– Julie G. Umarova –
‘My husband is in Greece. I’m trying to survive here with my two sons. It is very hard for me. My life made sense with your lessons. It gave me hope. It made my difficult times beautiful.’ – Tahmine, 34
These sadness-evoking lines are not from a recent issue of an academic journal or from a best-selling book. Unfortunately, this is a heartfelt confession of one of my refugee students who has been attending free online ESOL classes offered by the charity Leicester City of Sanctuary, in co-operation with the University of Leicester. Moreover, Tahmine expressed her immense relief and joy that online classes served as a blissful escape from loneliness and isolation during these testing times. Unfortunately, this is just a single outcry which reflects the harsh reality of hundreds and thousands of refugees on a daily basis and especially during this period of lockdown.
Indeed, a report entitled ‘This is How it Feels to be Lonely’, carried out by the charity Forum, emphasizes the fact that:
‘…refugees are among the most vulnerable groups in relation to experiencing loneliness. When they arrive in reception country, they face a completely different life in a strange new environment. This situation, in combination with government policies, can make refugees’ journey traumatic and damaging for their well-being. Restrictions to entitlements to welfare services and exclusions in employment and housing, along with the possibility of detention and removal are social disconnection factors that are associated with loneliness and can further impact on health and well-being. Because of these restrictions, refugees feel discriminated against, excluded, unloved and lonelier’ (Christodoulou, 2014)
Similarly, a recent piece of research carried out by Refugee Action with refugees and asylum seekers found that most of them saw ‘loneliness and isolation as their biggest challenge in everyday life’ (Refugee Action, 2017). This research involved six focus groups with a total of 41 refugees and asylum seekers across England discussing their experience of loneliness since arriving in the UK. All of them admitted their daily hardship and mental struggle in integrating into the new society and pointed out ‘loneliness’ as their biggest fear. One of the refugees, Maria, expressed her anxiety and internal fight with the following words: ‘It is lonely because you feel isolated and you feel there is no one to help. You feel like a bouncing ball. It can cause depression; it can cause all sorts of mental health problems’ (Refugee Action, 2017). Maria’s emphasis on mental health is crucial here, as it highlights the fact that loneliness can cause great damage to people’s health and psychological well-being. According to the Mental Health Foundation ‘loneliness and social isolation can be the catalyst for many mental health problems, including acute stress disorders, irritability, insomnia, emotional distress, mood disorders, including depressive symptoms, fear and panic, anxiety, frustration and boredom, self-harm and even suicide’ (Sanders, 2020).
John Donne’s (1624) widely quoted line ‘No man is an island’ is a daily reminder that a human being is a social creature and longs for interpersonal contact (Baumeister, 1995). When Maria and other refugees were asked what helped them to fight their loneliness, they all admitted that attending English classes and community groups helped them to meet new people, to make new friends and feel less lonely. The value of these words should not be underestimated, and this is the reason why English classes should be viewed as a lifebuoy in helping refugees to integrate into British society and help them to overcome the feelings of loneliness and isolation. One of the female refugees went even further and described these opportunities for social interaction as a ‘medicine’. In The Loneliness Cure, Kory Floyd equates ‘hunger for connection’ with other people to ‘the air we breathe or the water we drink’. Maybe you don’t recognize how valuable these resources are to you when you have them in abundance. Cut off your oxygen supply, though, and you’ll quickly appreciate the difference between a luxury and a requirement (Floyd, 2015). Unfortunately, these English classes and community groups which served as an ‘oxygen supply’ for refugees were abruptly cut off for many people by the COVID-19 pandemic and its resultant lockdown.
This is a very difficult and worrying time for everyone but even more so for refugees, many of whom have already suffered psychological trauma from fleeing war zones and who already have underlying health conditions. This ruthless disease forced most organisations and schools supporting and helping refugees to cancel all face-to-face events. This decision was taken with a very heavy heart in order to shield refugees from this disease. Unfortunately, losing this vital oxygen supply affected refugees enormously. According to a recent survey, some refugees described life as becoming ‘unbearably difficult’ since the beginning of the pandemic. Nazia Parveen in her article Coronavirus crisis increases suffering of the most vulnerable refugees, points out that ‘social isolation is exacerbating multilayered traumas – no distraction means women are suffering from increasing anxiety levels, sleep problems which can lead to suicide ideation’ (Parveen, 2020).
