You don’t need to spend a long time watching the news to be reminded of the amount of violent conflict happening in the world at the moment. Tolo News, Afghanistan’s most popular television channel estimates the death toll due to violent conflict in that country to be between 1,240,000–2,000,000 people since 2015. (^ “Terror Attacks Down, Casualties Up in First Six Months of 2016: Report”. Tolo News. 18 July 2016.)
And that’s just one of the many places being torn apart by violence. These conflicts have many causes, and play out in many different ways, but they all have one thing in common, the devastation they cause to the lives of the civilian population. For many, this manifests as a simple choice, flee or die.
The most recent United Nations estimate is that there are 65.3 million people worldwide who have been forcibly displaced from their homes – the highest number ever recorded. Our screens are filled with examples of the extreme risks people are taking to escape the violence and harm that has overtaken their home country in order to find a place of safety. Visions of overcrowded inflatables, people walking hundreds (or thousands) of miles, their possessions reduced to what they are able to carry, are easy to bring to mind.
Despite the headlines that suggest otherwise, gaining asylum in the U.K is far from an easy process. In the year to September 2016, for example, the UK only granted asylum or humanitarian protection to 8,964 people. (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/immigration-statistics-july-to-september-2016/asylum)
But what happens to those few who manage to reach our shores? What is the welcome they encounter? Again the reality is somewhat different to the media myths. Asylum seekers have to wait months or years for the outcome of their asylum claim, during which they are prohibited from working and only receive minimal or no financial support. They are entitled to just £35 a week of cash or card support, that is £5 a day. This has to cover everything – food, toiletries, clothes etc. – as well as travel costs to get to crucial legal appointments or asylum meetings. This means that most asylum seekers in the UK are living in poverty and experiencing poor health and hunger. Many families are not able to pay for the basics such as clothing, powdered milk and nappies.
(The Children’s Society Briefing highlighting the gap between asylum support and mainstream benefits, 2012 Independent Asylum Commission citizens’ inquiry in The Independent, 2007)
Destitution is a huge problem amongst asylum seekers, one that pushes them to the brink of our society. Asylum seekers become destitute for a number of reasons, but primarily as a result of the withdrawal of their Home Office support (finance and accommodation). Even when an individual is refused asylum in the UK the Home Office doesn’t always deport individuals, and therefore many individuals are left destitute. Asylum seekers are not allowed to work or access mainstream benefits so if their Home Office support is removed their only means of support is often friends or charitable organisations. They are severely marginalised in our society, often sleeping rough and living an isolated life without knowing who to turn to. They also face significant barriers to accessing healthcare, activities and social networks.
Action Foundation (http://actionfoundation.org.uk/) is a charity based in Newcastle upon Tyne. Through their free English language school and supported housing projects they support refugees, asylum seekers and other migrants experiencing isolation in Tyne and Wear and provide opportunities to help them overcome their exclusion. Last year they helped over 1000 people.
We went to visit Joe, a volunteer teacher for Action Language, to find out more.
Q; Tell us a bit about yourself
A; I’m a student, working towards and Education Studies BA at Newcastle University. But I’ve come as a mature student, this is my second year but I spent the three years prior to that teaching English as a foreign language in Indonesia. So I found my vocation in life slightly later – but not too late – so I’ve come back as a mature student to get my degree here in Newcastle. So this actually started out as part of my course, as a career development module, where they’ve got various different options. Some of them put you into placements into primary schools and places like that. But I saw this as one of the options and it sounded good to me as I want to do English as a Foreign Language when I leave University, and I liked the idea of the project.
Q; So how would you describe the project?
A; Its really exciting, there’s so many different people with different backgrounds and stories, and basically, they’ve all come and moved to England for one reason or another, and they’re all trying to improve their English, so my job is to try and facilitate that and to help them along their way. The name of the course is “Skills for Life”, it’s really aiming to give people practical skills, to help them develop functional, transactional language. My aim for my class is to make them as communicative as possible. But the real basis of the course is about building and developing community. I know from travelling myself that when you go somewhere and you don’t speak the language you can feel quite isolated and alone. When we get these people together, sharing stories with each other, it’s so nice to see. People from totally opposite ends of the world, totally -you know- different demographics, coming together, laughing, joking sharing stories and making friends. It’s really nice to see. It’s so important.
