At first glance, Mountaha’s life seems anything but lonely. She arrived in the UK in June 2017 with her husband and four children after fleeing Syria. Her father, sisters, brother and their families all managed to escape the conflict that is tearing apart their home country and live near-by in Birmingham.
Despite being in the UK with twenty-three other family members, Mountaha spends most of her time in silence. “When my children go to school, I do the cooking and then I wait for them to come back home,” she says. “I just sit here drinking my coffee and smoking. Sometimes, I listen to Arabic music. This is my routine.”
She says not being able to speak English has left her feeling lonely and isolated. “It’s a real challenge. I can’t communicate with people. I just don’t want to leave the house,” she says. “Sometimes, I walk in the street on my own and I end up talking to myself. I walk into a shop to buy something, but I can’t explain to people what I want. Sometimes, I just cry.”
She says she avoids seeing her neighbours out of fear they would start a conversation with her: “Everyone is friendly. But if I say hello to my neighbours and they start to talk to me, I can’t reply. So, I avoid them. I would like to build relations with people, enjoy coffee mornings or go places with friends, but I need to learn the language first.”
Mountaha says she is frustrated that she has not been able to start English language classes since arriving in the UK. Her husband, Ahmad, is deaf and cannot communicate verbally. She is still waiting for the youngest of her four children to be enrolled in a local school. “My husband and my children are completely dependent on me. I have go to the shops, I have to drop the children off at school. I have to do everything,” she says.
For Mountaha, learning English is crucial to becoming self-reliant. She says that when she lived in Syria, she enjoyed driving, tailoring, plumbing and gardening – skills she desperately wants to pursue in the UK. “Studying English is very important to me. I want to be able to rely on myself, just like when I was in Syria. But, I have to learn a thousand words in English just to get a driving license. How can I do that if I can’t even learn five words because I don’t have access to English language lessons.”
“Sometimes, I find myself using sign language in the streets and shops. Imagine, I have the ability to speak but I can’t.”
With Refugee Action’s assistance, Mountaha is looking at options to start formal English language lessons. Refugee Action is also looking to provide her with a volunteer to teach her at home. But while this will teach her conversational English, she will still need accredited ESOL classes which are vital for employment.
Mountaha she says having lessons is the only way she would be able to develop and improve her live and the lives of her children and husband. “I want to integrate, I want to drive, I want to work. These lessons will help me break some barriers.”
According to new research by Refugee Action, refugees say learning English is “everything” – being able to speak the language of their new home country combats isolation and loneliness, enabling them to volunteer, work and make friends with their neighbours.
The research found that women in particular face huge barriers to learning as 77% of providers say they are unable to provide childcare. This leaves women more isolated and vulnerable to loneliness.
Refugee Action is a partner of the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission. To mark the Commission’s spotlight month on refugees, the charity has released new research to show learning English is essential to ending loneliness, effective integration and enabling refugees to successfully rebuild their lives.