A speech by Alison Phipps, Unesco Chair, Refugee Integration through Languages and the Arts, at the honororary Graduation of Sabir Zazai, chief executive of the Scottish Refugee Council, at Glasgow University

BORN in the beautiful, conflict-ravaged country of Afghanistan, Sabir Zazai is not obvious material for a “success story”. If you arrive from war, separated from your family, claim asylum in the UK in a hostile environment, are told – quite literally– by border agents responsible for dispersal that you are being “sent to Coventry”, you are not going to have a straight-forward story.

Picture the scene: A man is in a supermarket, the one he’s allowed to buy provisions in, with a fistful of vouchers, doing the shopping for all the asylum seekers in his community, with all the vouchers which the Home Office permit them, on what today would be an allowance of £37.80 a week.

He stands in a queue but the cashier sends him to another as they don’t want the “hassle of the asylum vouchers”. He stands in the queue again, going to the back, patiently learning that oh so quintessential art of integration in British society – the queue. Eventually, unable to take the indignity any longer, he leaves the trolley, walks out, rather than suffer further humiliation.

This story of Sabir’s shows you one of the ways in which he is extraordinary.

A refugee who came to the UK 20 years ago in the back of a lorry as a young man, from the war in Afghanistan, with not a word of English, now serves those seeking asylum and refuge as CEO of the Scottish Refugee Council, and as chair of the City of Sanctuary movement.

In Coventry, a city rebuilt after the Second World War on peace, reconciliation and sanctuary, he worked tirelessly to make life better for all those in similar situations to himself and became CEO of Coventry Refugee and Migrant Centre.

His drive, energy, compassion and commitment is breath-taking, and was marked by his award of the Civic Prize for his efforts in bringing peace and reconciliation to the City of Coventry.

From helping others to find their way through the asylum system to running safe houses in his early years in the UK, Sabir Zazai is now successfully steering the Scottish Refugee Council through the crisis in hospitality, more commonly referred to as the refugee crisis, not least through the many diplomatic efforts required in a complex and fraught sector.

Glasgow has acted as the number one UK city for the dispersal of asylum seekers and refugees since 2000.

Its work is already enhanced by the dignity and diplomacy, sensitivity and sheer intelligence brought by this man who has honoured us by choosing to make his home in this city.