Challenges of Teaching Refugees/Asylum Seekers

Linda Beattie is a Volunteer ESOL Tutor, who works for North Ayrshire Council and here is a story she would like to share:

Since becoming a volunteer tutor with North Ayrshire Council, I have had the great pleasure of assisting some really talented and innovative tutors.  I have also supported learners on a 1-1 basis, who have needed extra support with course materials.  

In the last year, I have become more involved with working with families on the UK Government’s Resettlement Programme. Firstly from Afghanistan and more recently with Syrian refugees. Presently the majority of learners are women.  On occasion there may also be men and children present.

Our first ESOL challenge was basic communication, as the majority of learners were complete beginners. We concentrated first on speaking and listening.  One of the first sessions focused on how to react when asked for your name or where do you live.  This session was very effective as helped enable the women to engage in everyday conversation in the community.

Name, address and date of birth… how often are we asked for this in our society? Doctors, Dentists Teachers, even shops these days often ask for this information.   However, knowing your exact date of birth may not be held as important in other societies, which has led to some humorous exchanges in class.   

Although speaking and listening were our first priority, the women were keen to read and write. I feel that this may stem from having little or no previous experience of formal education and valuing the opportunity to be able to learn to read and write.  A few women struggled with holding a pen. Therefore, in some ways the method was similar to that of teaching a child to write.

Challenges when working with our Syrian Refugee Families have been very different.  On the whole they have integrated into the community very easily.  Very quickly finding their way across the country, traveling independently, establishing links with other families.

At first, I was unaware of the trauma the families had faced.  This was due to confidentiality.  I can appreciate that not everyone needed to know their life history. However one of the women I was supporting with her English became very sad, weepy, worried etc and I was at a loss to how to get back her concentration on learning English.

It was only after I became aware of the reason, which she tried to explain, through her limited English.  It was only when she could explain through a fellow Arabic speaker that I became aware of her of the reason.  I could then focus our sessions to include more pertinent vocabulary to her situation.  Another learner found it really difficult to concentrate on learning, due to worrying about her extended family back home.   

Now that I am more aware of the trauma our refugees have faced before they get here I have found that I avoid some topics of conversation.  An example of a typical ESOL conversation would include asking and telling each other about our families, e.g I am married with three children. However, instigating a similar conversation with a widow whose husband may have been murdered or with parents who may have lost children in violent circumstances would be very inappropriate, to say the least. 

On a lighter note one of our Syrian families is particularly keen to pass their driving test in this country.  They can drive with their Arabic licence for a year, then need to sit the test here in Scotland.  We have started to look at the Driving Theory Test. 

To give you an idea of how challenging this is going to be…… one of the questions asks “What would you do when approaching a pelican crossing…….”  Then there is a choice of four question which includes the colours of the lights.  Firstly, she had absolutely no idea what a pelican crossing was or indeed what a pelican is and why would it be called that? Then having multiple choice answers presents a whole other challenge.   So that should keep us going for some time.  We will share the good news when they pass, to enable you to join in on the celebration. 

As you can see supporting Esol learners, particularly refugees has its challenges.  You may become not only a teacher, but a mentor, a friend, a confident and someone to rely on and ask for advice.  I realised early on that I cannot be everything and that it is so important to keep working as part of a larger team with different areas of expertise.

I love it.  I want to volunteer as much as I can to support families who, through no fault of their own, have had to flee their homelands to seek refuge and safety in a strange country.  I admire them greatly and am constantly humbled by how they cope with their situation.

Linda Beattie

Volunteer Esol Tutor, North Ayrshire Council, Connected Communities Team

24th July 2016

 

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