Doncaster Literacy Project @DonMinster

Words: Louise O’Brien
Photography: Louise O’Brien

Like many people in 2015 — and before that — I watched the news with mounting frustration and sadness. People fled a range of conflicts, genocides, oppressions and more
for perceived safety in neighbouring countries. In some cases, they attempted to travel to Europe to claim asylum. Then the death of a little Syrian boy called Aylan Kurdi, drowning on the route to Greece from Turkey, seemed to change how people felt about this phenomenon, if only for a short time.
I watched the news with a personal interest; migrants of all kinds hold a special place in my heart. I am from an immigrant background in Liverpool; immigrant and proud, I could relate. So it was that, in September 2015, I travelled to Greece with my friend Zahida. We had a lot of money we’d raised and, having made contact with local charities, we touched down in the holiday centre of the island of Kos. What we saw there was profoundly affecting, not just because of the sheer number of refugees: the babies, pregnant women, the very elderly and the disabled. Even with the best efforts of volunteers and organisations based on the island, it wasn’t enough, not nearly enough.
I had never felt such powerlessness. This situation was, and is, replicated in countless other locations across Europe and beyond.
Within hours we’d decided how to spend the money. We negotiated with a hotel to let us block book rooms in their hotel for the most vulnerable cases. We also paid for ferry fares to Athens, food for hundreds of people per day and clothes, backpacks, shoes and socks. We were working alongside volunteers from all over the world and local Greeks, an incredible network of people who — like us — had thought
‘there’s got to be something we can do to help’. While we were there, I started to think about what the refugees we’d met would need most when they arrived at their destination — their new home. I concluded that not only was it being able to speak the language of where you live, they would need to gain enough confidence quickly to become part of the society they had joined, to avoid further social isolation and depression.
I’d started talking to colleagues at the Minster about what we could do to help in this complex,worldwide situation. We went to meet the people who run Doncaster Conversation Club at the Quaker Meeting House, who suggested that the most useful thing we could do would be an English language project. I took a group of potential volunteers from the Minster to the Conversation Club and I could hardly get them back out of the building. This idea has always had the fullest support from the Minster team. In January 2016, after 3 months development, we held our very first English class at the Minster with direct support from the Conversation Club. Some of the lead volunteers are retired qualified teachers, but not all. The main thing volunteers need is the wish to support learners on an equal footing as they improve their English. We do paired reading, grammar, group work, writing, learning games, we use maps and books and even the building itself in teaching people how the English language has changed over time. We have never wanted to set up a mini-school, we aim to stay ultra-flexible and able to respond to needs ‘on the hoof’. We don’t turn people away, we just pull up more chairs and tables. We receive no direct funding and the project works on donations and volunteer efforts.
If someone needs one-to-one assistance because of either a very low level, very high level of English literacy or simply lack of confidence we can accommodate that, thanks to our volunteers. People of any faith or no faith are welcome to use the project. As a direct result of the Literacy Project, the Adult, Family and Community Learning team at DMBC partners with the Minster to deliver certificated ESOL courses through a qualified ESOL tutor at St George House. This allows some people to move from the informal groups to a structured course, without having to pay. We work with CAST, Heritage Services and others on collaborative projects, extending opportunities to people who might miss out on high quality cultural experiences otherwise.

The Literacy Project takes place from 1-2.45pm each Wednesday, closing only for Christmas, New Year and
Easter week. The group has worked with people from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Congo, Bahrain, Nigeria, Somalia, Albania, Algeria, Poland, Slovakia, Romania, China, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Ghana, Pakistan, Japan, Palestine, Spain, France, Ethiopia, Kuwait and Eritrea. The project is free to attend and the refreshments are also free. For more information about the Literacy Project or about our partners, please contact: 01302 323 748 Facebook: Twitter: @DonMinster

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