Volunteer Judy explains how she’s providing remote language support.
A and I are learning together remotely. We both have copies of The Boy at the Back of the Class (Onjali Rauf), which A reads aloud to me. I check understanding and pronunciation, making notes for areas to reinforce later. I use screensharing, preparing questions or visual backup in advance. I send pre-lesson prompts and follow-up notes relating to one or two keywords on WhatsApp.
I also use screenshare for starter activities which I’ve been choosing somewhat at random as I learn more about A’s level of understanding. My background is in secondary English teaching but I am learning more about ESOL as we work together. I am helped by A's enthusiasm and I hope the regular contact will boost his confidence and understanding.
Volunteer Joyce describes how remote learning is working for refugees:
I am currently helping a woman in St Albans with reading every day for 20 - 30 minutes. She is reading The Secret Garden. We have the book online and work together on Whatsapp. She reads to me and I ask her questions about the book.
I am also teaching a seven-year-old Syrian girl in Istanbul via Skype. She and I meet once a week for an hour and discuss a chapter of the book we are reading. We read The Secret Garden and are now reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I found both books online and we share a screen on Skype so that we can talk about the chapter together. I usually give her an activity that goes along with the book, such as writing a letter to Willy Wonka.
The most valuable thing I have found is recording these lessons on Skype so that the learner can listen to them over and over throughout the week. I feel that this is one invaluable tool that Skype or Zoom has that almost outweighs the benefits of meeting in person. The fact that someone can listen to our lesson several times throughout the week helps it all sink in, particularly the pronunciation of words. I do this with my own Arabic lessons and it is invaluable. When the lesson is over on Skype, the recording pops up in my account and I forward it on to the learner.
I believe this remote approach can work for refugees resettled in Hertfordshire particularly with the current social distancing rules. I’ve been helping one refugee to study for his driving test, and I’ve spoken to different families about incorporating remote reading and discussion sessions for both themselves and their children.
Volunteer Hazel Marie describes her efforts during lockdown.
What day is it today? Every day seems the same under lockdown! Oh it's Tuesday, the day I contact the Syrian family I’ve been assisting to practice English with the father of the family. You see I am a volunteer for Herts Welcomes Refugees and the Refugee Council. As a retired teacher I offered to help out with English language practice and some of the events for the refugee families when they first arrived. I must phone my current family and check if they were able to use their free school meal vouchers in ASDA today. I helped them yesterday as the vouchers were not accepted at the check out. Yes, they are happy now. All is well. They have bought their food with the vouchers. Hooray! We don't need to contact customer service or EdenRed to overcome problems with collecting the code or scanning at the checkout! The process is difficult enough for English parents, let alone parents with English as a second language!
The Syrian family have three daughters, two at Primary school and one in Year 7. To make life more complicated each school has a different voucher scheme. I was reminded of my own experience as a young mum dealing with school issues and letters from my children's different schools. It is more complicated these days with most school communications sent by email or put on websites. Some letters need to have forms printed off too, all very well if you have a computer printer at home, but many do not.
In this family, if the mum doesn't understand emails sent to her from school, she forwards them to me so that I can explain to her what is required. Thanks to the fundraising efforts of Herts Welcomes Refugees, many of the families now have laptops or Chromebooks for their children. With homeschooling online during lockdown these have been invaluable. This distance learning, however, has highlighted the need for more computer skills for the children and their families. Our volunteers also help out with this. I have occasionally been helping the eldest daughter with her school assignments and liaising with the school and her year leader where necessary. Despite learning support from the schools and colleges, much of the language is too advanced for the children and families who are still learning English. This is also where volunteers can help.
Another bonus for the family I support has been the Bike scheme which Herts Welcomes Refugees runs. Being able to cycle to school and college, to go shopping and visit parks has been nothing short of fantastic for them! My husband sometimes helps out with repairs and collection and delivery of the bikes too.
Time has passed very quickly. Is it really four years since the first families from Syria arrived in Hertfordshire? It has been so good to see the families settle comfortably into their new way of life. We have many loyal and talented volunteers who are trained with Herts Welcomes Refugees and the Refugee Council. Their work with these families is so important in many different ways.
