From Strangers to Friends

Monday 8 May 2017

Working with human rights charity the Helen Bamber Foundation, the ESU’s Experience English programme pairs Londoners with survivors of extreme cruelty who have recently arrived in the UK to help them settle in to life here. We speak to a volunteer and client to see how the scheme benefited them both.

The Client: Narjes, 27

How did you hear about the Experience English programme?

I came to London from Iran in 2014 and was referred to the Helen Bamber Foundation. I was seeing a therapist there who suggested that I should take a therapeutic art class as well as English classes. It was while I was doing English classes that I was told about this programme where volunteers would meet with you one-to-one.

Why did you decide to take part?

I was initially reluctant. London was like hell for me. Because of the horrible things that happened to me I was without my family, without my job, I knew no-one. I had no confidence at all, but I forced myself to go.

How was the first session?

We all met at the Helen Bamber Foundation. We sat in a room and one by one were introduced to our ‘buddies’. I was one of the last so had to wait to see who had been paired with me but when Jules came in I could see immediately she was lovely. We introduced ourselves and started talking. My English was fairly poor. I’d learnt some at school in Iran and had been given a list of key phrases in the safe-house when I arrived. I remember I kept apologising for not understanding but Jules very nicely explained that she was here to help me.

How did the programme unfold for you?

I heard from other people on the programme that they usually met their buddies in coffee shops but Jules and I went to visit places all over London: The British Museum, the Shard, the Barbican, the Olympic park. Jules said she tried to choose the best places to see in our 10 sessions and also she was trying to teach me how to find my way around the city.

What stands out?

Two places – the Shard and the British Museum. I passed the Shard every month when I had to go and sign in as an asylum seeker at the Home Office and it reminded me of the Milad Tower in Tehran, where I’d spent a happy day out with my family once. When I told Jules, she suggested we go there. I loved it but it was an emotional experience, which Jules comforted me through. I also loved the British Museum. Standing beneath the glass roof there I felt so small – visiting Persepolis in Iran I experienced a similar feeling of grandeur.

What did you get out of the experience?

My English improved and because my travel expenses were covered I was able to visit many interesting places in London. But the main thing I gained was a good friend. I have found two ears that listen to me if I’m happy, or if I’m sad; someone to hear me. Our friendship has continued beyond the programme and Jules has asked me to call her if I face any difficulty. I have gained official refugee status now but if I need help opening a bank account or making a doctor’s appointment, I know she’s there.

How important are programmes like this?

From my own experience, I’d say they are extremely important. When I arrived, I couldn’t trust anyone outside the Helen Bamber Foundation. The only people I spoke to were the staff and my interpreter and I was incredibly lonely. Left to my own devices, I doubt I would ever have found such a friend as Jules. She’s an angel.

The Volunteer: Marie Stanikowski, 32

Why did you decide to get involved in the programme?

I had been keen to support refugees for quite some time. I immigrated here myself from Germany and can relate to how daunting and isolating the city can feel sometimes, even though I had a strong support network and none of the issues that refugees face when coming here. I first read about Experience English in Time Out and knew right away that I wanted to be part of it so I felt very lucky to be selected as a volunteer after my interview.

What did you enjoy most about the volunteer programme?

On one level I found it fulfilling to be able to build a relationship with someone whom I knew I might be able to help by improving their language skills and just being a friendly face in London. But on another level, I genuinely enjoyed getting to know my buddy and spending time with him and discovering new places in London together. He loves animals so we went to Vauxhall City Farm, for example. Or we visited the V&A, where he had never been and I hadn’t been in years. He has quite a cheeky sense of humour so we shared lots of laughs and never ran out of things to talk about.

How important do you think programmes like Experience English are today, in light of the refugee crisis?

I think they’re hugely important. The majority of refugees are traumatised, frightened, and exhausted when they get to their destination in the UK or elsewhere, and direct, welcoming human contact can make the world of difference. But it works both ways: if you get all of your information about the refugee crisis from the news, it seems abstract and remote despite the shocking magnitude of the facts. Getting to know the people affected and hearing their stories and dreams, and understanding that they are no different from us is a very important lesson.

In your opinion, how do English language programmes like Experience English help their beneficiaries?

I have lived in the US and in Italy for a while and came to the UK from Germany five years ago so I have experienced first-hand how important it is for your confidence and sense of belonging to be able to speak the same language as the people around you. If you can’t communicate, you are likely to feel isolated, frustrated, even depressed. Speaking English is the first step to being able to rebuild a new life in the UK. The importance of this can’t be stressed enough. Cultural exchange is a core tenet of the ESU’s mission.

How important do you think this is in today’s world?

The world is getting smaller and yet there’s a parallel trend towards nationalisation and the strengthening of borders everywhere you look. Cultural exchange is one of the most powerful antidotes to this. If I understand someone else’s culture, history, and mentality, I can build a strong relationship with them, be open to their issues, and be more likely to support them when they are in need. Language is at the very basis of this – without a shared language, there can be no cultural exchange or understanding.

The Helen Bamber Foundation is a human rights charity providing therapeutic care, medical consultation, legal protection and practical support to survivors of human rights violations. To volunteer or to find out more about Experience English please click here.

This interview has been extracted from Dialogue. To read more of this issue click here.