– Julie Umarova –
Podcast version of this post available here
A shiver runs up my spine whenever I read these lines. I wish these words were from a fantasy book. After reading them over and over again I can’t help but think, what if it were my child and me in that boat? It is unimaginable and unthinkable what might go through a mother’s mind, when her child’s life is at the brink of a cliff and can be cut short with a slam of a wave. We may feel sorry for their sufferings and carry on with our daily lives with the words ‘I wish I could help’.
But maybe we can help. As teachers, one tangible way in which we can provide support to refugees is through volunteering to teach language classes, and, to this end, I recently wrote a blog post entitled Online Classes as a Remedy for Loneliness and Isolation during COVID-19, based on my own experiences of teaching such classes. In that blog post I reported on our students’ responses and feelings towards the Leicester City of Sanctuary’s online ESOL classes. Those classes were offered in co-operation with the University of Leicester. As that blog post received a good deal of interest, I thought it would be useful to write this blog post exploring what volunteering with refugees has done for me. This short journey through my diary will aim to show how kind, generous, loving and caring they are and how by embracing them you can experience boundless happiness and love. Not only can you get borderless love in return, but they will cover you with the wings of kindness and generosity. They can pass on their wisdom of being compassionate and empathetic to human beings during the most trying times. They can teach you about never losing hope and faith and being resilient and motivated fighters when life hits you hard. Last but not least, they will inspire and infect you with the humanity’s highest and most valuable qualities such as altruism, giving and selflessness. As Lawson (1998) once wrote: ‘If you have no time to volunteer then you are missing the greatest gift in life: happiness… by giving yourself to others you will receive back more happiness, health, a sense of purpose in life, and personal growth’.
In addition to the above incentive for volunteering, Miliband (2017) emphasises that we also have a responsibility to help refugees in need:
‘The refugee crisis is not just about ‘them’; it is also about ‘us’ – what we, living in far greater comfort, stand for and how we see our places in the world. It is a test of our character, not just our policies. Pass the test, and we rescue ourselves and our values as well as refugees and their lives’
So, we can view this humanitarian crisis as not only being about ‘them’ but about ‘us’ – who we are and what we stand for. Similarly, when Albert Einstein was forced to flee to the United States in October 1933 he said: ‘I’m almost ashamed to be living in such peace while the rest struggle and suffer’. I can feel his frustration and pain in these lines. Refugees are ordinary people like you and me, who have lost everything. They’ve left their entire lives behind, often with just the clothes on their backs. They didn’t choose to leave their homes; they were forced to flee their homelands and are the victims of human rights violations. As Anju, an asylum seeker, writes: ‘We did not come here for a better life. We had a better life. If there was security in my country for minorities, we would not be here. We are suffering here more then there, but at least our lives aren’t in danger’ (Refugee Action, 2020). Anju’s story is just one example of that of hundreds and thousands of refugees who are forced to flee their homes because of war and persecution. In light of lived experience of people such as Anju, in her touching book Europe and the Refugee Crisis, Trix (2018) writes: ‘Why can’t we be receptive to people of significantly different backgrounds? Can we work to integrate new refugees into our societies? Can we be inclusive in these trying times?’. Indeed, in the words of Julia, a Macedonian worker in a mother and young children’s refugee camp, ‘If you put out one finger of love, you get ten fingers back’ (Trix, 2018).
My personal journey into volunteering, into doing something to help refugees feel welcome and included in our society, was prompted by an inspirational woman. Her name was Aliya. Aliya and her family were welcomed in the UK after the devastating consequences of the conflicts in Syria. We live in the same community. She was a very enthusiastic and kind-hearted woman and always volunteered herself in the community and school activities. You could see her planting trees or shrubs on community gatherings, you could spot her planting bulbs and helping clean up leaves on the school grounds in the fall. She was always there for her community which welcomed her. Aliya’s devotion and love for her new community inspired me to get into voluntary teaching and I started helping refugees at a community centre with English classes. So, this was the beginning of the most rewarding and most eye-opening experience of my life.