During these difficult times with lockdown and social distancing, the family has really appreciated meeting with me on Zoom or WhatsApp video. We’ve also shared English materials, goodies and some activities for the children. They are always so grateful for anything I do for them. That's the rewarding part of being a volunteer.......seeing progress in their language, sharing difficulties with them in their daily lives and most of all, helping them to be safe and happy!
Now I must speak to the father on Zoom and encourage him in our lesson with speaking, reading and writing English. Masalama!
Mrs Alison Warn explains why she organised a ‘Soup Kitchen Fundraiser’ to support Herts Welcomes Refugees.
Since my childhood I have been concerned about the plight of refugees.
I grew up during the Second World War, and was deeply influenced by my parents’ social outlook, particularly relating to poverty and the needs of war victims. My mother had been influenced by her own father, who took her to a soup kitchen in London’s East End when she was twelve. It had a profound impact on her which she later shared with me.
I became a supporter and friend of Herts Welcomes Syrian Families when it began in 2015 because I was horrified to hear about the brutal armed conflict in Syria. I felt a sense of impotence in the face of this horror which made me wonder what I could do. I listened to the stories of the Syrian refugees who’d come to Hertfordshire who described their traumatic escapes to me.
Earlier this year, wondering what I could do to help our Syrian friends, I remembered my mother’s childhood visit with her father to a soup kitchen. I made a simple plan to hold soup kitchen lunch fundraisers to support refugees living locally. My twenty guests learned about Herts Welcomes Refugees whilst enjoying homemade soup and crusty bread. They made generous donations totalling £500 to the charity and my gratitude was - and is - immense.
Samad and Vida have been volunteering with Herts Welcomes Refugees (formerly Herts Welcomes Syrian Families) for a year. They are one of a growing number of couples who have decided to volunteer together for our organisation.
Why did you get involved with Herts Welcomes Refugees?
Samad: I was not aware of any organisation that actively helped asylum seekers in the Hertfordshire area. My intention was to join a charity that offered free immigration advice to asylum seekers.
As Iranians, Vida and I have gone through the visa process ourselves almost every year, sometimes more than once per year. We’ve helped friends and family members with their visa applications, and have dealt with visa rejections and the appeal process. We know how time consuming it can be to find the correct information. We also understand how devastating it can be to have your visa rejected.
I thought I could use my own experiences with this to help others. I found Herts Welcomes Refugees online and was very impressed by the fact that it helped in much more than visa matters.
Vida: Samad joined first, attending a language training session [for Herts Welcomes Refugees volunteers]. He came back very excited and encouraged me to join as well. I’ve now been helping a Syrian family to practice English for a year, and I’m very happy that I can stand next to someone who is putting a lot of effort into navigating their way through life in the UK.
What kinds of things do you do as volunteers?
Vida: I help a Syrian family with their English, and also occasionally help the children with their homework. However, in the past couple of weeks, I haven't been able to meet them regularly as we are expecting a baby very soon. After the baby is born, I’d like to get more involved. The woman in the family is very keen to get her driving license so I’m helping her get the right information.
Samad: I have been involved in setting up a couple of computers, and also helping some of the Syrian men with their driving licenses. There are some social events which we try to attend to meet the families and other volunteers.
Can you tell us about a positive experience you've had volunteering with HWSF?
Samad: One of the Syrian men recently got his driving license after putting in a lot of effort. I was involved in helping him get ready for his test and I was very happy for him, particularly because his family is expecting a baby (and I know having a license will be crucial).
Vida: I think people are doing really great work by volunteering. And even with the little steps that we are taking, we have felt very encouraged and positive. So we want to assure others that whatever small help they can offer is very valuable.
Is there anything else you'd like to share?
Samad: I attended the last general meeting where some of the Syrian people were invited on stage to talk about their experiences. I remember a lady who alone was supporting her family in all different aspects, from helping her husband with his medical condition to looking after the children with their schools. She said that despite not having knowledge of computers she was trying very hard to use the internet to find some information [to help her family]. These stories were sometimes heartbreaking, but at the same time so encouraging in the sense of how strong these people must be.
How did you first get involved with HWSF?
I knew about HWSF from the start through local friends and was keen to support them. I was very much aware of the growing refugee crisis. I initially volunteered with the Refugee Council to help newly arrived families with English language support, and to help them use public transport for getting to hospital visits and other appointments.
Can you tell us about some of the things that you do as a volunteer for HWSF?
