Creating a lingua franca between refugees & migrants

5 months ago, our volunteers Jon & Olivia decided to launch English-learning classes for migrants and refugees at the Red Cross Centre. Research shows that language-learning is a crucial factor in social inclusion and integration of migrants and refugees. Discover the story behind this wonderful initiative and the positive impact it has created over the past months!

The ‘English for Refugees’ project hosts informal English language classes for beneficiaries at the Red Cross centre.

The project started in February 2021 as a response to requests to provide opportunities to study and practice English on a regular basis. Project leaders Olivia and Jon hold two classes which run concurrently at 3pm every Saturday, providing activities for beneficiaries with either a ‘beginner’ or ‘intermediate’ level of existing English. Classes run for approximately 2 hours each time and are structured on a thematic basis, giving the students an opportunity to practice speaking, reading and writing skills.

Olivia and Jon are supported by an amazing team of volunteers who act as Teaching Assistants during classes, encouraging and helping beneficiaries to complete activities within small groups. On the approach to designing classes, Olivia explains: ‘’Each class is different, and we never know who will show up or how many beneficiaries will come along. One of the amazing things about the project is how flexible it can be, so we try to design a lesson and the activities around a theme but it is always adapted by volunteers and, a lot of the time, the beneficiaries just want an opportunity to give their story and we’re happy to listen…sometimes we struggle to finish the classes as the students don’t want to leave!’’

The classes have evolved over time, from the first session with a single group of 15 students, to two classes targeting different levels and regularly accommodated 20-30 students in total. On the demographic of those who attend, Jon highlights that: ‘’Many, if not most of the students are best described as ‘trans-migrants’, meaning they are essentially passing-through Belgium on their way to other places. The majority of students come from North and East Africa, countries such as Ethiopia, Libya, Eritrea and Sudan…but also Syria and other conflict zones. We’ve managed to build up a relationship with some of the regular students who now recognize us when we’re at the centre and are always amazingly committed.’

Both Olivia and Jon initially started volunteering at other projects before recognising a need for more structured sessions that could support learning in the Red Cross centre. Originating from the United States, Olivia has a wealth of experience supporting migrants and refugees, especially refugee reception and integration services. Both Jon and Olivia have prior teaching experience but always rely on the ideas and suggestions of the volunteers for how best to deliver the classes…and for resolving conflicts between American and British English!

Painting credit: Quynh-Yen Kohnert (@qykohnert)

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