I’ve been closely working with refugees since September 2019, but the life lessons they taught me in this short period of time is priceless and worth a decade. Not only have they become my friends, but my sisters and brothers. It would be no exaggeration to say that I started to feel happier and more fulfilled as soon as I started working with them. Every single one of us can help. It may be a simple act of kindness such as a warm smile and kind word whenever we encounter them in the streets. It may be an hour from your life in which you could volunteer in local centres which welcome and supports refugees. It maybe just one hour from your life but for them it will be a ray of hope and love which can heal their wounds, and most of all help them feel accepted and integrate into the new society. In her inspirational book The Giving Way to Happiness, Santi recounts lots of examples from people’s lives who were able to find purpose, discover their calling, heal from their wounds, experience true love and find fulfilment beyond material success through volunteering’ (Santi, 2016).
As I can very much relate to this, and I thought it’s my duty to share these beautiful stories from my daily work with refugees. I do hope that these stories will encourage and inspire more people to get into volunteering.
Kindness and Generosity
Aisha and Ehsaan
I still remember when I met Aisha and Ehsaan for the first time in late autumn 2019. They were a newly arrived young Syrian couple. They didn’t speak any English and their eldest child was about to start reception. Their eyes were full of excitement and anticipation but at the same time full of questions, uncertainties and worries. These worries were mainly related to the fact that they didn’t speak any English. The numbers around the Syrian refugee crisis are well known – as of May 2016, more than 50% of the population of Syria had been displaced (Parekh, 2017). In Counseling Refugees, Bemak (2003) emphasizes the fact that their abrupt departure means refugees are not ready psychologically and pragmatically for rapid movement and transition. He goes on to state, once they arrive in a host country one of the biggest obstacles for adult refugees are language barriers and at this stage, unfortunately, children can lose hope and respect for their parents. He refers to a very saddening story of how a refugee dad who was a leader in his country started crying uncontrollably and turned into a vegetable (Bemak, 2003). That dad viewed himself as a failure for not being able to guide and support his children in a completely new environment, where people spoke a different language. As Crowther (2019) points out, refugees not only try to rebuild their lives in an unfamiliar society, but they also wish to restore their dignity and a sense of pride and positive identity. Further, she adds, some of them may cope fine without our help, but they will cope better and rebuild a decent life faster with an extra hand (Crowther, 2019).
I started visiting Aisha and Ehsaan three days a week for English classes. As days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months, I started to grow attached to this wonderful family. Due to personal circumstances, I wasn’t driving at that time and I would have to take a train and then a bus to get there. Aisha would always greet me with a warm smile and a cup of hot tea with biscuits, and sometimes with delicious homemade soups. She would always make sure that I was warm, fed and comfortable before starting our classes. I do remember one particular day, when my bus was delayed… It was a cold winter’s day and by the time I reached their house I was freezing cold. Upon entering our study room, I felt a stinging cold under my feet. I knew that their marble under-floor heating wasn’t working right away. Aisha instantly realised that my feet were cold and took her single pair of wool slippers off and urged me to wear them. I was astounded by her selflessness and concern for my health. She put my health before her own health. It is astonishing that refugees who have left all their possessions and belongings back in their homes are ready to give away their few possessions so readily. After our classes I used to rush to catch my bus and Ehsaan who worked as a chef back in his home country would always put his delicious home-made wraps into my bag and they would both urge me to eat them on my way back home on the bus. I would usually politely decline their generosity, but they would insist that it would make them happy. There are no words which could describe how deeply I was touched and emotionally affected by this family’s kindness and generosity. These are people who were forced to flee their homelands and lost their loved ones to unspeakable conflicts and war, and yet they didn’t lose their humanity, kind-heartedness and tenderness towards the outside world.
Resilience and Motivation
Sufia and Habib
Sufia and I met each other for the first time in late March 2020. This was the beginning of one of the most challenging and unprecedented times in the history of humanity – the COVID-19 pandemic. All around the world people were urged to self-isolate with immediate effect. Newspaper headlines were bursting with grim forecasts for the upcoming months. This immediate upheaval meant people were not prepared, neither physically nor psychologically, for these drastic changes. Unfortunately, refugees were in a group of some of the most vulnerable and unprepared people.
