Learning English can empower vulnerable refugee women to build better lives – but they can’t do it alone

By December 9, 2016Blog post
Refugee woman in a classroom writing on a piece of paper

Genti came to London as a refugee from Kosovo. She had a secondary education, but spoke no English and felt frustrated at not being able to help her young children prepare for school. After considerable effort, she managed to find a learning centre in south London, applied herself to her studies and learned English swiftly. Five years after starting English classes Genti is now a part-qualified accountant working in the City, and her children are excelling at school.

Genti’s learning journey may have been challenging, but Maria’s was harder. Originally from Angola, she couldn’t speak a word of English and her family life was suffering – her husband was controlling, her children made fun of her for her lack of language skills, and she felt very alone. She didn’t know where to begin.

Anyone – no matter where they are on the political spectrum – can see that there are huge benefits when vulnerable refugee and migrant women can succeed like Genti did. In general, female refugees have a greater need to learn English since they typically have lower levels of literacy than their male counterparts and run a high risk of isolation without classes.  However, the Wonder Foundation’s recent research into barriers to learning English in London revealed that too many vulnerable refugee women cannot access the classes they need. As part of our survey, women explained the obstacles that stood in their way, which ranged from cost and lack of nearby lessons to complex issues related to mental health and domestic violence.  Where women could access lessons, these were often held in formats or spaces where they didn’t feel welcome or safe.

Maria’s story has a happy ending. She found out about her local language and community centre after her daughter started being mentored there. Maria was able to have counselling and begin English classes, markedly improving her self-confidence and personal relationships. She is now studying hard so she can pursue her dream of opening a cake business.

But this outcome is far from guaranteed for many vulnerable women. Unless the government increases funding to provide more English language classes, and makes sure the most vulnerable women can access them, too many vulnerable women will continue to struggle in silence.

Both Theresa May and the newly released Casey Review have acknowledged the importance of speaking English for integration, but these discussions rarely mention the role we can all play in helping make this happen. It’s our responsibility as active citizens to encourage greater investment in language education, to ensure that vulnerable refugees (and women in particular) can access the English classes they need. That’s exactly why we’ve been proud to work alongside Refugee Action as a small part of the Let Refugees Learn campaign.

However, campaigning is not the only option. It’s also essential that we take the time to listen to refugee communities wherever possible, and extend the hand of welcome in our everyday lives. Our research found that refugees really did want to learn English and practise their skills with native speakers, meaning that even something as simple as starting a conversation could support refugee education and integration.

Breaking the English language barrier can help women like Genti and Maria find their voices, share their stories, and follow their dreams for the future. It’s not just right, but it’s in our interests to let refugees like them learn, so in 2017, let’s ensure we’re all part of the solution.

Emily Loud, Wonder Foundation – a UK charity dedicated to empowering vulnerable women through education.