Since the beginning of the academic year, in September, we have now welcomed over 400 different individuals to our drop-in sessions. Often catering to the very newly arrived, these classes provide an important way in for those who are feeling lost and alone in a new city.
Many of those who first joined our drop-ins are now in our ESOL classes, others have gone on to study at local colleges, while still others have left Birmingham altogether and, we can only hope, have found a warm welcome and the possibility to begin to put down roots elsewhere.
A recent review of the drop-ins with both students and tutors revealed very clearly the ideas and ethos of this part of what we do. Their primary purpose is to make people feel welcome, creating a space of friendship and safety. The drop-ins are intentionally informal, prioritising having fun and building the confidence to have a go in an alien language and culture.
They are, of course, also part of our ESOL provision and as such learning language remains a part of their purpose: prioritising speaking and listening skills and the survival language which enables people to begin to access this strange world in which they find themselves. The students themselves want to come and meet one another, to make friends and build community, but they also come highly motivated to learn and integrate into life in the UK. They want to be able to access services, they want to study and to work, they want to give something back to a country they are learning to call home and to which they are intensely grateful for the safety and freedom it offers them.
Asylum seekers who arrive in this country have to wait six months, and often in practice much longer, before being able to access college places to learn English. Even when they do get into college, funding cuts and other pressures on the further education sector mean that asylum seekers and refugees are often only offered very limited tuition. Refugee Action are leading a campaign “let Refugees Learn” which calls for better provision of English tuition for the newly arrived. To support their campaign, please sign the petition here: http://www.refugee-action.org.uk/campaigns/let_refugees_learn/ The All Party Parliamentary Report “Refugees Welcome?” published recently also includes a recommendation of better access to language classes.
In the meantime, we will continue to do the best we can to provide a safe space where those who arrive, whatever their language level, can find a place where they can practice and learn the language, where they can build friendships with others and where they can know that they are very welcome.
During late October and early November, over 50 of our ESOL and drop-in students had the opportunity to go to Cannon Hill Park to take part in the Green Lungs project, an initiative to welcome Birmingham’s new arrivals to the green spaces of the city.
During the workshops they explored the park, reflecting on its sights and sounds, and of course never missing an opportunity to learn a bit of new vocabulary along the way! It was notable that the students were all struck by this oasis of peace and fresh air in a city they are learning to call ‘home’.
Last Thursday we returned to the MAC for the launch of the exhibition which was created using the students’ words and images. With film footage, pictures and words, and sound installations it represents some of what the students’ experienced during the workshop days.
There is perhaps nothing as “English” as a city park, and yet the Victorians who founded many of them were great explorers and the plants come from all over the world. The students who participated were invited to plant bulbs in Cannon Hill Park, symbolic of their welcome to the city and an invitation to put down roots here and become part of all that the city is.
The launch, as much as the whole project, was a wonderful opportunity for all of those who took part: the students, and those of us lucky enough to accompany them in their discovery of this place.
These brief snippets try to paint a picture of the value of the experience:
· It was amazing to watch several of our students’ faces light up when they saw their photos or their work on the wall. It would be easy to underestimate how precious that representation of their contribution is for those who can feel undervalued by a society who refuses to let them work, or from which they feel excluded by a lack of linguistic ability.
· It must be so easy for our pre-entry students (absolute beginners) to forget how much they have to contribute, so it was a great pleasure to see one of them not only demonstrating that he was something of an expert when it came to planting, but that he suddenly discovered ways to communicate his knowledge to others. We watched his self-confidence grow before our very eyes.
· As we walked around the park after planting our bulbs, one of the students turned to ask whether it would be possible to come back and plant trees, saying “Because trees last for a very long time and they would be here even long after we have gone.” Those of us who heard were deeply touched by this desire to leave a mark on this place which has made them welcome.
We are very grateful to Ampersands Projects, Cannon Hill Park and the MAC for the fabulous opportunity and warm welcome they offered to us throughout the project.
The exhibition is open in the downstairs gallery at the MAC until 31st January. Do take the time to go and see, watch and listen to our students’ work.