When a migrant woman told Temitope Olusola how much she wanted to connect with other parents every time she dropped her child at school, it stuck with her.

The woman couldn’t mingle with other parents because English wasn’t her first language and she didn’t speak it much. “It was something that was very hard for her,” Olusola says.

Since August, Olusola and other volunteers at the youth branch of Akina Dada wa Africa (AkiDwa), a Dublin-based charity advocating for the rights of migrant women, have been organising free English language classes to help.

Including, for the woman who struggled at the school gates.

“She was really excited about joining,” says Olusola, who is the initiative’s project officer.

Free English classes can still be hard to come by, prompting the need for community groups to form new ones, says Kerry McCarthy, head of operations at Recruit Refugees Ireland, a recruitment agency serving asylum seekers.

“I think they’re incredibly essential, and the fact that community groups are providing most of this essential service at this point is crazy,” says McCarthy.

A spokesperson for the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth said that the government’s white paper on “ending” direct provision “commits to providing an intensive English language programme” to people who come to Ireland and apply for asylum here.

Bridging Gaps

In the meantime, there are some free English language classes – but not everyone is able to access them.

Dublin City Council offered free English courses to migrants through city libraries, under its last integration strategy for 2016 to 2020. It is still drawing up its new integration strategy.

There are also free language classes funded by the Department of Further and Higher Education and delivered through its 16 Education and Training Boards (ETBs) – including the one in Dublin city, said a department spokesperson.

Yet, those seeking out classes sometimes find there isn’t room for them.

Hiba Brieqa, an asylum seeker in Waterford, says she has been registered since February to try to get into a free class in her area (she’s not sure who the provider is). “The teacher said I have to wait because the whole school is full.”

“You’re on the waiting list and will be contacted when a space is available as I have already told you,” says a message to Brieqa.

John Lannon, chief executive officer of Doras, a non-profit that advocates for refugees, says that happens “all the time.”

People who don’t get a place in September might get one in January, says Lannon. “But no guarantee.”

Volunteers at the youth branch of AkiDwa decided to form its new group offering lessons after they realised that many women, especially in direct provision centres, can’t access free English lessons, says Olusola.

They want to at least introduce them to the basics of the language, she says, so they can function here. “Because everybody deserves to function in the society.”

The Benefits

On Monday morning, Nengi Benstowe, who leads the Young Migrant Women’s Network – as the youth branch of AkiDwa is called – was sitting outside a café on Chancery Street, lifting the fingers of her left hand one by one, to count off reasons why English lessons are important.

It can help them upskill, she says. “Those who struggle to communicate it helps them to fit in.”

To get a job, they need to be able to communicate too, says Benstowe. “So we thought this was a good way to start.”

Nengi Benstowe. Photo by Shamim Malekmian.

Lannon, the CEO of Doras, says that English language classes are “still quite in demand” among the people they work with.

“Because language is a barrier to employment, to education. There is a need across the country to get people to a basic level,” says Lannon.

Benstowe says that most of the women who have enrolled in her group’s classes live in direct provision centres. Their number varies between 16 to 20, and they join a Zoom class twice a week.

“For now, because everything is so unpredictable, and not everyone’s vaccinated,” said Benstowe.

In Asylum Centres

“English language lessons should be provided in the reception process, and particularly for those in the reception centres,” says theSeptember 2020 “Catherine Day report” by a government advisory group on providing better support to asylum seekers.

“A cultural orientation programme (welcome to and getting to know life in Ireland) should also be available for all,” it says.

That’s yet to happen though.

The spokesperson for the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth said it is planning to introduce an intensive English language course to be part of the two-phased model of refugee accommodation.

Asylum seekers living in reception centres during phase one of their application will be able to avail of the English language course, they said.

This would be similar to the programme currently provided under the Irish Refugee Protection Programme, to people who have already been granted refugee status before arriving in Ireland, the spokesperson said.

“In addition to the intensive English language course” during phase one, adults who are seeking asylum here “will also be entitled to access further English language support”, they said.

The two-phased model of accommodating asylum seekers is set to replace the current direct provision system by the end of the government’s lifetime, according to its February white paper on ending direct provision.

Lannon, the CEO of Doras, says staff at his NGO spend a lot of time filling forms for people, which they’re happy to do.

“But it’s very clear to us that people just don’t have the opportunity to develop the skill to do it themselves,” he says.

Also, without the escape route of the English language, asylum seekers can become isolated – which can count against them when applying for a humanitarian leave to remain, says Lannon.

Showing a meaningful connection to the country, proof of employment, and character referrals from community members areall conditions that the minister takes into account, in applications from leave-to-remain applicants.

Finding Support

Monica Shannon, who coordinates English language classes in Dublin as part of Fáilte Isteach – through which older, often retired, volunteers teach English to migrants – says the contribution of volunteer groups to language teaching can be essential.

“I’ve been working in the community for years and it’s always like we’re doing the government’s job for them, if you get what I’m saying,” says Shannon.

That said, they do know what’s needed, she says. “Because we’re with our feet on the ground, we’re not sitting down in some office somewhere removed from what the needs of the community are.”

Unlike formal government-funded classes, Shannon says, they keep their classes informal and friendly, focusing on the immediate needs of migrants.

McCarthy, the head of operations at Recruit Refugees Ireland, says all-women classes can be especially beneficial for women who’ve grown accustomed to segregated settings.

“They need to feel safe, and if that’s what it takes for them to learn English, then service should be provided,” she says.

Olusola, the project officer of the AkiDwa youth group’s English initiative, says they now have three volunteer teachers for their classes, from different parts of the world.

Migrants teaching English to migrants is a good idea, says Olusola. “It’s very important that you’d be able to relate to the struggles of each other.”

McCarthy says she’s seen students responding better to teachers who speak their first tongues, translating phrases and sentences to the students to drive the lessons home.

Benstowe is hopeful that their project will grow. They are planning to take on more students in the next batch of classes, she says.

Shamim Malekmian covers the immigration beat for Dublin Inquirer. Reach her at shamim@dublininquirer.com

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