In this regular Sunday feature, we ask Scots about 10 things that changed their life. This week, Scottish Refugee Council CEO Sabir Zazai...

1. Becoming a refugee

The National:

SAYING farewell to my parents after the war in Afghanistan and becoming a refugee was the most difficult thing. It changed everything for me. I didn’t know if I would ever see them again, leaving them in a country in the middle of a war.

The journey was very perilous at times and I felt like the war was better than the suffering of the journey, the months, the years that it took me to reach the UK.

I had lived in Kabul, but when the conflict started my family moved to Jalalabad and were internally displaced for many years.

We were waiting days, weeks and months to return to our home and rebuild it, but that never happened.

My parents stayed when I left, but mine was the generation at risk. People in our age group were targets for the Taliban to recruit or punish.

Anyone can tip on you, and once that mindset is there you don’t know who is your friend. It’s similar to the Nazi regime, I don’t know if I can articulate it.

I was wearing handmade leather sandals when I walked across the border to Pakistan.

I had to leave them there because we were told the rest of the journey would take us into colder conditions in Central Asia and then onto Europe. I left in 1997 and arrived in the UK in 1999, when I was 22.

I feel like mine reflects the journeys of others. Working in this sector reminds me of that time constantly.

2. Coventry Cathedral

The National:

COMING from Afghanistan, I left everything, I lost everything. I was dispersed by the Home Office from Dover to Coventry, where I had to build my life again. Coventry Cathedral became one of my favourite places.

It was bombed in the Second World War and rather than rebuild it, they kept the ruin and created a new one next to it. In the ruin there are words on the wall, saying “forgive”.

I was sitting there on a sunny day and thinking “this community has had this problem like we had in Afghanistan, but how do they move to this new cathedral as a symbol of hope?” It’s a gift, that word “forgive”, but we don’t use it. If, as human beings, we make better and more often use of that word, the world will be a more peaceful place.

3. Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama

The National:

THIS book provoked my thinking because although we come from different backgrounds and have had different lives, Obama and I were both separated from our fathers and that sense of separation is still with me.

His story was totally different but he was talking about parents and spending time with grandparents, which resonates with me because I dream about mine.

There’s also a lesson in his story – when he began campaigning, no one turned up, but he did it again and people began to come.

In my own journey, I fell and fell and got up again. There are so many possibilities in the world and I think trying to hide behind problems and challenges is not going to achieve anything.

4. Glasgow Central Station

The National:

I DON’T really listen to music or watch a lot of films – I’ve not been to a single concert in 20 years of being here – but I really connect with architecture.

When I got off the train on my first visit to Glasgow, the city and the people were telling me that this was a great place, and that started with the station, which is so beautiful.

I was in no rush to take my eyes off it. I remember feeling I had arrived in a really stunning city where I could see old buildings, really striking architecture, and I found each street was the same but different.

I’d come from Coventry, where so many old buildings had been bombed out, and I saw so many destroyed in Afghanistan, such as the Buddhas in Bamiyan, which were attacked by the Taliban.

Every time I hear about old buildings being burned here, it really upsets me – I wasn’t here for the first Glasgow School of Art fire, but I was for the second and that was awful.

You couldn’t imagine it until it happened.

Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery in the West End is another favourite of mine – having a coffee there and listening to the pipe organ playing is just amazing.

The first time I went to Princes Square in Buchanan Street, it was just breathtaking. I wondered: “Is this real?”. I couldn’t believe what I was looking at.

5. My first Christmas in Scotland

The National:

I JUST thought I was moving up north for a job, but I found a totally different world, a place with common purpose on values of human rights and fairness, a really warm place.

I felt I landed on my feet. I now feel the rest of the UK is not telling the story as much as they should of Scotland and what an amazing place it is. My family didn’t celebrate Christmas, but on our first Christmas we didn’t have anything to do and we had only recently moved to our hew house so we didn’t know our neighbours yet.

We cooked a big dinner and asked all of them to come, and they did.

We shared Christmas dinner and played games and it was a great way to make new friends.

6. Grandmother’s dried fruit

The National:

WHEN I was little I was close to my grandmother – she only loved me and not her other grandchildren, and they hated me for it.

I was sickly and a bit of a softie and I knew how to make her happy.

We’d sit at nights and she’d feed me dried fruits in the dark after the electricity had gone off.

One of my brothers found out and hatched a plan to keep me occupied outside with something else so he could go inside in my stead.

She realised his hands weren’t mine and he was so angry, shouting about it not being fair.

The first person I made friends with when I came to Scotland was a woman in her 80s, who is a remarkable person, and is an adopted grandmother for my children.

If I didn’t have my wife and our three kids, I wouldn’t have got this far. The work we do isn’t easy, but no matter what’s going on I know I can come home to them.

7. Whatsapp

The National:

I WENT back home after 20 years, straight to my ancestral village. I saw people I’d met in childhood, and we were all telling stories and wanted to find a way of keeping in touch.

I felt like I was doing social media training because I set up a Whatsapp family account and had to teach everyone how to use it. We send each other pictures and it keeps connections alive.

Some of these people, I don’t know exactly how we are related, but it’s a big family.

Social media is something that’s very important to refugees and asylum seeker communities, because it helps you learn about what’s happening at home, even when that’s not in the newspapers or on the television here.

8. Volunteering

The National:

COMING to the UK without English, without friends, this taught me so much. The people didn’t care that I didn’t speak English, but they treated me as a person.

I made friends and learned about the British way of life and work.

I stopped feeling like a person who was useless and had no skills, I was playing an active role, getting up in the morning to join a group to make a difference.

It gave me back my dignity, respect and confidence.

I started helping at a laundrette where they had second hand clothing to help people, and that later grew into the Coventry Refugee and Migrant Centre. My last job before moving to Scotland was as its CEO.

9. The Cathkin Braes

The National:

I SPEND my working week indoors in offices and at meetings, and I find getting outside relaxing and therapeutic. At the weekend I go to the top of the hills in this country park and you can see all of Glasgow.

When I was little I was very much into sports, but that changed as I got older and I haven’t gotten into football here, which is the big sport, but after I saw the picture of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi washed up on the beach I decided I had to do more to help.

So I ran a half-marathon to raise money for aid. I’ve done another couple and some park-runs, but it’s not competitive.

10. Masterchef

The National:

I’M addicted to it, it’s amazing. Food has a way of getting people together and reflecting diversity. My wife does a lot of cooking, so whenever I go home there’s something good ready, but I’m afraid I’m not Masterchef material.

I did cook a lot when I was an asylum seeker because the others in the shared house didn’t make an effort, so I can cook for a large number of people.

I’d use my mum’s recipes, but of course it was never as good as when she made it. At home we make a lot of Afghan food, and there really is nothing like that taste of home.

I love to share it with my kids.