Visit to an English Class in late October 2017
I am visiting a large room filled with weak autumn sun in South London, from where a drop-in for refugee women is run twice a week. In the corner, a small child is contentedly playing with a train-set, while shrieks and happy chatter come from the nursery next-door. The theme of today’s English class is education, and on the whiteboard the group facilitator has written the simple question ‘How did you learn as a child?’ Today’s group of 10 women, some new to the group, others regulars, hesitantly start to consider how to answer this question about their lives in this mostly unfamiliar, but common language that they now share -English.
They come from many different countries, with many different mother tongues between them, and their experiences of migration and flight are the stories of refugee women across Europe. Difficult, painful, often involving journeys from hardship to hope.
An older lady from Pakistan hesitantly begins, evoking memories of her education at home as a child, where both parents taught her about values, respect for relatives and the holy books of their religion, while her mother taught her cooking and sewing. Now she is learning and becoming confident in English, often acting as interpreter for others who aren’t as proficient or confident yet.
Then a young woman from Ethiopia tells us how her experience was not so different to the UK – nursery, school, and university Now here in Britain, she is re-adjusting to a new language and a new life. Later on, a woman from Afghanistan who speaks Pashtun, Urdu, a little English and even some Dutch, speaks of the very few years of formal education she had attended, before war made it impossible. Several times, she vehemently tells us that she had loved school, and it is clear that she wants to learn as much as she can now to make up for lost opportunities. A lady from Somalia, repeats this theme of how war – and she mimicked the tak tak tak of machine gun fire – ruined her country and all her hopes of an education. So she stayed home and helped her parents look after their few goats.
Another lady from Pakistan spoke of how she would enviously watch her brothers go to school, of how her father encouraged her to learn from their books at home, until her early marriage. For this, her mother prepared her by teaching her the domestic skills of cookery and sewing. There was recognition and understanding from many of the group at this; most of us are wives and mothers.
At the end a surprise; a newcomer to the group, a quiet lady from Pakistan, with the encouragement and help of other Urdu speakers who could translate for her when she faltered, volunteered that her experience had been different: she had been given the chance of formal education back home and even had a Master’s degree, but now she was here she was starting over by first learning English.
In just half an hour a simple question had prompted so much: happy memories from childhood, frustrated longings, sadness for what was lost and finally friendship and shared encouragement for what was possible in the future, lesson by lesson. Then it was time for a choice of either Yoga or Computer classes to help them get on with their new lives in South London.