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Whenever Almas Khan Ahmadzai walks into the direct provision centre where he is staying in Wicklow after a day trip to Dublin, there’s always someone in the lobby awaiting his return, he says.
“For me just to talk about their issues with the reception,” said Ahmadzai, his hands clasped on the table in front of him at a café on Smithfield Square.
That’s because they speak little or no English and struggle to navigate mundane things, he says. They count on Ahmadzai to help them get by.
“They can’t read some of the papers issued to them; some of them can’t even write their names [in English],” says Ahmadzai.
If there is a problem with a room or a bed, they can’t make themselves heard, Ahmadzai says, and he has to be their voice.
Back in Afghanistan and before the whole country fell again to Taliban rule in August 2021, he used to volunteer to teach English to parentless kids, Ahmadzai says.
Here, watching Afghan asylum seekers left isolated and unseen because of language barriers breaks his heart, he says. “I just feel terrible.”
For a few weeks, Ahmadzai has been trying to channel that heartbreak into constructive action, searching for ways to volunteer to teach English to Afghan asylum seekers in Dublin and Wicklow.
But opportunities are rare, says Ahmadzai.
Asylum seekers with good English like him should be tapped as a valuable resource, he says, and used to teach the language, giving others a route out of isolation and a chance to contribute more to Ireland.
“Back in my country, a lot of these people had good jobs. Here they can’t interact with a bus driver,” he says.
Searching to Help
Ahmadzai has googled ways to offer his help. But hasn’t come up with much yet to explain how asylum seekers can set up classes for others in direct provision centres.
He has reached out to organisations like Spirasi, the non-profit helping victims of torture, to see if they can help him volunteer.
Said Ahmadzai: “I got a meeting tomorrow with a local volunteer hub in the place I’m living.”
His search results also threw up a Dublin Inquirer story about two Ukrainian refugees who had been English teachers in Ukraine before the war, volunteering to teach English. So he contacted this newspaper too.
Beyond finding roles for himself, Ahmadzai imagines a wider solution – an organisation tasked with connecting up all the people with good English in direct provision centres who are happy to teach it to others they share a first language with.
“And give them some opportunity to somehow help their fellow citizens,” says Ahmadzai, who said a few times that he’s very grateful to be in Ireland and doesn’t want to say anything negative.
Having people who share a first language teach English to others is the best way to go about learning the tongue, especially for those with little hold on the language yet, Ahmadzai says.
“You can try hard, but if you can’t understand each other, it’s not working,” he says.
For Ahmadzai, it’s also difficult to watch Afghans, yet to master the English language, have their talents wasted, unable to continue working at jobs of their choosing.
“Some of them were in the army, police officers,” says Ahmadzai. “They should be provided opportunities to learn faster and engage in the society.”
Other asylum seekers have said in the past that free English language classes for those looking to start a new life here have been hard to come by.
Volunteer groups outside direct provision centres sometimes spring up to help. But there’s little tracking of how long they last.
The government also provides classes through its education and training boards, but places can fill fast.
While staying at Citywest when he first got here four months ago, Ahmadzai says, he saw droves of asylum seekers and Ukrainian refugees looking helpless and vulnerable, scrambling to make themselves heard across language barriers.
Organising consistent classes using asylum seekers awaiting decisions on their cases as teachers, he says, also gives those with little English a clearer path out of direct provision centres because the more they know how to communicate, they’re more likely to get a job and become independent.
Asylum seekers are granted the right to work six months after filing an asylum claim. Ukrainian refugees can work in Ireland once they get a paper confirming their status under the EU’s Temporary Protection Directive.
“If a guy from my country worked at a café like this,” says Ahmadzai, gesturing around the busy coffee shop. “He’ll provide for himself, his family back in Afghanistan and pay taxes to the Irish government.”