Training for refugees in London

Published 10 January 2013

I work with refugees and asylum seekers in London and I don't like the bad press that they often get when they are portrayed as "scroungers" and "misusers" of the British welfare system.

Often, as I know only too well, asylum seekers can bring real profit, capital and know-how into their host country. Tragically, I have met trained doctors, nurses and lawyers who are reduced to washing plates and cleaning offices in Paris and London to earn a living. Not that washing plates or cleaning offices is wrong; it's just that I do think that their expertise could be better used for the benefit of all of us.

Anyway, one of the things that my organisation, the Phoenix Community, often does is to provide education for those refugees who need it. We have another company called London Training Consortium and this company delivers training and education to refugees and others if they need it.

The number of learners that have enrolled at LTC so far are 271, with an average of 45 learners per year.

Here is the breakdown:

35% Asian - including Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq
24% British
23% African
8% China
8% Eastern Europe
2% Europe

Often we have provided this service free of charge. One of the big things that we have done is provide ESOL (English Speakers of Other Languages) classes. If you are going to move forward in London, you need these language skills and we help young refugees to get them.

So here is my real story for this month: One of our teachers called me one day after she had just popped out of a lesson, and asked, "Could you help me please? I have a student who is really just not engaging with the class. He speaks a little English, but I think he is so depressed I am not getting anywhere with him. Will you talk to him and see what you can do?" I gladly agreed, and asked John (not his real name) to come out of the lesson and chat with me.

He seemed happy enough to do it and we sat in another room and I started the conversation. "John, what's the matter? Your teacher thinks you are depressed, fed up, so what is going on?" Looking desperately sad, he told me, "I have lost my brothers." He then explained that he and his 14 year old twin brothers were running away from Afghanistan and were passing through Turkey when somehow, in the confusion of the situation, they had become separated. Now he was in London and did not know where his brothers were and was so worried about them he was becoming sick and disillusioned and depressed.

I probed further, saying, "What about your parents? Where is your father?" "He was shot dead by the Taliban," John said, adding, "They said he was working for the USA, but I don't think he was, but was just trying to earn a living to feed us all. I don't think he had any interest in any politics -- just in earning money to support us." I asked him about his mother and at this point he looked down and almost seemed to not want to answer. "Well," he eventually said, "the same people assumed if my father was a spy, my mother must be involved also, so they came to our house and beheaded her in front of us. After that we ran away."

I was speechless with the horror he had just shared with me. What do you say to such revelation?" - "Jesus loves you!" Actually no words seemed adequate, none of the clichés worked, in fact I sat there saying nothing but thinking, "No wonder you are depressed. I am surprised you are not mad." What else is there to say? Nothing I could think of seemed to have any adequacy at all. I certainly was not thinking that the screaming headlines in those London papers about the "scrounging asylum seekers" which I find so offensive.

In the end I did say, "I am sorry to hear your story. Let me see if I can help you find your brothers." The good news is that the Salvation Army has a finder's service for displaced people, and we got in touch with them and ultimately young John was reunited with the brothers who were still in the Turkish city of Ankara.

For more information on our work, please go to: www.phoenixcommunity.org

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