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

June 20, 2024

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.”

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.

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