Friday, July 30, 2010
Kalyani from Leeds STAR shares her experiences of volunteering with refugees. From explaining how the conversation classes worked to understanding the difficulties that refugees face, Kalyani explains how her experience was both enjoyable and enlightening.
By Kalyani McCarthy (Leeds STAR 09-10)
How the English classes worked
I first got involved with STAR during my final year at the University of Leeds when I volunteered at English conversation classes for refugees and asylum seekers. Leeds STAR runs two conversation classes a week, both in partnership with local community centres. I attended the conversation classes held on a Wednesday at St. Vincent Support Centre on the outskirts of the city.
The classes were informal and normally lasted about an hour and a half. There was no obligation for refugees to attend every week.
As it was held in a centre which also offered health care, food donations and general support, it increased the accessibility for refugees.
We had some people who regularly attended and others who only popped in when they were able. Generally however each week there were at least 6 volunteers and a similar number of refugees.
Understandably refugees at all levels of English language attended. Some were fairly fluent in English, whilst some had to start with the basics.
Therefore, we generally worked on a one-to-one basis rather than undertaking a group lesson. This was to ensure that every individual benefited from the session, whether it was learning the alphabet or constructing complicated sentences.
The reality of refugees’ lives
Whilst volunteering at the classes, I learnt things that shocked and surprised me about the reality of refugees’ lives.
For instance, when one of the worksheets asked for a word beginning with the letter ‘I’, one particular individual wrote ‘identification’. I found it shocking that someone who knew little English automatically wrote such a soulless word as ‘identification’. It also indicated the kind of experiences refugees have had in the UK, continually having to prove their identity.
On another occasion, a worksheet asked the question, if you could have one thing what would it be? Out of all the possible answers that popped into my head I did not consider the response: ‘a job’. Nevertheless, this is the answer the individual gave. This really brought home to me how desperate many refugees are to re-gain their independence and dignity rather than relying on hand-outs.
Asylum seekers awaiting a decision on their asylum claim are not permitted to work and receive only £35.52 cash support a week (Home Office asylum support).
So often it is easy to get caught up in your own situation. In many parts of the UK people live alongside deprivation and suffering but remain sheltered from it. It is easy to rely on newspapers or hear say.
Even at university when people are supposedly broadening their horizons it is by no means difficult to get caught in a bubble and fail to notice what is going on right on your doorstep. We are all susceptible to it.
Why teaching refugees English is so important
This is one of the reasons why I think STAR is such a fantastic organisation.
Not only does it tap into the student population who often have plenty of time and enthusiasm, STAR also helps challenge the stereotypical perceptions of refugees as people who have chosen to come to England simply to receive benefits.
Undoubtedly there are exceptions, but from experience, the refugees I met had fled their home countries because they were genuinely fearful and had no other option. They were simply trying to work and live somewhere they do not feel constantly threatened.
Although the English classes definitely only touch the surface of the problems that many refugees encounter in the UK, I think they are an essential steeping stone into refugees adjusting more easily here.
Without a basic understanding of the English language, refugees will continue to be disadvantaged in the labour market and isolated from society. Without the time of volunteers, refugees would invariably be unable to afford expensive formal English classes.
I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent volunteering. I found it extremely worthwhile and enlightening. I would recommend volunteering at STAR conversation classes to anyone and everyone.
Not only does it enhance your understanding of issues going on all around you, it assists refugees in one of the most fundamental ways possible, providing the ability to communicate.
Without the help of volunteers, many refugees would struggle to achieve this and be forced to rely on the minimal official support offered to them.
Posted by Communications on 30/07/2010 at 11:53 AM
in Group News
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