We’re very proud of our Chief Executive, Sabir Zazai, who has been presented with an OBE.

Sabir was recognised in the Queen’s final birthday honours last June for his work advocating for the rights of people seeking safety. He collected his medal on 18 January in a special ceremony at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh.

“The occasion made me look back on my shoulder. The first letter I received in the UK read, ‘you are a person liable to be detained.’ The letter I received with the OBE award read, ‘we would like to honour you with an OBE.’

“I never came to the UK in search of honours. Like many others I too arrived in search for safety, protection and acceptance. This award is for all of us, those that stand up for refugee rights and those that are seeking sanctuary.”

We caught up with Sabir after he was named in the honours list in June 2022. He told us about his journey from arriving in the UK as a young man seeking safety twenty-three years ago, to being recognised by HRH the Queen for his work advocating for refugee rights.

Sabir, congratulations on receiving this honour. It’s been awarded to you in recognition of your work supporting people seeking refugee protection.  Can you tell us a bit about this work and what it means to you?

I started my first full time job in 2002, working with refugee children in primary education in Coventry. I observed the many barriers families and children encounter through the asylum system, which resonated with my own experiences of the hardship of seeking sanctuary in the UK.

When I was younger, I was very inspired by the generosity of the local communities and people that welcomed me to the UK. The culture of volunteerism, solidarity and standing up for one another’s rights and the goodwill of local communities inspired me to turn my own experiences of sufferings and hardships into hope for others.

My life as a refugee and refugee rights activist is full of many moments and highlights that continue to empower me to advocate for the rights of others who seek sanctuary. I remember people and communities in Coventry that stood up for our rights to have access to health, dentists, education and shelter. I remember the first time a local activist and good friend, late Penny Walker, took me to a BBC interview or asked me to speak at Coventry Cathedral about refugee experiences. I recall my hands and legs shaking but I knew that we needed a voice and if I didn’t add my lived experiences to the voices of others standing up for refugee rights, it will be hard to secure change. I remember standing in Coventry City Council chambers calling on city leaders for Coventry to become a City of Sanctuary. I was then proud to chair City of Sanctuary and help in promoting and reviving the culture of welcome and hospitality one community and one city at a time.

I am immensely grateful to all my colleagues and at Scottish Refugee Council and many partners with whom I have worked closely to secure rights for refugees.

In an increasingly regressive refugee and asylum landscape, we have worked together to secure the right for refugees to vote in Scottish parliamentary and local elections.

We stopped ‘lock change’ evictions to make those seeking sanctuary homeless and destitute.

We successfully campaigned for the Scottish Parliament to stand firm against the UK Government’s cruel anti-refugee bill and recognise that Scotland welcomes refugees.

I used my own lived experience to help shape the sectors response to the Nationality and Borders Bill. I am privileged to chair the ‘Asylum Reform Initiative’ and the over 400 members strong ‘Together with Refugees’, working with people from cross section of society to ask for a more humane, effective and efficient asylum system.

How did you feel when you found out you’d be receiving an OBE?

It comes as a big surprise, but also a great honour in recognition of my work for refugee rights and justice over the last 20 years. But, of course, I know that I do not do this work alone, and while this is a personal honour for me, I believe it is also a recognition of the commitment and contribution of all of us in this struggle together. In accepting the honour, I hope that it also shines a light on both the many incredible people who work tirelessly to welcome refugees – and to the many refugees who have come to the UK to find protection but who then have given so much back.

How do you plan to use this honour?

I don’t think it will change much in my personal life or my voice and resolve in standing up for refugee rights. But in terms of my work for refugee rights I plan to better influence and to speak out with a stronger voice to make lives better for our new friends, neighbours and colleagues, who are looking to rebuild their lives in our communities.

What would you say to people who are having a difficult time right now, whether that’s coping with the stress and anxiety of life in the asylum system, or otherwise dealing with poverty, loneliness and hardship?

Hard times come and go just like happy moments in our lives. But we must keep going and never give up hope, celebrate the little gifts in life whether that is friends, family or children. We must stay connected and reach out to one another as we did during the pandemic. It shouldn’t take a pandemic for us to be kind to one another. Small acts of kindness brings the best of humanity in us. These aren’t easy times for us all. There are now 100 million people forced to flee their homes around the globe. These are 100 million people with hopes, aspirations, dreams and family. The pandemic reminded us how interdependent we are on one another’s wellbeing. There is no “us” and “them”. Wherever we see injustice and denial of rights, we must stand together in opposing it.

There are many people living through the uncertainty of the asylum system. Seeking asylum isn’t easy. People are denied rights including the important right to work. But my message to everyone is to never give up hope. There are many people who are advocating for your rights. Stay connected and involved and one day you will look back on your journey and celebrate YOUR unique friendships and achievements. I am no exception. I arrived as an asylum seeker in the UK. The community welcomed me and the society invested in me for which I am grateful and today I am proud to lead Scottish Refugee Council, Scotland’s national refugee agency. But every person arriving here also has so much to contribute. We must truly welcome them, celebrate them as equal citizens and invest in their potential. Every refugee has a powerful story of courage, resilience and hope; and every refugee and the people that welcome them deserve an OBE!

Pauline D
Author: Pauline D