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A Conversation That Bridges Divides

In the last of our Brexit Aftermath series, Ralph Hancock explains how he and a team of volunteers turned an English-language conversation club into a living link between refugees and the local community.

Written by Ralph Hancock Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Sheffield was named Britain's first "City of Sanctuary" in 2007 after a movement to build a culture of welcome and hospitality for refugees and asylum-seekers.The Sheffield Conversation Club

At its core, the Sheffield Conversation Club exists to help asylum seekers with their English and offer them a meeting place. It was launched 14 years ago by a passionate teacher, Myra Davis, as a friendship club at a time when asylum seekers were dispersed throughout Britain.

It has become more than the individuals who set it up. Myra once said to the trustees that the club would manage without us. She sadly passed in 2014 and I know exactly what she meant. The club is going strong and has come to occupy a distinctive niche, its success the sum of its people and the relationships that have been built throughout the city.

Learning English helps people grow in confidence in the Sheffield community. The club consists of asylum seekers, refugees and other migrants who want to improve their English, along with volunteers, local people who form our core and students, mostly from University of Sheffield, who volunteer when they are able during semesters. The club is managed by hands-on trustees who bring a wide range of areas of expertise.

I got involved in 2004 after retiring from a career in the Post Office. I had taken a writing degree and thought my experience might be useful. I found myself leading walks that we came to call “walk and talks,” where I shared some of my knowledge of local history. I kept coming back and took over as chairman four years later.

Whatever it is that draws people to the conversation club does not let go. We have volunteers from many backgrounds with a common empathy for asylum seekers and refugees, coupled with our multitalented members. When it was founded, the club met in various places before it became an independent trust and able to apply for funding. We still have some of the founding members and long-time volunteers, and, although we became a charity in 2011, it remains totally voluntary.

The refugee crisis is remote but related. This year, we saw a 30 percent rise in the number of students volunteering and we have had an increase in new local volunteers. We don’t ask people why they volunteer, just as we don’t ask asylum seekers why they fled their country, unless they want to tell us.

We are very fortunate that we have a consistent level of loyal volunteers year on year. The City of Sheffield is very much involved, and one of our trustees attended a meeting at the university on the refugee crisis to consider how the conversation club could be of assistance.

We have experienced an increase in the number of asylum seekers before the crisis, mainly from Eritrea, Afghanistan and Sudan. We’ve received a number of inquiries from media and researchers about Syrians specifically, but we haven’t seen a large increase in asylum seekers from that conflict, although oddly enough the first member to join the conversation club in 2002 was Syrian and came regularly until this year, when he left Sheffield to set up a business with a friend in Germany.

We have a number of long-term friends from Syria: one helping with our newsletter and another who wrote a poignant poem in memory of Alan Kurdi for our writing competition in 2015.

We meet on Wednesday and Friday afternoons in the city center. Wednesday is part of a drop-in partnership managed by City of Sanctuary, a movement to build a culture of welcome and hospitality for refugees and asylum seekers. Here, people can seek advice from groups like the British Red Cross or from solicitors.

Friday is just us and various visitors who enrich our members’ lives with projects from art and writing to making soap. The latter idea came from a social enterprise scheme at Sheffield University with the idea of providing skills for people who are, or hope to be, able to apply for work.

There are new asylum seekers each week, and it is notable that former asylum seekers who have achieved refugee status – and are now working and settled in Sheffield – still come in regularly and help the newer members.

We have trustees who were once asylum seekers and we learn from them what we can only imagine. Sheffield Conversation Club is a social hub for information on events and activities including English spoken as another language (ESOL) classes, a place to have a game of Scrabble or chess and sign up for walks in the local area and the Peak District.

It is so important for people to get out of the city and into the country for a day, and each year we have an outing to the seaside. We also hold cultural activities often in collaboration with university tutors and take part in an annual festival in Sheffield, Off the Shelf, to give our members a platform for their talents and showcase them in the community.

Allowing academic research is an important part of the club. Our motivation is threefold: to return the compliment for the contributions volunteers make to the club; to give our members a voice and to improve the lot of asylum seekers; and to learn, from the research, about our members’ lives and about ourselves.

Being hands-on volunteers, we can easily lose sight of the bigger picture. There are a number of students who act as interns for City of Sanctuary and carry out research into, for example, the provision of services and how the asylum sector collaborates.

Otherwise, they may be students researching for their dissertations, or part of the sector themselves. We do have rules reflecting our own resources. We want people to speak for themselves, but ensure that the researchers have an ethical framework ensuring confidentiality. And we find that members are open to helping researchers.

Another reason to be grateful to University of Sheffield (and Hallam University to a lesser extent) is STAR (Student Action for Refugees), a group who volunteer, raise funds for us through sleep-outs and quizzes, and directly help asylum seekers. Sheffield University also provides five bursaries for asylum seekers or those with limited leave to remain.

We are bound by our constitution to be nonpolitical and secular. But this doesn’t mean we cannot support people who face deportation by writing letters in support, gathering petitions or attending demonstrations.

Relating to people, is on the surface, fairly easy. It is what lies beneath. We assume the trauma involved in getting to Britain. We learn so many stories of conflict at home, deaths of loved ones being forced to escape. What often seems most tragic are close family deaths in their country of origin when they are seeking asylum here and cannot go back home.

I well remember a Kurdish refugee whose sister set herself on fire. I also recall an Afghan asylum seeker taking the time to go into schools to talk about his country while being very close to deportation. We may not always understand, but we are nonjudgmental and we learn from each other. We respect cultural differences even if we may occasionally have to challenge them. Not for nothing do we think of ourselves as a family.

See also in the Brexit Aftermath Series:

Brexit: What It Means for Refugees and Migrants
The Migration Control Fantasy
Time to Get Tough on Integration
Brexit: Avoiding the Wrong Conclusions


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