I help a family in their second year in the UK with English, visiting them at home for a couple of hours every week. They often ask for help in understanding the letters they receive, for example from the NHS, or their children’s school. I don’t deal with these issues directly, but suggest what they might do, referring if necessary to the local Refugee Council which supports them. I also visit another family as a ‘befriender’ to help them cope with life in UK.
As well as working with individual families, I’ve been active in Ware with other volunteers setting up and running a fortnightly Women’s Group. We have a ‘bring and share’ lunch, followed by a group discussion or a presentation from a speaker (eg from the local Citizen’s Advice). Perhaps because of the lunch, the meetings are lively with lots of talk.
What have you enjoyed most about volunteering with HWSF?
Getting to know the families and seeing the brave progress they make settling into life in the UK. I particularly enjoy the Women’s Group.
What would you tell someone who is considering volunteering for HWSF?
There are lots of things you can do as a volunteer, whether you have time to make a regular commitment, or can only give an hour or two on an occasional basis. Volunteers support individual families as ‘befrienders’ - visiting from time to time to chat and help as needed (eg explaining ‘official’ letters) and identifying any difficulties. English language support at home (as back up to any more formal learning) means regular visits. Help with outings, meetings and fundraising activities is needed from time to time. If you have a particular skill (for example in IT, mending bicycles, speaking Arabic, gardening …) it could be invaluable. The reward is getting to know the families, and watching them progress, especially the children. They face huge difficulties, but have a terrific sense of fun.
Is there anything else that you’d like to share about your experiences so far? Syrian food is famous! The Syrians make delicious contributions to shared meals for meetings, Women’s Group etc. The families I support insist on feeding me cakes and occasionally a meal, in spite of my protests!
How did you first get involved with HWSF?
When I retired I wanted to find a volunteering opportunity where I could be of practical use. I was a solicitor but I did not want to spend my retirement giving legal advice so I had to think about what I could offer and what interested me.
Like most people, I have been deeply troubled by the stories and images coming out of Syria and felt I would like to help. I was primarily interested in providing language support to refugees, but that was really because I didn't have a view of what other sort of support might be needed.
I actually found it quite difficult to find the right organisation. I do not have a faith and so I was not keen to volunteer with a faith associated organisation. In the end, I heard about HWSF through a friend and when I spoke to the Convenor for Dacorum, I thought it sounded like the right fit for me. I started going along with my husband to a language support class in Hemel and really enjoyed it. I'm not quite sure how it has happened but I am now the Convenor for Dacorum!
As Dacorum's area Convenor, what kinds of things do you find yourself doing in a typical week?
One of the things I do is to co-ordinate requests for help from the Syrian families or from their case workers at Dacorum Borough Council. This week, I have helped organise transport for a medical appointment, sourced some household items through our donations page and arranged a visit from a TV repair man. I also spend time most weeks catching up with volunteers to make sure we all stay in the loop about what is going on and what is needed, as well as letting potential volunteers know how they might be able to help.
Once a month, I attend a HWSF Management Committee meeting to ensure that HWSF's strategic projects stay on track. These projects range from setting up women's groups to providing training for language support volunteers.
Then there are the really fun things like helping to organise social events where families and volunteers get together in a relaxed setting to chat, listen to music, eat amazing food and engage in strange British games like pass the parcel.
What have you enjoyed most about volunteering with HWSF?
I have really enjoyed getting to know the refugee families and getting an insight into their culture. I have huge respect for their adaptability and good humour. The challenges of learning English for an Arabic speaker, particularly for those who, like me, left school many decades ago, are not to be underestimated. Gaining fluency in English is key to finding work and settling happily here. A major challenge for the families is getting their English to the level that allows them to access work and other opportunities. Consequently it is a major challenge for HWSF to work out how best to support them in this.
I have also enjoyed getting to know the other volunteers and Management Committee members and finding out more about the area. Like a lot of career centred commuters, I never really felt that I had put down roots in Dacorum or got to know more than a handful of people here very well, but working with HWSF has made a definite difference to that.
What would you tell someone who is considering volunteering for HWSF?
Do it! Our website gives a good account of the kind of things you could get involved with but I’m happy to tell you more - just send an email and we can organise a meeting or call. Don't worry that you may not have the right skillset or that you cannot commit time on a regular basis. I am sure that we can find something that is useful to the refugees and rewarding for you.