Before she was forced to flee civil war in Sudan, Amal was studying to be lawyer. But since moving to Britain, she has struggled to get a job related to her education.
Amal moved to Leeds six years ago with her four children, aged 16, 13, 11 and eight. Now that her children are settled into good schools, she is determined to go back to university and get a diploma in UK law so that she can fulfil her career aspirations.
She knows speaking English is vital to this, but Amal was forced to wait for a year to start English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes at a local college. “In the end I gave up, I cannot find another place,” she says. “It’s very hard. I want to improve my English. I speak English fairly well, but my writing is not so good. It’s a very long time since I learnt English at school in Sudan.”
Amal needs to pass an advanced English exam to get into university, the ILETS (International English Language Testing System). She has been studying on her own and hopes to be able to work with refugees in some capacity, using her background in law.
She currently volunteers, running a Sudanese women’s support group in Leeds called Ana Sudanyia. The group helps the women access services, including health, education and benefits, and provides socialising opportunities, such as day trips, for its members.
Amal says about 20 women are in the group, but the majority have no access to ESOL lessons. “Most of the women ask for English classes, but many have young children and often there are no places to look after them. I think that is one of the reasons women have to wait so long for classes,” she says.
“It’s not easy to go to ESOL but it’s vital. We need to speak English for everything here. It’s important to learn the language to bridge isolation, to connect with other people and to find work.
“If you cannot speak the language you cannot do anything. It is simple things that can be hardest, like helping children with their homework.”
Amal says there are voluntary groups that provide conversational English practice, which is helpful for the women. But says: “They are not proper classes. They need the certificates that ESOL lessons provide.”
The women she works with can feel lonely, she says: “We meet every two weeks trying to end isolation. But all of us are from Sudan, they need to make contact and communicate with other people from their new communities to be able to integrate.”
Amal lived in Holland for 12 years before she moved to Britain. She says she doesn’t know what it is like now, but when she arrived all refugees had access to Dutch language lessons and funding for their transport and expenses.
“We moved to the UK because I thought the education here is better here for my children. I want them to be able to go to university and get good jobs they enjoy,” she adds.
“I’m happy they are doing very well and they’re going to a very good school now. They have picked up English very quickly.”
Refugee Action is calling on the Government to ensure that all refugees have the opportunity to learn English so they can start to rebuild their lives and fully contribute to life in Britain.
To find out more about Refugee Action’s campaign Let Refugees Learn visit.