This crisis forced refugees to be confined to their houses not only physically but also mentally; however online classes served as a helping hand and rescued them from loneliness and psychological isolation.
Easing refugees’ loneliness
Leicester City of Sanctuary, which is known for offering free face-to-face classes to refugees and asylum seekers, was quick to respond in helping to ease refugees’ sufferings by swiftly setting up free online ESOL classes for refugees. Refugee students who have been attending online classes have already reported how they have started to feel happier, more optimistic and how these classes have brightened up their mundane days in isolation. 34 year old Dilara said she started to feel better and less lonely because of these classes. Another student, 32 year old Elisa, said: ‘I really feel so free and relaxed during these classes.’ Muhammed, 34, said at the beginning of lockdown he was very anxious, confused and became moody as a result of this. However, online classes helped him to cope with uncertainty and he started to feel more comfortable. These refugees’ ‘peaceful state’ during online classes reflects findings from a recent survey which suggests that virtual social interactions, online social reading activities and classes can help to reduce the boredom of long-term social isolation and enable them to feel less lonely (Sanders, 2020). Moreover, these classes can be viewed as a light at the end of tunnel which assures refugees that they are not left alone, that they are not forgotten, and it gives them a sense of being cared for and loved.
Refugee Action, which helps refugees who have survived some of the world’s worst regimes and gives them the basic support they need to live again with dignity, has already reported that many refugees and people seeking asylum are among the worst affected in this coronavirus emergency. One of the refugees expressed his pain and said: ‘Most of us live with depression surrounding what we fled and what we go through every day, the coronavirus fears will definitely add to it. Another refugee added: ‘Most of us will feel forgotten’ (Refugee Action, 2020).
Nuriye, another one of my refugee students who has been attending online classes admitted how she hasn’t felt helpless and forgotten because of these online classes and she could still progress in her language learning and most of all that she has been really enjoying them.
Providing a sense of normality
In COVID-19: How to Cope with Loneliness during the coronavirus pandemic, Lydia Smith highlights how ‘human connection is vital for our sense of well-being’ in the current crisis. Loneliness is a growing epidemic in the UK with 2.4 million adults feeling lonely according to data from the Office for National Statistics and it has already been mentioned that refugees are in the highest risk group. Dr Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist and co-founder of My Online Therapy, points out how self-isolation stops us engaging with normal day to day life and emphasizes that ‘sticking to a routine’ provides a sense of normality. Online classes provide this normality and enables refugees to stick to a routine. Classes take place at the same time and days of the week. Refugee students already underlined how they feel comfortable during online classes and look forward to them every day. Tahmine, one of the refugees in my class, admitted that she waits for classes impatiently every day. 36-year-old Osman also added that online classes gave him a sense of normality: ‘We don’t know what will happen tomorrow and this uncertainty is worrying; however online classes gave us hope and assurance that the things will go back to normal one day’.
Opening new doors for women with young children
Furthermore, female refugees with young children expressed their great delight and relief that online classes opened up new doors for them to keep up with their studies and to look after their children at the same time. 32 year old Elisa, who has 7 and 4 year old children and whose husband is out at work all day, said that online classes enabled her to self-isolate with her children and continue her language learning. Another student, 28 year old Guzal, pointed out that this is one of the biggest advantages of online classes as she has a young child to look after too. Tahmine, who has 4 and 8 year old boys, supported her online classmates and said that these classes gave her assurance that she is not forgotten. These testimonies above bring to light another very serious problem faced by women refugees.
Government funding for English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) in England fell from £203m in 2010 to £90m in 2016 – a real term cut of 60% (Foster& Bolton, 2017). It is evident that this drastic reduction in funding is having a profoundly negative psychological impact, with refugees across England routinely waiting months and in some cases years to access ESOL classes. Women refugees with young children are the most fragile group which is being hit hard by this reduction. Isabelle, one of the refugees who took part in Refugee Action’s survey expressed her disbelief: ‘The Government has cut classes every year. Last year the ESOL class paid for childcare. But this year they aren’t going to pay for that. It is very difficult without childcare’ (Refugee Action, 2017).
