Afghanistan. How could one go to the Taliban then, or to the Assad regime in Syria today, to ask for documents to flee their regimes?
After a couple of nights in Dover, we were split into groups and addressing our group, the Home Office official said with a smile on her face, “You lot will be sent to Coventry!” It took me two years to work out what that smile meant – a lot less than the time it took me to learn how to get on and off the Coventry ring road!
I didn’t know it, but this was the last leg of my journey. After what seemed like hours, we were dropped off in the Hillfields area of Coventry, where five of us ended up in a two-bedroom terraced house. I got the sofa, where I stayed for a year and a half. It wasn’t much, but coming from the dreadful conflict into which I was born and brought up, we had very low expectations. To us, it didn’t seem too bad. And we hadn’t ended up in prison.
But the frustrations started as we began a new gruelling journey through the asylum process. To prove our need for protection was almost as long and tortuous as the journey we had endured to get to the UK. For some time we were dreading opening any post in case there was another refusal letter from the Home Office. But again I didn’t give up. I couldn’t betray the faith my parents had placed in me.
At that time, Coventry did not have a specific service for refugees, but in months of my arrival I met Penny Walker who was operating an advice drop-in from a laundrette in Hillfields, an inner-city neighbourhood. I started learning English and volunteered to help other refugees. This informal drop-in turned into today’s Coventry Refugee and Migrant Centre, of which I have been the director for the past two years.
Penny and her group of volunteers were incredibly helpful but most importantly they listened and tried to understand our needs, although there was very little that could be done. It was that first welcome and happy smiley faces that helped us in developing a sense of belonging to this city. As a refugee you may forget what you lost but you won’t forget the welcome you received.
Today, 17 years later, not much has changed for refugees. The journeys they face have become tougher, those seeking asylum are not trusted and are increasingly seen as problems to be dealt with or kept out, not as people in need of help.
As I welcome families and their children to Coventry as the Director of the Coventry Refugee and Migrant Centre, I can see my pain, and my hopes and aspirations in their faces and their eyes.
Far from being a threat, refugees can be an asset to their adopted homes. Refugees can make great contributions if they are given the chance to do so. I sought sanctuary in this country, the community invested in me, and I am now proud to pay back but I am not unique. Every refugee has something special to offer if we invest early in their integration.
I was touched by the existing culture of volunteering and compassion in this city.
We must start moving people from war into prosperity and not poverty. When refugees prosper, we all prosper.
Sabir Zazai, Director, Coventry Refugee and Migrant Centre