THE chief executive of the Scottish Refugee Council has hailed the woman who taught him about “British values” on his arrival from Afghanistan.

Sabir Zazai took up the top charity job in 2017 after consulting with Penny Walker, the woman who’d welcomed him to Coventry in 1999.

The former charity worker was instrumental in setting up services for asylum seekers in the English city where the Home Office sent Zazai at the age of 22. She set-up supplies of clothing and helped new arrivals register with GPs, dentists and English language courses, as well as providing the volunteering opportunities that set Zazai on his career path.

Her endeavour, established at the back of an old laundrette, grew to become the Coventry Refugee and Migrant Centre (CRMC) and current members credit her with changing the character of the city.

In Glasgow, Zazai, who remained close friends with Walker, is now mourning her loss from cancer at the age of 70.

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He does so at a time when Home Secretary Priti Patel pursues a tougher approach to immigration. In a speech on Monday, she said too many foreign nations “know how to play the system” and opposition to “dawn raids” as seen in Glasgow this month could stop murderers being deported – while describing her government’s approach as “generous and compassionate”.

Zazai says Walker, a grandmother and dedicated peace campaigner, truly embodied those values: “I found the best of British values in Penny Walker, who devoted her life to social justice and refugee rights.

“I see that every day. I see that in people in Scotland, in many, many friends and colleagues.

“Asylum seekers and refugees are not a threat to a system, we are the very people who believe this is a welcoming, hospitable nation – that’s true in Scotland, where polling shows 76% of people say people seeking protection must be treated with dignity and respect.”

In her speech on Monday, Patel said the UK “has a long, proud tradition of providing a home for people fleeing persecution and oppression”.

However, she said she’s committed to her New Plan for Immigration, which has been criticised by the UN and would criminalise anyone who reaches the UK through irregular means. The UK Government says it will improve a discretionary route to protection to allow asylum claimants to submit a claim before leaving their country of origin, in exceptional circumstances. Critics say that presents an extreme risk to applicants and is unlikely to help any more than a handful of people due to the difficulties in applying.

It would also allow the UK to remove all asylum seekers who are deemed to have passed through a “safe” third country en route.

Zazai’s journey to the UK took two years and cast him adrift from his family, who’d been displaced due to fighting in Afghanistan.

His relationship with Walker was one of the most important forged in the UK and together they launched a peace campaign that went global. Fly Kites Not Drones launched in 2014 to coincide with Nowruz, or Afghan New Year and grew to include peace groups across the UK, Europe and the US.

Zazai had only seven years of schooling when he arrived in the UK, but Walker encouraged him with his education and advised him to embrace a move to Scotland when the Scottish Refugee Council position came up, telling him “you are going somewhere really good”.

He said: “This is a moment of big loss for me. From her, I learned about volunteering, about justice and standing up for people’s rights. She gave so much, she touched the lives of so many.

“Every Eid, every Nowruz, the first thing to arrive would be a message from Penny. I had a Nowruz message from her, but during Eid I heard nothing. That weekend I had an email from her daughter. “

He went on: “I left my family in a terrible state in a refugee camp, it was a really difficult farewell. The antidote to that was Penny’s welcome. That shone like a gem in a very, very dark moment. It will always stay with me.

“Through word of mouth, we’d heard that somebody had set up a second-hand clothing place that gave clothes to people seeking asylum. I’d just arrived with a par of trousers and a shirt and it was December.

“There was Penny with a happy, welcoming smile. She said, ‘you are very welcome here’, she rang around GP practices to register us, got us dentists and rang local colleges to register us for English classes. It was a significant moment, much bigger than me getting citizenship or status – I was made to feel welcome.

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“It’s sometimes said that people are coming over to the UK for jobs or money; I was coming for that welcome. I was after someone who would accept me as a human being – not a foreigner, not a number. That moment when somebody treated us as one of their own meant so much.”

CRMC commented: “It is with a heavy heart and great sadness that we have been informed about the loss of Penny Walker following a long battle to cancer. Our thoughts are with her loved ones at this difficult time.

“Penny was an inspirational, courageous and positive woman who dedicated her life to helping others and campaigning for peace.”

Zazai, who has been honoured by Glasgow University for his humanitarian work, went on: “We were talking about British values, her life was about those higher values that are more important than ever before. She’s always been an inspiration.

“I have lost a great friend. We all have a very important role to play in helping others. You don’t know what terrible experiences people may have fled. That welcome is what people are after, they are not after anything else

“Penny was a living reflection of peace and reconciliation.”