Last year, I endured an internal crisis. I could no longer cope with the daily news about the war ravaged Middle Eastern region. The images of suffering got unbearably graphic by the day. When I thought I had seen the worst, another scene would break my heart in two. Existential questions such as ‘Can I really call myself educated when I ignore the suffering around me?’ troubled me. But then, I do have a family to look after and a hefty mortgage; responsibilities that limit most of us.
This is the story about how I found my solution in volunteering and discovered a problem which I am currently grappling with.
I wanted to develop my own understanding of the humanitarian disaster of our time. I applied to CLEAR Project (City Life Education and Action for Refugees), Southampton and was accepted after a formal process. I started by helping to transfer personal data from hand written forms into a database. The one-dimensional people on TV came to life.
I learnt a lot about other cultures: that Dari is the most spoken language in Afghanistan, that Gambians speak Mandinka, that Kurds are spread across Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran. These details stuck in my memory. They were not random pieces of information, but poignant reminders about people seeking refuge in our midst. My understanding of our messy world grew deeper, more nuanced, more mine.
I wished to meet the people whose electronic records I had created. CLEAR offered me a teaching assistant’s role in their ESOL (English for speakers of other languages) classes. I spend 2 hours every week in the class. I interact with people who were faceless masses on television and records in databases. I am touched by the strong sense of hope that they live by, their ability to put their traumatic past behind them and look forward to a better future. I am glad to be able to play a small role in their journey to normality.
I had never imagined that I would one day be a teaching assistant in an English class, bleating like a sheep and walking with imaginary crutches just so that I could explain the words ‘sheep’ and ‘lame’. I correct the students’ written work, and explain rudimentary concepts of grammar. Stepping outside my environment into another world has a rejuvenating effect on my brain. When I am back at my desk, I think more clearly. I gain in perspective what I give up in time.
I tell the students that they must practise their English outside the class. I am shocked at their response. None of them know English speaking people to practise with. Fatima, a mother of 3, resident in Southampton for the past 11 years, tells me she does not have a single English speaking friend! Inga from Latvia, Agata the Pole, Salma from Afghanistan … the story is the same. What they learn in class, they tend to forget by the following week. I have started writing to primary schools in the area asking if they could encourage local mums to befriend these students. No school has responded so far.
I am looking for ideas from the readers of this blog. I am painfully aware that the British are wary of offering help unless asked. I also know that the students of ESOL and others like them wouldn’t know how to ask for help. I hope to be the bridge.