The refugee’s experience
Nowadays war, famine, persecution and other terrible realities are a daily part of the lives of thousands of people. They are forced to abandon their homelands and travel far away, in dubious conditions, in the hopes to find a place where they could live their lives and raise their children without constant fear of death, sickness and torture. Of course, they’re not welcomed everywhere, and sometimes their journey lasts for longer than expected… and they even meet their end before they reach a place to call home.
A refugee’s problems start way before they become such. The terrible reality they must endure often scars them for life, or at least leaves deep wounds in their bodies and their psyches. They escape in order to survive and give their children and family a better life, and even those with the best of intentions and the greatest wishes to peacefully find a place to live and work will bear on their shoulders the burden of their past. Also, the experience of being a refugee adds even more suffering to their lives; they face poverty, fear, discrimination and isolation, and persecution might still be a daily affair for them.
Some countries have decided to offer refugees opportunities for getting integrated in their culture in a legal framework where they can become a part of the community, work, access education and get their basic rights covered. The United Kingdom has designed a series of programmes and conducted research in order to better understand the reality of refugees and offer them better options for social integration.
One of the biggest obstacles refugees find when they arrive to the United Kingdom, or almost any other countries for that matter, is language. They are unlikely to end their journey in a country with the same culture and the same language as their homelands. As a matter of fact, this is one of the factors that sets them apart from the rest of the people and makes it difficult for them to integrate to the society, make contributions and access the benefits offered by the government or other institutions.
Refugees will often have to spend years in a foreign country before they have the chance to go back to their own countries, if ever. For that reason, they need to make plans for settling in, sending their children to school, finding jobs and getting integrated into the community by making friends and social connections. This is virtually impossible if they don’t share the same language because they cannot talk to locals and not even understand written signs, letters or other texts.
Helping refugees in the UK cross the language barrier and become proficient in English is one of the basic aspects of integration. Some educational institutions offer help to the families of refugees, like Overseas Schools Offering Support to Children and other programmes aimed towards cultural literacy and comprehension. However, ever since the first waves of refugees arrived to the UK, teachers found out that a comprehensive English teaching programme for children and adults isn’t enough to get across the language barrier.
The Lessons of Northern Ireland have helped enlighten many institutions about what kind of measures to take in order to integrate refugees by offering English classes. Northern Ireland has made a great effort to do so, and contribute to the integration of newcomers to its own system. However, these interventions would soon face unexpected problems that required programmes to be modified and adapted to the refugees’ actual needs, which happened to go much farther than first expected. The results of these first trials were presented as reports to the government and other institutions that might get interested in integrating refugees through a local language teaching program, and these results are now being considered by other countries with integration policies, like New Zealand.
Teaching English to refugees from other cultures is challenging because most of them come from different cultures, where educational policies and academic literacy are different from ours, so refugees did have a hard time adapting to our educative model. Some of them might not even know how to read or write, and have never been in a classroom before, so they lack basic knowledge on how to work as a student. These lessons for the classroom are fundamental for developing programmes that successfuly integrate refugees into our society.
A comprehensive program should not only include language contents but also literacy basics, cultural training and basic education on the history, laws and customs of the United Kingdom. Without this base, refugees will still lack basic skills needed for integration.