Language and culture help refugees grow in confidence

The 'Talk English' group on their educational day out in Liverpool
The 'Talk English' group on their educational day out in Liverpool

A group in Preston that provides a ‘Talk English’ programme for refugees and people seeking asylum has received a boost from the Jesuit Fund for Social Justice. This community project is supported by people from many different Catholic parishes and other Christian churches in the town, including the Jesuit parish of St Wilfrid’s in Preston. 

The ‘Talk English’ programme is staffed by local volunteers who – after a short learning session – provide instruction to people with limited or no English. “The volunteers are a mixed group from a wide range of professions and backgrounds,” explains co-ordinator Theresa Swann. “They have developed cohesive relationships with each other with a common purpose to address the need for people to learn English.  All of them have a heart for this work, and have committed themselves over the past year to providing support for those who attend, in a spirit of accompaniment, with a longer-term outcome of facilitating greater personal independence and friendships within the wider group.”

The ‘Talk English’ group had previously received support from a group of Sisters who had worked for almost 200 years providing education to the children of Preston.  When they decided to leave the area, they made a donation to their work from the sale of their house – the first funding that they had received. Prior to this, the volunteers had provided paper, pens and photocopying from their own means, with lunch being funded by the church where the sessions are held. So the donation enabled them to purchase files for the students, workbooks, pencil cases and writing materials, dictionaries and flip charts.

A steep learning curve

Those who attend are from many parts of the world, including Eritrea, Sudan, Iran, Iraq, Somalia and Congo.  Many of them have had no primary education in their own country so, according to Theresa Swann, it has been a very steep learning curve for all of them. “As we have got to know the individuals, they have gradually shared with us stories of war, despair and loss,” she says. “And we have discovered that some are struggling with mental health problems, loneliness and isolation.  Some experienced challenges enrolling at local colleges because of their lack of basic education. Others felt too intimated to attend, feeling they would feel foolish and be unable to learn: classes are often 30-40 students in one group. 

“We are glad to see each person coming regularly to the group, feeling a sense of belonging,” Theresa continues. “Some come early to put out tables and charts; and now that they are beginning to feel more confident, both with us and with their ability to speak English, they are learning quickly and enjoying the sessions.  As a further help with confidence, two volunteers set up a five-a-side football team which has played weekly in a local league, winning two trophies at the end of last season!”Some of the 'Talk English' group from Preston visit Anfield

With support from the Jesuit Fund for Social Justice, the Preston ‘Talk English’ group hopes the asylum seekers and refugees who attend will achieve some skills in reading, writing and speaking English, regardless of any decisions made for them in the future. “Whatever the outcome of their stay,” says Theresa, “we feel we will have offered a unique opportunity for individuals to be embraced by citizens of this country who have a genuine desire to help and support them. They will have been accompanied on their journey to embrace many skills they did not possess previously, as well as learning something of the culture and heritage of the country in which they would like to make their home.”

A universal language

Earlier this month, the group enjoyed an educational day out in Liverpool. In addition to the young men, the group was also made up of three young women who attend the 'Talk English' sessions every week and 12 volunteers.  Most of the group are beginning  to understand spoken English and some are advancing with writing skills. "We were aware that a full tour of a museum might be too challenging for most of the group due to their emerging language understanding," says Theresa, "so we opted for an open-top bus tour with commentary in several languages, which was a great success. The commentary, supplemented with the visual aid of the city itself, proved to be a great learning experience and our visit to Anfield, for some of the group, had its own universal language - football!"

For some of the group, this was their first trip outside Preston since arriving in the UK.  It was an opportunity to relax, speak to people they may not know very well outside the classroom setting, and experience the particular culture that is Liverpool. "It is difficult to convey the gratitude of the group for this opportunity," Theresa says.  "Without the funding, it would not have been possible and the volunteers were able to see how confident some of the group are becoming in speaking English - getting their own lunch and drinks, dealing with money, conversing with people on the bus and on the tour of the stadium.  We had a sense that the day was 'putting flesh on the bones' - seeing the students outside the learning environment growing in confidence and able to relax and enjoy themselves, in spite of all the turmoil that many of them have experienced."

The Jesuit Fund for Social Justice was established in 1992 for Jesuits working in Britain in social justice ministry, and to enable other Jesuits to become involved in new social justice works. The Fund has supported Jesuits in many varied projects, including work with refugees, among the homeless, reconciliation and much more. Today, the social justice work of the Jesuits in Britain involves more than Jesuits. Many lay men and women, employed and volunteers, based in our social projects, our schools, our parishes, our volunteering schemes and so on, play a full part in the social justice work of the Jesuits in this country.