Sufia and her children, who were forced to flee their home country for their lives, were cruelly separated from her husband, from her ‘soul’ as she once told me, during this journey. From the very first moment I met her I was inspired by her strong will, resilience and motivation to thrive. She and her children went through a great number of ordeals since the beginning of the pandemic. Refugees struggle to meet their daily needs with the little amount of money they are entitled to. Unfortunately, for Sufia’s family the severity of their situation escalated during the pandemic. Sufia described with sadness how her children would wake up from hunger in the middle of the night and ask for food. She recounted her daily visits to local food banks so she could put something on their plates and keep her children fed and warm. Sadly, there were even times when she would come back empty handed. The food banks are critical for many of society’s most vulnerable and this includes refugees and asylum seekers. Regrettably, the pandemic has taken its toll even on the food banks. Some food banks have suffered through a lack of donations and a falling number of volunteers during the pandemic (UNHCR UK, 2020). As Helen Barnard puts it: ‘It’s simply not right that so many more people are having to turn to food banks because they are unable to meet their basic costs. We all want to help each other through this storm, but families with children are being particularly hard hit and do not have the lifeline they need to stay afloat’ (The Trussell Trust, 2020). However, these challenging times didn’t break her; they made her even stronger. Sufia proved to herself and her children that she is physically and mentally resilient and managed to stay motivated throughout the pandemic. Not only she has been shielding her children from hunger, but she has convinced herself that this hardship is temporary, and she should keep working hard. She has been attending Leicester City Sanctuary’s online classes throughout the pandemic and hasn’t missed even a single lesson. Sufia’s strong will to never give up even during the most challenging times can be explained with Bemak’s (2003) observation in Counseling Refugees. He writes that ‘refugees may be considered a financial burden’ to society. Sufia’s tireless effort and strong will can be viewed as an example that she wants to express her gratitude and pay back to the country which provided her with a safe shelter. Moreover, she told me on numerous occasions how she is grateful and owes her and her children’s lives to this country. She worked as a teacher back in her home country and she has a strong desire to pay back her community for welcoming her and her family.
I was introduced to Sufia’s husband Habib (whom she was separated from) in early August 2020. The first thing which I noticed about him was his beautiful and warm smile. His eyes were full of a thirst to learn. He started attending our online English classes. It was not long before I realised how my admiration for him started to grow. I had immense respect for his strong will and motivation to learn in the most uncomfortable and challenging conditions. He would join my classes from his phone, sitting on a single chair in his bedroom. His bedroom was bare with just a single chair and a bed. Even though I loved our classes with him there would always be sadness at the back of my mind. Unfortunately, this sadness turned into despair as the days got colder and shorter. Once, in late November he joined my class from the street. He was wearing a hat and a scarf and was wrapped up tightly in his coat. To my bewildered inquiry as to why he was outside, he replied that, unfortunately, he could no longer access wi-fi from his flat. I was numb for a few seconds not knowing what to say, but he cheeringly carried on and said that he still wanted to have our classes, even on the street. Unfortunately, we had to temporarily stop our classes from the middle of December, as the days got much colder and greyer and rainier.
Words are not enough to describe my admiration and tender feelings towards him. Even though he was trying to overcome the obstacles in his way with optimism and positivity, it was emotionally difficult for me. It was heart-wrenching to see him sitting next to a building’s cold wall in a windy and people-less street. It was painful to see how his left hand was getting cold and numb from holding his phone up, as he doesn’t have his right arm and has to rely only on his left one. Unfortunately, whenever I picture him in the street it reminds me of Neil Gaiman’s sad lines: ‘Places we slept as children: they warm us in the memory’ (What you need to be warm? Poem by Neil Gaiman). It should be a daily reminder for everyone that education is a basic human right, enshrined in the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child and the 1951 Refugee Convention. Education protects refugee children and youth from forced recruitment, child labour and sexual exploitation. Education empowers refugees by giving them the knowledge and skills to live productive, fulfilling and independent lives. Finally, education enlightens refugees, enabling them to learn about themselves and the world around them, while striving to rebuild their lives and communities (UNHCR, 2020).
Altruism and Giving
Daniyal, Malika, Layan
I was lucky to meet Daniyal, Mailka and Layan when I was helping at a centre which welcomed and helped refugees to integrate into British society. They were the most cheerful and warm group of friends I’ve ever met. While interacting with them I was able to witness humanity’s highest qualities like trust, care, empathy and giving. Even though my task was to help them and provide assistance whenever needed, actually it was them who were sharing their wisdom and knowledge with me. As soon as I met them, they instantly welcomed me into their circle and made me feel warm and comfortable. I usually spent two days a week at the centre. Whenever, I was there, refugees and asylum seekers would fill up the centre with laughter and joy. I absolutely loved my time over there; it seemed like even the walls could feel their positivity and optimism.
