The Migrant English Project (MEP) has been running in Brighton since 2003, meeting every Monday in the Cowley Club. It is a democratic, community organisation run entirely by volunteers that aims to provide free English lessons for refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. Sandy, one of the teachers, told me how it started: “It was four people who just felt really strongly about this group who were being so deprived. They set it up really small - them, a few teachers and a handful of migrants - and they rented this space and it's just snowballed from there.”
Now, there is a constant fluctuation of around 30 students, a number which has been known to rise to 60 or 70. The room buzzes with activity at the Monday meetings, with a constant babble of conversation from the lessons --both group based and one-to-one-- that truly dominates the room. Aside from teaching, volunteers also co-ordinate the groups and allocate teachers, serve cakes and drinks at the bar, and prepare a free hot lunch for everybody in the kitchen. But the attraction of the project isn't just the simple offer of English lessons and a hot meal. MEP also helps people with the practical difficulties of arriving in a new place, such as helping them with their CV, practising interview skills, helping with housing, and supporting them to access services such as translators or the NHS.
Ciccio, a student from Spain, explained how these services can seem inaccessible to migrants: “It's so hard for people who come here and don't have control over the language, because these places play with you. They speak so fast because they know you don't understand English.” MEP Teachers will often go even further and accompany students to interviews and appointments. Sandy talked of an Iranian student she had: “Her English was already pretty good, but I helped her to get job interviews. In fact I went with her to an interview to help her understand what they needed her to do, and she got the job.”
One of the major benefits the project offers is a social life. Many migrants can find themselves isolated and disorientated in their foreign environment, and breaking down social barriers can become increasingly difficult. Kasiya, a student from Egypt who has been attending the MEP lessons for a year, illustrated this quite starkly when she said: “Meeting people and socializing helped me overcome my depression.” The social aspect can also break through the traditional teacher/student relationship, with students and teachers visiting each other's homes and even attending each other's weddings and birthday parties. “A lot of friendships have been made that are pretty long standing,” said Sandy. “Sometimes people will go back to their home countries and take somebody from here with them.”
The opportunities don't end there. MEP also runs projects to get people active and more involved, including gardening, cooking, recipe book writing and organising yearly outings for the group. Last year they went to the park and played sports and games. Other years they have gone to Seven Sisters and to London.
The pressure for migrants to learn English is becoming greater and greater amid the current political clamp-down on immigration and welfare spending. The government explanation is to help migrants integrate and access services without the aid of translation. But with the Job Centre directing migrants to MEP, it's clear that the state has no solutions of its own. Elizabeth, another teacher, told me how funding to support migrants has become so slim, with fewer and fewer services to give legal or housing advice to those who need it for free. She talked of a student who--as a member of the EU--has access to some rights but was unaware of it: “He's been on the streets for a year and a half in Brighton. He's working for food despite 10 years labouring experience. He wasn't aware he was entitled to benefits.” She helped him access the Job Centre, a translation service and the dentist. It is clear that the volunteers of MEP are providing a vital service to people that simply wouldn't be there otherwise.
These kinds of services and support certainly aren't going to become widely available from the government any time soon. The publicity of UKIP is rising, and so rises the pressure on the government to tighten up immigration. It's no secret that simply turning anti-immigration into a media event reduces social cohesion and works towards further eroding the rights of migrants. But that's the essential beauty of MEP; bypassing this hierarchy of rights so that everyone has equal access. They offer language, advice, support, friendship and belonging to those who need it, without bureaucracy or discrimination. It's a very de-politicised and human approach. This is key to the students as well as the volunteers, as expressed by Sandy. “I've got more out of it than I think I give other people,” she said. “The humanity of people who have got nothing; they've lost their homes their lives, often their family and friends, and they come here--just them as human beings--and what they give is themselves and their humanity. That's very humbling.”
For more information: http://mepbrighton.com/ Some names in this article have been changed. Article by Emilio Casalicchio