It’s 11.30 on a weekday morning. In a large, airy community centre, the long, narrow tables are carefully spaced out with chairs at either side. It looks a bit like an examination hall and you could literally hear a pin drop. Across each table, a student and teacher quietly communicate from behind their visors.
Recently, we started our project to support some of the most vulnerable refugees in our city. Every week, a small number of students have a one-to-one English class, punctuated by refreshments and finishing with a freshly cooked hot lunch. After lunch, the sewing group takes over the space. They’ve switched to handsewing so they can maintain physical distance and keep things simple.
Four weeks in, we assess how it’s going through an online survey (of course). A few comment on the sterility of the environment, and how we’ve lost the soul of our previous cosier venue.
But I don’t think it was the slightly sticky tables, raucous posters or charity-shop furniture that gave our former venue its soul. It was the people. It’s totally obvious to say it, but in our previous setting we could greet each other, hug, laugh and socialise to create warmth.
Yet even meeting behind masks, at distance, and talking softly, people still make meaningful contact. I have enjoyed meeting our students and reconnecting with volunteers; it feels like we are continuing our community in a scaled-down way.
Everyone is looking ahead to autumn and winter with trepidation. With rising infection rates, will we still be able to meet? Yes, education is exempt from restrictions at the moment, but will our volunteers and students be prepared to meet indoors? We’re working in a huge, well-ventilated space with the doors open, but we cannot guarantee a completely sterile environment. Maybe people will feel it is too risky to attend.
Don’t give up
It feels important not to give up, even if we have to suspend our gatherings and resort to Zoom or WhatsApp chats. We don’t want to let down people who have escaped horrors in their home countries and risked their lives to get to the UK. And whose main wish is to learn English, get a job and live a normal life – whatever that is nowadays.