Online classes on the other hand offer flexibility and assurance to women with young children that they are not forgotten and that they can combine both the language learning and childcare within four walls when they must self-isolate (although it must be acknowledged that balancing childcare and class attendance simultaneously is not a perfect solution).
Creating new opportunities for married couples
Moreover, online classes create new opportunities for married couples to attend the classes at the same time, which was not always possible with face-to-face classes. Manal, another respondent from Refugee Action’s survey revealed her sadness: ‘I really struggled to get access to English lessons. Every time I went to the job centre they told me that I have to wait longer. A few months ago, they offered me a place at the same time as my husband. I could not attend because of my young son. I was then told that either I or my husband can attend so that one of us could stay with the boy, so I ended up staying home. So, I missed three months. It’s clear that online classes enable women to feel less lonely and gives them a sense that they are not left out.
In my online classes, there are currently three married couples who attend online classes at the same time. This creates a very positive, friendly and cheerful atmosphere for the students. This peaceful state of mind is crucial in overcoming these long days of uncertainty when they all have to self-isolate. The majority of the students have already acknowledged that being able to attend classes at the same time with their spouses is one of the biggest advantages of online classes.
Helping students to focus on small achievements
Last but not least, online classes during these uncertain times will help students to focus on small achievements and acknowledge their progress in language learning. Robert Sanders in Covid-19, social isolation and loneliness, has pointed out that this self-isolation during the pandemic will result in people feeling very low and lacking in motivation; however focusing on small achievements can help to foster a sense of competence (Sanders, 2020).
Students attending my online classes have already responded that these classes are keeping them motivated and helping to keep up with their progress. 28 year old Guzal says that, online classes are a big chance for them as these classes enable them to keep on track with their progress. 34 year old Ahmed says that, online classes will make sure that he will not forget anything and it ensures he will be ready to resume face-to-face classes, once everything goes back to normal. Some of the students shared their sad experiences of how they were not able to attend face-to-face classes previously, either because of travel costs or because they were no schools nearby. However, online classes opened up new doors of hope for everyone. These sincere and heartfelt testimonies from the students bring us to conclusion that online classes have been embraced by self-isolating refugees and are giving them the assurance that they are not forgotten, that they are still cared for and loved. Online classes are helping them to feel less lonely, providing them with a routine, giving them a sense of normality, helping them to focus on small achievements, creating new opportunities for women with young children to keep up with their studies, enabling couples to attend the classes at the same time, without either of them feeling that one of them have been left out and, finally, giving them hope that one day everything will go back to normal.
As has been discussed in this post, there are many benefits to online classes. These unprecedented times have shaken every single human being to their deepest cells. The psychological impact of the COVID-19 on people’s mental health will be another big area for research for the scientists and doctors for years to come. However, human beings are very fragile, and a quick response in safeguarding their mental well-being is crucial. As has been rationalized above, without any doubt online classes can serve as a vital remedy for loneliness and isolation during this pandemic.
Baumeister, Roy, F. (1995). ‘The Need to Belong: Desire for Interpersonal Attachments as a Fundamental Human Motivation’. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/15420847_The_Need_to_Belong_Desire_for_Interpersonal_Attachments_as_a_Fundamental_Human_Motivation(accessed 11 June 2020)
Christodoulou,P. (2014). ‘This is how it feels to be lonely’. Available at: https://migrantsorganise.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Loneliness-report_The-Forum_UPDATED.pdf (accessed 10 June 2020)
Floyd, K. (2015). ‘The Loneliness Cure: Six Strategies for Finding Real Connections in Your Life’. Available at: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=-27tDQAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=The+Loneliness+Cure:+Six+Strategies+for+Finding+Real+Connections+in+Your+Life&hl= en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjE07Hvg_rpAhU3UBUIHScuCuwQ6AEIJTAA#v=onepage&q=The%20Loneliness%20Cure%3A%20Six%20Strategies%20for%20Finding%20Real%20Connections%20in%20Your%20Life&f=false (accessed 10 June 2020)
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About the author
Julie G. Umarova
Julie Umarova is an independent ESOL/EFL Tutor. She holds Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree in English Philology, and Master’s Degree in English from the University of Loughborough. She worked with different age range groups, starting with primary school children and university students. She has been volunteering/working closely with refugees since September 2019. She has admitted that working with refugees has been an eye-opening experience and one of the most rewarding things that she has done in her life.