For many migrants fleeing persecution in their homeland, England is the promised land. And hiding in the back of a truck is virtually the only way to get to it.
In 1999, Sabir Zazai snuck onto a UK-bound truck in northern France and got off in Dover, on England's east coast. For him, as for countless other Afghans, living under the oppressive rule of the Taliban had become too dangerous. He was 22 years old.
Zazai is 41 now, living further inland in the city of Coventry. Over the years, he has built a life and career in the UK. Two years ago, the softspoken man began working as the director of the Coventry Refugee and Migrant Center — the same place that helped him shortly after he’d arrived.
“I see people from many, many different places, many different conflicts,” he says. “I think somehow for me, it’s some kind of a therapy, what I’ve been through, the welcome that I’ve received, the support that I’ve received. Now, offering that openly to others gives me an energy and it’s that rewarding feeling that motivates me to help others.”
The center serves migrants from Afghanistan, Eritrea and Syria, among other countries. It helps them with legal issues, reuniting with family, housing, employment and language needs (though funds for teaching English have been cut and Zazai has to rely on volunteers to help).
Zazai knows how important these services are if these newcomers are to have any hope of integrating into British society. And he understands what’s at stake because he's been through the process himself.
“That is the journey of acculturation, integration, cultural mediation and so on,” he says, “and you end up in a strange world where you don’t even speak the language, your qualifications are not recognized, 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.”
Recently, Zazai was particularly motivated to help two new migrants: Afghan boys, only 14 and 15.
“They were starving. They were really, really tired and looked shattered,” he says. “And as they came into our reception they were so tired that they fell asleep. I spoke to them and the first question I asked them was, ‘Have you eaten?’ and they said, ‘Not for a long time.’ So I went out and got them some food and it ... made me really feel sad that I saw two young people — in this society we respect the rights of young people — just went into that food and finished it within seconds because they were so hungry.”
The boys had traveled from the large migrant camp in Calais, on the coast of France, which authorities have begun dismantling. Just like Zazai 17 years ago, they snuck across the English Channel on the back of a truck. Zazai rang up the local social services agency and was shocked to hear that the police would have to handle the boys' case first.
“Basically, we had to call the police on them,” Zazai says with a bewildered chuckle. “The police came over, and the first thing the police did is to search them because they said ‘we don’t know them, we have to search them before we put them in our car.’ So how would you feel after losing everything, after going through that terrible experience, and then arriving in a safe country and then being treated in that way? I felt really bad telling them that this, this is the most we can do for you, is to call the police.”
A few weeks later, Zazai was reassured when he ran into the boys in downtown Coventry. They looked well, and told him they were now in the care of social services.
Zazai says he can identify with those boys because he too is isolated from his relatives. When Zazai and his family fled Afghanistan, he managed to reach England’s shores. His parents only made it as far as Peshawar, Pakistan, where they still live today. This separation is a constant source of anguish for him.
“I walk in Coventry and people greet me, and thank me, and say hello,” he says, “but I think one thing that’s left a big gap is my family. I’m always worried about them.”
Three years ago, when Zazai completed a master's degree in community development, he had hoped his family would be able to attend his graduation. But they could not obtain visas.
“They were refused, and that really, really hurt me and that really felt like I have not integrated,” he says. “Or that I’ve integrated but I have not been accepted.”
That lack of acceptance eats away at Zazai. He's been a citizen since 2006. He's married with three children and has a steady job, and he feels he has been a model citizen.
“I think I have done everything to adapt to the culture, values and principles of this country. I love Coventry, I love Britain, I respect its values of democracy,” he says. “The city has given me protection, peace, a job, and a family, but I think somehow there is something missing. ... Still that my parents might come and stay here illegally, that’s the kind of stigmatization around refugees and migrant communities that I am suffering from, and I think it’s that issue of trust.”
Zazai is worried that mistrust of refugees will only get worse after the Brexit vote to leave the European Union, which he says has brought on a hostile climate. People around him are reporting an uptick in racial tensions and Zazai himself has been receiving more hate mail.
“People are worried about migration,” he says. “I think that kind of fear, xenophobia, hatred, increased because of the referendum [on EU membership]. And communities have been divided, people have been divided in workplaces and neighborhoods and I’m really concerned and worried that this will take quite a lot of time. It takes many, many years to build bridges across communities and it only takes one referendum to mess them all up.”
This is disheartening to Zazai after all the work he’s done to integrate migrants. But he plans to respond by doing more outreach than ever.
“I think the focus needs to be on how we live well together in a diverse world, rather than creating divisions that happen because of the referendum.”