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The group working together.

'It's very rewarding for everybody': The volunteer group helping asylum seekers learn English

Cross-Cultural Conversations hold classes to teach English and about Ireland, as well as social events in the city.

IN A MAKESHIFT classroom in north Dublin, a group of nine students sit having conversations in broken English.

The room has five tables, a small kitchenette, and shelves with board games and a small library of books, from children’s counting books and old Junior Cert workbooks to novels by Roddy Doyle and Frank McCourt.

The students fill in work pages, do word searches and crossword puzzles and even play Bananagrams, a game similar to Scrabble that uses tiles with letters to spell out words.

These ‘students’ are all asylum seekers. Their ‘teachers’ are a group of volunteers who have set up the classes where they come to learn, chat and socialise. A number of international protection applicants are also volunteering as part of the group. 

Cross-Cultural Conversations was formed out of East Wall Here For All, a community group of people that came together to support asylum seekers who were moved to the area a year-and-a-half ago.

One of the initial focuses of the East Wall Here For All group was on collecting things that asylum seekers might need immediately after being moved into the area, like winter clothing and baby items.

Cross-Cultural Conversations has a core of around 30 volunteers, as well as many others who also come to help out. 

Rebecca Kehoe is one of the volunteers who helps to organise and run the group. She has been there from its origins. 

Speaking to The Journal, she said that after asking some residents what they needed, those living in the centre and elsewhere told volunteers that they wanted to learn English.

“That’s the biggest barrier to everything,” Kehoe explains.

“Some people had very good English [when they arrived], some people didn’t have a word of English, and many of the free classes were already oversubscribed even before the influx of I applicants newly arrived to the north inner city.

“So we felt that that was probably the most practical way we could do something supportive.”

WhatsApp Image 2024-06-12 at 15.00.45 Some of the group playing Bananagrams.

The volunteers worked with Dr Peter Sheekey, who runs the Dublin Intercultural Language Service. Kehoe said he mentored the group and offered them training sessions on how to teach English. 

After struggling to find somewhere to host the classes, management of the local Direct Provision centre offered them the use of a space in the building. While there were times when the classes were held in a corridor, they now have a dedicated room. 

The two-hour classes began last spring. They are held for three evenings each week, and while they take place in East Wall, some people travel from across the city to attend, with new arrivals coming frequently.

When the classes first started, dozens of people turned up to learn English, something Kehoe said wasn’t sustainable.

“We were inundated. About 200 people were telling us ‘we want to come every day for English lessons’,” she said.

Making plans for who could attend on which days was difficult in the beginning, but the numbers became more manageable after people began working and had less time to come to every session.

“We never fully went back to the hundreds of people, which is probably just as well,” Kehoe said.

“We held our first class in late February and we’ve been running sessions ever since then. We haven’t stopped for Christmas or during the summer months.”

The ability of learners varies, but many have progressed in leaps and bounds since they first began attending. “There are people who couldn’t say their own name over a year ago and now you can have a conversation with them,” Kehoe said.

It’s very rewarding for everybody.

“We’re learning an awful lot as well. I have a few words of Pashto [a Middle Eastern language] – not very many, but a few that are enough to get me a smile.”

Anna*, who lives in the centre, attends the class every week. “When I arrived here, I couldn’t write in full sentences and make conversation, but now I am getting better,” she told The Journal.

“Bananagrams is my favourite because it helps me to study new vocabulary.”

WhatsApp Image 2024-06-12 at 15.00.47 The group going over reading material.

The fact that classes are not formal or overly structured is also appealing to Anna.

“There’s no pressure. If you want to study, you can study. If you have no time, it’s no problem. For me, I’m working sometimes and I miss the class, but it’s okay. They help me all the way.”

Sarah* first began attending the classes last year, but now helps to teach English with the other volunteers. 

“When we come here, we don’t only learn English. We learn to adapt to our environment, we learn how to go about city life in Dublin, which buses to take. We learn what the Taoiseach and Tánaiste is,” she said.

“It’s not only English, it’s about the way of life, it’s about Ireland, it’s about integrating into our community and meeting people.”

