Providing pastoral support for refugees on university language programmes: It’s not a career – it’s a life choice

– Pascale Roussel – 

Podcast version of this post available here

I’m the first point of contact for sanctuary-seeking students – refugees and asylum seekers – at the University of Leicester. I work as Programme Administration Team Leader and University of Sanctuary Facilitator for the Centre for International Training and Education, which includes the English Language Teaching Unit and the Sanctuary Seekers’ Unit. We have been offering Sanctuary scholarships for our Pre-sessional English Programmes since October 2017 and quickly learnt that teaching and providing standard pastoral care are not enough. Refugees and asylum seekers have complex needs as a result of the traumatic situations and many challenges they have encountered and are still often encountering on a daily basis. It is therefore absolutely essential that we educate ourselves, and provide dedicated pastoral and wrap-around support to these students. Based on my personal experience and the feedback I have received from our Sanctuary scholars, I can honestly say such support hugely impacts their university experience and chances of succeeding. Not only that, but it makes a massive difference in their lives in general.

Before I outline my approach, just to say I’m not advocating that everyone follows in my footsteps as I realise I’ve got a very personal approach to the role and a lot of colleagues would probably prefer or recommend maintaining stricter professional boundaries. Everyone needs to find their own way and work-life balance. The more you get involved, the more emotional resilience you’ll need and the more mindful you’ll need to be when it comes to your own mental health. It’s easy to get carried away when you are passionate about a cause and when you care about people as individuals. That being said, I’ll now go on to outline my perspective and my approach to providing support to these students.

I’m their mama, their sister, their friend. I’m their go-to person when they have a question or problem, big or small. Maybe they just got refugee status and they are about to lose their NASS accommodation without having been able to secure a new place due to the massively long waiting list. Maybe they can’t access their online classes because they can’t afford a laptop or internet. Maybe they don’t know how to cook a meal from the random can selection they got from the food bank. Maybe they don’t know how to make British friends. Maybe they are having an anxiety attack and think they just can’t do this assignment or pass that exam or talk to that person. Spoiler: they usually can, they just need someone to believe in them and tell them they can. 

In June 2020, one of our students wrote to me to say that he’d lost the project he’d been working on for weeks due to a computer problem. It was a couple of days before it was due for submission. He thought it was literally the end and he’d lost his chance to pass the pre-sessional programme and go to university. I emailed him back straight away to reassure him and encourage him. Here is the response I received two days later:

“Thank you very much for all the nice words. Sometimes, one word changes someone’s life and everyone needs this word in some point in his life. I submitted my project yesterday evening. I’ve worked on it for more than 40 hours without eating or sleeping or even drinking. Before I saw your words, I was deciding to sleep and write an email to the course director that I will not be able to do it even if you give me extra time, but when I saw your words I thought about it and I motivated and started writing anyway. I found myself write quickly and not too bad, of course not like the previous one but not bad at all, this is my opinion at least. I don’t know how it goes during grading. I have just woken up after approximately two days without sleeping. I hope now to have enough time to practice for exam. Whatever happens in my exams, I will be happy for doing it. A huge thank you again”.

As can be seen, sometimes it only takes a few words to help someone feel like it is possible for them to succeed or to overcome their fear of failure or fear more generally. These fears aren’t always rational, but they are very real and need urgent attention. Maybe they are having a flashback after hearing an alarm or an helicopter, or they’ve just received some bad news from their family back home, and they need someone to listen, reassure them, maybe hold their hand, give them a glass of water, tissue or even a hug (in non-COVID times). 

But this is only one side of the coin. Yes, they are fragile, but they are the strongest and most resilient people I know. They’ve been through so much, they’ve had to adapt so quickly. They still have ambition, hopes and dreams, and they are capable of achieving them, if given the opportunity and right support. I’ve talked of the difficulties, but I still have to mention how rewarding and heart-warming working with Sanctuary seekers can be. I’m not just their go-to person when they have problems, I’m also their go-to person when it comes to celebrating their achievements. They will proudly tell me when they get their driving licence – a very important step because it means they will get an ID that doesn’t mention their immigration status – or when they get a good grade for an assignment they thought they couldn’t do. They will invite me to celebrate Eid with them, their graduation, their wedding. For every baby step or giant leap, small or big victory, I’ll share their joy and my heart will swell with pride. 

I learn from them every day: geography, history, language, religion, cuisine, psychology, art, you name it! I learn from their stories, experiences and everything they willingly share with me: from the Syrian revolution to the Iranian underground art scene, the Turkish cuisine and traditions, the strong Sudanese community spirit, the richness and poetry of the Arabic language, their journeys to the UK and the many countries they’ve crossed, how fondly they might remember a kind stranger who helped them along the way, the UK immigration system and its many pitfalls, the intense sense of loss or guilt and loneliness they can feel, their wonderful hospitality, warmth and sense of humour. 

They’ve all been in their own personal lockdown for so long and they are probably the ones who’ve been the most affected by the COVID-19 lockdown, yet they were the first ones to check on me and offer me their help. The truth is, they are the ones who’ve carried me through this lockdown, they’ve given me much needed perspective and the strength and motivation to carry on. I feel a responsibility towards them and that I can’t let them down, not because it’s my job, but because I care about them and they are, actually, my friends. My life is richer because they are in it and for this I’m grateful.

About the author

Pascale Roussel holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Applied Foreign Languages, as well as a Bachelor’s Degree in English from the University of Rouen, France. She has been working for the University of Leicester since February 2014 with a particular interest and focus on student experience and pastoral care. She has been heavily involved in developing its University of Sanctuary initiative and supporting refugees and asylum seekers since the University started offering scholarships for Pre-sessional English Programmes in October 2017. She has also been coordinating the organisation of the University’s annual Refugee Week – Breaking Barriers – since its launch in 2018.

Published by EAP 4 Social Justice SIG

What is the EAP for Social Justice SIG? Welcome to the website for BALEAP's EAP for Social Justice Special Interest Group! This SIG is intended to provide a forum for EAP practitioners to discuss, deepen their understanding of, and address concerns related to, social justice within and around EAP, whilst also broadening and strengthening the evidence-base of the impact that social justice initiatives can make in this field. Through bringing this often-sidelined area into the spotlight and examining the knowledge, skills and values that a social justice lens can contribute to EAP, this SIG aims to encourage more EAP students, practitioners and managers to take action and play their part in fulfilling the vision of the university as the “critic and conscience of society”.

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