Relieved to finally reach sanctuary in a safe country, Ali arrived in a south-coast town at the end of 2019. Moving into a new home, he hoped to start learning English and rebuilding his life. Within three months, the UK was in lockdown, and all classes shut their doors. Life was on hold for Ali once more.
Like all other clubs, our volunteer-run English teaching project for refugees and vulnerable migrants closed in March. Normally, it’s a lively, noisy, almost boisterous event with dozens packed into a small community venue. The students and volunteers come from more than 30 countries.
An enterprising volunteer rapidly moved our project online and we started teaching English on Zoom or WhatsApp. I found that our students adapted well to this form of learning. Separated from friends and family members, they’re well used to online communication with relatives in their country of origin or sheltering in other lands. Some have successfully taught themselves English on YouTube.
But what about people like Ali, the newcomers who arrived shortly after the virus hit? With no knowledge of English, it was hard for them to develop links in their new community. And some other longer-term refugees, often living alone, struggle to communicate and learn using technology. They desperately miss face-to-face social contact and have become depressed and isolated.
Face to face
As we approached autumn, shops and businesses were opening their doors again. I wondered: could we reach and teach a small number of refugees who can’t access online classes? I found a large, accommodating venue happy to welcome us, and where we could physically distance.
A group of volunteers met. In a large circle, muffled by our masks, we grappled with the practicalities and all the health and safety issues. I felt the weight of responsibility. What if someone visited our project and then became ill? We created a plan, including temperature checks; visors; regular cleaning of high-touch surfaces.
The volunteers stepped forward to help out: ESOL and sewing teachers, cooks to provide a hot lunch. And health and safety helpers to clean all those surfaces. Now we hope Covid-19 infection levels remain low enough for our project to operate. It may be a pale imitation of our Before Coronavirus gatherings. But maybe we can create a small, calm, friendly oasis once a week for refugees, vulnerable migrants and volunteers from across the globe.