One day I was in a rush and left my packed lunch at home. When it was lunch time, I stayed in the classroom with an excuse that I wasn’t hungry. All students left for the kitchen and after a few more minutes Malika, Daniyal and Layan came back and begged me to join them. I couldn’t decline their polite request. From the outside it may look like a simple act of food sharing; however, these refugees come from cultures where food sharing is used to express love, affection and gratitude to people. In her insightful book Refugees and Asylum Seekers, Berthold highlights how ‘food makes people connect with each other. It connects people to different cultures who might not otherwise have connected’ (Berthold, 2019). It was not only on that occasion that I was invited to join them. They would always bring in delicious homemade treats to share with everyone at the centre. It was not long before I realised that these refugees had created a big and loving community where everyone felt accepted and appreciated. Most of all it gave everyone a sense of belonging. As O’Donohue (2000) beautifully puts it:
‘The hunger to belong is at the heart of our nature. Cut off from others, we atrophy and turn in on ourselves. The sense of belonging is the natural balance of our lives… There is some innocent childlike side to the human heart that is always deeply hurt when we are excluded… When we become isolated, we are prone to being damaged’.
Not only did they teach me about giving and being generous, but also about looking after our fellow beings no matter who they are, no matter which culture, religion, race or ethnicity they belong to. On one occasion it was raining heavily, and I didn’t have my umbrella with me. It would usually take me 20 minutes to walk to the nearest bus stop. As the students were leaving for home, Malika approached me and earnestly offered me her umbrella, even though she didn’t have anything to protect herself from the rain… That day we walked to the bus stop together. Malika made her way back home only after making sure I was dry and safe at the bus stop. How can one not accept and love people who are so loving and caring to their fellow beings? In an Unsafe Haven, Jarrar writes: ‘The refugees are like shadows… colourless and in some way invisible to everyone else’ (Jarrar, An Unsafe Heaven, 2016). Why don’t we come together and show that they are visible, that they are heard and accepted, and most of all that they add all the colours of the rainbow to our daily lives? As Ban Ki-moon once said: ‘Refugees are people like anyone else, like you and me. They led ordinary lives before becoming displaced, and their biggest dream is to be able to live normally again.’ (Ban Ki-moon, 2015)
‘I never forgot that I live in the community, and I never forgot the care and refuge I got from my community’.
These are the words of Hamid, an inspirational asylum seeker who started a food bank for refugees and other vulnerable people in his community, during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. He delivered food parcels on his bicycle daily to the various vulnerable people. Hamid’s story is heart-melting and it reflects refugees’ feelings of gratitude towards communities which welcome and provide them with a safe haven when their lives are in danger and human rights are violated. Refugees are victims of persecution who have been deprived of their membership of a political community. In his eloquently written book What Do We Owe to Refugees?, Owen debates that everyone has a duty to rescue refugees and provide them with shelter. (Owen, 2020). Unfortunately, Berthold gives a memorable example and writes that: ‘The public often assumes that when things are good, we need to build wall to keep people out’ (Berthold, 2019). She goes on to state that in fact most refugees want to return to their home country, but in cases such as Syria where return is unlikely it is important to welcome refugees. As refugees come from non-western cultures, they are more prone to the feelings of loneliness and isolation. Their journey into adaptation is usually filled with lots of anxieties, fears and uncertainties; and if you are an English teacher, not only you can help to make this journey much smoother and faster, but less lonely for them. By giving an hour from your life, you will receive boundless love and care, and experience unexplainable warmth and tenderness from them. By helping them and treating them as equals – regular human beings – we will be contributing to creating a healthier and stronger society.
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About the author
Julie Umarova is an independent ESOL/EFL Tutor. She holds a Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree in English Philology, and a Master’s Degree in English from the University of Loughborough. She has worked with different age range groups, starting with primary school children and university students. She has been volunteering/working closely with refugees at the University of Leicester, through Leicester City of Sanctuary, since September 2019. She feels that working with refugees has been an eye-opening experience and one of the most rewarding things that she has done in her life.