The volunteers also help the asylum seekers with their letters, medical appointments and CVs through English. Recently, they were learning about the local elections, and are on the cusp of starting a reading group. Dracula is the first book on the list.

Aside from coming together to learn, the group have made several trips around Dublin to learn about Irish culture.

They have gone swimming in Clontarf Baths, visited the Andy Warhol exhibition in the Hugh Lane gallery, held a multilingual karaoke session in Croke Park and organised céilís and other dances.

The volunteer group also holds a weekly coffee morning in Clontarf where anyone can drop in for a chat and a bite to eat. 

When The Journal attended on a rainy, dreary morning recently, the atmosphere inside was anything but, as the group was taking part in some traditional dancing from Nigeria. 

Laragh Pittman, who organises the coffee morning, told The Journal that a trip to Howth had originally been on the cards, but the weather put a stop to that. A Nigerian-themed coffee morning, suggested by one of the Nigerian volunteers, was organised instead. 

The group paid for insurance in order to use the space for the coffee morning. Separately, they were granted funding from the North East Inner City (NEIC) to run other social events. 

WhatsApp Image 2024-06-14 at 19.40.00 Some of the snacks on offer at the coffee morning.

There is tea, coffee and Milo hot chocolate – a favourite in Nigeria – to drink and plantain chips and chocolate biscuits to snack on. Some mothers chat together with their babies in prams while others take part in the dancing. 

The group of 18 people is a mix of men and women, with some from Afghanistan, Algeria and Nigeria. 

Pittman, who is an artist, has been involved with Cross-Cultural Conversations from the beginning. She said she was “shocked” when the anti-immigration protests happened in East Wall in late 2022. 

“I’ve known people going through the Direct Provision process before… I just immediately thought ‘these are people who have just moved in here, it must be really frightening’. And of course you want to make connections,” she said. 

Green Party councillor Donna Cooney was helping on the morning The Journal visits.

She outlined some of the initiatives the attendees have been involved in, including a cycling course that 17 women have started, a clean-up of Fairview Park and ceramic workshops in Marino College. 

“It’s been a really positive experience,” she said. 

Nadia* also attended with her three-year-old daughter, and has been coming to the coffee mornings regularly. 

“For me, I’m alone here, me and my husband and my child. When you have this group, it’s better to chat with others and it’s good to learn different cultures.”

Her daughter plays with other children here and they enjoy going to the nearby park.

IMG_7421 Volunteers and attendees dancing at the coffee morning.

“The last few weeks, we went to the park and we really like it. It was my first time to go there. I discovered many places I don’t know before because here, they know the places.”

Walid, who was an art professor in his home country, said he has “made many friends” through attending the classes, while Paul*, who is from Democratic Republic of Congo, says the same.  

After arriving in East Wall in 2022, Paul now runs a weekly dance class there. “I really appreciate what they’re doing cause I know how many people are suffering,” he said.

He helps to bring the coffee morning to an end with a Zumba-style dance exercise.

Ian Jackson has also volunteered at the English classes and the coffee morning with the group since it formed. He told The Journal that though he is past retirement age, he still works from home and volunteers weekly after work.

“If you can give people the ability to understand and to speak, that’s really what it’s all about,” he said. “I love it. I enjoy it and I like to see them progress. You form friendships down here.

It’s just a space to give them somewhere to go and people to meet and give them some sort of normality, because I’m sure this isn’t really normality for them.

The day we attended was Kate Young’s first time volunteering with the group. “I like helping people and I just thought it would be nice to give my time,” she told The Journal.

The grandmother of two said the asylum seekers she has met bring “an added dynamic” to the country.

“We can appreciate their stories, their music. We have lots of stories and music that we can share. We’re all people at the end of the day. Cut us and we bleed red.”

She added that she will definitely be helping out more in the future.

Asked why she felt compelled to volunteer, Kehoe said: “I’ve always felt very passionately about people who find themselves in a position of being a refugee.”

“When an opportunity presented itself to do something, anything small, I sort of jumped at it. I wanted to make sure that I was a part of something positive if that was possible.

“I have learned that even the smallest things are really important to people. I’ve learned an awful lot through this.”

*Some people’s names have been changed to protect their identity.

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