Image: Unsplash
Image: Unsplash

Why is volunteering with refugees and migrants important?

If someone had asked me in the summer holidays where the Eritrea is situated, I would have stared back blankly. If you haven’t heard much about it, it can’t be that important, right?

Wrong. In 2016, Eritrea belonged to the group of countries with the highest number of people fleeing from them: Syria, Colombia, and Afghanistan the top three. Others mentioned included Nigeria, Yemen, South Sudan and Ukraine, according to the latest figures from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

“Language is the key to integration,” Angela Merkel wisely commented

Over the past six weeks I have been volunteering in the Coventry Refugee and Migrant Centre’s newly restructured ‘ESOL’ (English for Speakers of Other Languages) course, which is attended by the most diverse bunch of people I have ever met. The participants and volunteers are from countries all over the world, some of which, I am ashamed to say, I could not point to on a map. The course is designed to help newcomers to the country adapt to life in the UK, equipping participants with essential English language knowledge in an effort to help overcome the language barrier.

“Language is the key to integration,” Angela Merkel commented, justifying Germany’s policy of compulsory language lessons for all refugees. Although learning the English language is not technically compulsory for refugees arriving in the UK, it is highly recommended. In addition to offering legal advice, therapy, housing support, services for children and more, one of the many roles of the Coventry Refugee and Migrant Centre is to provide the opportunity to learn English.

classes are led by volunteer teachers who are each supported by a team of volunteers

The Centre’s ESOL Coordinator, Farida Butt, receives a constant flow of referrals: refugees, asylum-seekers, and economic migrants requesting a place in an English class. Those who are bound by family or work commitments are directed to the conversation clubs which happen weekly around the city (for example, the ones Warwick STAR holds), while those who can commit more time are directed to a course which takes place from Monday to Wednesday, following a curriculum.

This is where I first got involved. After discovering Farida’s email on the CRMC website, I was soon shepherded in to assist in the classroom with the 12-week course. The classes are led by volunteer teachers who are each supported by a team of volunteers in turn. Each assistant is assigned to a table of students, guiding the group through the activities and facilitating discussion in the English language.

“But we like you!” they said, “You smile; English people don’t smile.”

Last week, I had to demonstrate the difference between “to turn left” and for something to be “on the left”. I say “demonstrate” because you can’t explain through using long sentences and words the students might not know. Instead, it’s easier to draw pictures or mime. In the first week I had the task of miming the meaning of “pet”. I miaowed and woofed. Hilarity ensued and the lady I was speaking to said: “Ah! I had a goat at home.”

I announced to my table on Wednesday that I will be moving from the Wednesday class to lead a new Thursday English drop-in session. “But we like you!” they said, “You smile; English people don’t smile.” It is difficult to make friends with locals when still impeded by a language barrier. To my table of learners I am a rare familiar local face.

It is not only our duty, it is our privilege to welcome others to our country in times of need

There are simply not enough opportunities for non-native speakers to practise English in the local community. Why aren’t there enough opportunities? Because there aren’t enough people willing to donate just a few hours, one morning a week, to help out. Why aren’t there enough volunteers? Because if we’re in a comfortable position ourselves, we forget that others aren’t.

It is not only our duty, it is our privilege to welcome others to our country in times of need. Treat others as you would like to be treated yourself. This is a saying instilled into us in primary school but often neglected. If the situation were reversed, and after the outbreak of civil war or persecution I had to flee to a faraway country with an entirely unfamiliar language, I would not want to experience the isolation migrants often feel here.

Over 40 students contacted me; that’s almost more people than there are doing my degree in my year group

Much like Warwick STAR, we have had a positive response with lots of students hoping to volunteer.  When I posted on Facebook to recruit more volunteers to support CRMC, the post was shared again and again. Over 40 students contacted me; that’s almost more people than there are doing my degree in my year group in the German department. We now have a surplus of volunteers for the existing courses at CRMC and are hurriedly thinking up new ways to accommodate them.

The waiting list for a place on a funded English course is long. The Government pledged to resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020. According to 2017 admissions figures, there are 26,531 students at the University of Warwick. Surely, there must be more students who could spare a couple of hours a week to welcome others, to prove that in spite of Brexit, or not smiling enough, or the cold weather, we are in fact a warm and friendly people? You do not need years of experience to volunteer in an English conversation club, you need only be friendly, speak clearly, and smile.

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