The nature of working with immigration, with refugees, its always been a big issue. But right now its just so in the forefront of the media, there’s so much news about it, and one just ends up feeling so helpless really. I mean, I’ve got friends who’ve been off to Calais, one of my friends spent the summer in Greece and it left me feeling “God, they’re doing something about it” I mean, lots of people have got good hearts but they end up getting caught up in day to day life…. Being given the opportunity to have first hand experience, to be able to do something about it, that really attracted me to it, and to be honest, it’s become the highlight of my week this year. I’ve really enjoyed it, I’ve got so much out of it, being abl;e to help, to create that nice welcoming atmosphere where we can all have a laugh, a smile, a joke. Where we all get along really well, it boosts your self esteem, it really is rewarding, it’s become really important to me. I mean, sometimes when the lesson doesn’t go well then it weighs heavily on my shoulders and I feel like “oh god I should have done this, I could have done that” but when it does go well it gives me a real spring in my step.
When you do make that little bit of effort, then you realise how rewarding it can be, then it’s kind of something you want to do more of if you know what I mean? You kinda get the bug for it, and you realise how great it feels to be able to do something for others. And it’s something that’s fallen a little bit out of this society, we live in this ultra-capitalist consumer world where everything is about achieving status, earning money, buying the new technology, but simple basic things like reaching out to other people is something that has perhaps become a little bit undervalued but this work has made me realise just how important it is. There’s a saying isn’t there, the greatest evil is for good men to do nothing, and |I think this is a time when it is most important for people to step forward and act.
Q; Are all the people in the class Asylum Seekers?
A; I don’t know, it’s not a question I ask. If you’re in my class, you are one of my stydents, and that’s whats important. I try to stay away from personal and political questions. What I do know is that we have some incredibly highly educated people in the class. We have people from all over the world, with many different first languages, for those with European languages, for example Sapnish or French it’s much easier as the origins of those languages are also latin, but if they speak Arabic or farsi, then those languages don’t have the same ABC, and they go from right to left, so those learners are able to read in both directions – that is just so impressive, I mean just try and think how difficult that must be! We have different levels of ability in the class, and definitely different levels of confidence, but that’s part of the fun right?
Q; What pleases you most about the project?
A; Like I say I’ve got these fantastic little relationships with all these people from around the world, but the best thing about teaching are those little eureka moments when you can see people really getting it and learning for themselves. But it’s also about making connections, I had this one young guy come into the class, he’s from Eritrea, and he came into the class for the first lesson with his hood on and just sat at the back, by the end of the lesson, the hood had come off, he’d come to the table, this big grin on his face, he was laughing and joking, and it’s great to be able to sit back and think “I did that”!
And I think it’s an important part of helping people to move to England, I mean we are a very cosmopolitan multi-cultural city, and by welcoming everyone into this room and saying you’re going to work with men and women, with different religions, different races it helps send the message this is how we get on in England, this is how it is. And for many people fleeing war, that’s going to be the polar opposite of what they’ve experienced so I like to think that they get that message by being in this class, even if that’s not their experience when they are outside of this room. I think the rest of the work that this project does is amazing the language help is just one small part of the puzzle, but having people to help with forms, to provide a place to live, to help you navigate the system, it’s so important
Q; What’s it given you?
A; What’s it given me? Oh, it’s given me a great sense of self-esteem, it’s really boosted me. I mean it sounds selfish to say I’m proud of what I’m doing but I am. It’s given me a faith in humanity again, which you can really struggle for when you’re watching the news about the world. It’s also given me a faith in asylum and migration, I really don’t believe any of this sinister media hype, they’ve just created this idea of it being a threat, a problem. I don’t see it, I can tell you 100%, without a shadow of a doubt in my mind that we have benefited from this group of individuals who are all so grateful to be here, who are so hard working and so enthusiastic that I can say the more the merrier, we are better for it.