"You burn body of man in Guy Fawkes fire."
These aren't accusations, although you could perceive them as such. But they aren't the kind of statements I was prepared to hear as we sat down to English language practice.
I was seated between Emmanuel from Congo, Ronin from Sri Lanka, Angel from Congo and another lady (who will go unnamed) as we begin our discussion on UK festivals, ways to participate in our communities and how to enjoy the city of London by attending free events arranged by community clubs, and public interest groups.
“We have same festivals in my country,
we know New Year and we know Valentine 14 February, but what is Burns night? We don’t have this in my country, you have this in your country?"
Another refugee student says, “But your English is good, but you are refugee.”
To reinforce the point, she traces a finger along her own cheek bone, points to me, then lays a hand on my palm, and says, “You like me, colour, what country are you? When you leave country?"
I explain that I am Canadian, born in Pakistan, raised in Sharjah/ Dubai, and living in the UK.
"You white? No, you lie. You refugee. Face like me.”
"Like me, I am living many places, you living many places," Emmanuel chimes in.
"Well we are all migrants, we are all refugees in some sense of the word, so sure, I am a refugee too, why not?"
The colour of my skin, which another refugee has already rather boldly, but harmlessly, ventured to call milky tea, and which I see as veering between shades of milk and dark chocolate depending on the intensity of sun exposure that week, has really created a conundrum for me.
"What country you refugee?" she insists.
It has thrown me into exactly the sort of conversation that I am not supposed to have here if I am to follow the rule ‘Don’t go over a beneficiary’s past, don’t make small talk about their home or family.’ The thinking behind these instructions is entirely sound. When we have a room packed with forty refugees and asylum-seekers, and we are trying to support them with individualised English language practice it is impossible to know whom it is appropriate to ask what, which is why we tend to tread carefully, and try not to trigger any trauma. Refugees and Asylum seekers are most likely in London without family, and memories of home can be painful. Depending on how they cope with other sources of stress that they are confronted with as they attempt to gain skills that will allow them to communicate and eke out a meagre living, mentioning children or their home country could leave them in a flood of tears. Most program steering committees feel it would be rather disruptive to the entire class, and perhaps a waste of time and emotion for the individuals themselves, because they had walked through the doors of the Refugee Centre hoping to practice their verbal English skills and have a moment to relax rather than rake over a mangled memories.
Speak Street, the program we collaborate with, allows us help refugees learn life skills, and gives us the opportunity to create a safe space for them to express themselves without fear of judgement or persecution. We provide the newcomers with a forum where they share a laugh, forget about the chaos and uncertainty of their lives and slump into themselves. In one word, relax. Whether we can help a participant relax is the litmus test of all Creatives Against Poverty workshops. You cannot run a Confidence-building, Life skills, or Trauma-mitigation program without disarming the individuals you are attempting to support. It is only when an individual is relaxed that they are able to take in whatever skill it is you are trying to impart. As a skill donor or volunteer it is useful if you can internalise that and check all your own concerns, stresses and worries at the door when you shed your jacket, and stow away your backpack/handbag and turn off your phone.
And so ,at that juncture in the conversation, I try not to appear flustered by the insistence with which the student is now grasping and massaging my hand, and tell her: “I will answer all your questions afterwards if there is time, but please do let's get back to the activity since we are all here to learn English, you say my English sounds good, so let us use it, and help you practice, that is why I am here.”
She is unimpressed. She shifts her weight from one hip to another, grunts, and then shuffles off, murmuring something about taking a phone call for an appointment she has.
Emmanuelle from Congo says, “I have a question, you have this festival, this Burns night is in your country?”
“This is the first time I’ve heard of it. Why don’t we learn something together, so... it’s a Scottish tradition to celebrate poet and writer Robert Burns.” (I’m reading this off a worksheet. We are discussing various festivals in the United Kingdom and his attention has been snagged by the Scottish one.)
“Do you know a poem of him. I will like to know it. A poem is like a song.”
“No I don’t, and I quite like poetry myself, shall we google it?”
Emmanuel has gotten through our game about matching festivals with their roots and their dates quite quickly, and I could see the lady with the questions approaching again from the outer reaches of the eye’s peripheral vision, and I am keen to be firmly in the midst of a conversation she could join, rather than disrupt when she sits down again.
A quick internet search brought up a few poems and biographies, Emmanuel read through the titles and chose “To a Mouse” at random.
Wee, sleekit, cowran, tim'rous beastie,
O, what a panic's in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
Wi' bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an' chase thee,
Wi' murd'ring pattle!
We erupt into giggles, punctuating our reading of the first few lines with exclamations like “yikes” and “what?!” which serves to butcher the entire experience.
“Ok let us try to understand this. Lets read it slowly and enjoy the experience,” I say.
So this is the gist of what we got from discussing the words we could comprehend: Robert Burns has inadvertently run into a field mouse, and he is feeling like his brute force has hurt a defenceless creature, causing the little thing to panic and scurry off in shock.
We go through the rest of the poem, quite enjoying the process of decoding the poet’s thought process, inspiring a whole soliloquy from Emmanuel on the subject of how the powerful wield their influence and strength over the vulnerable.
“I like this poet, he thinks if I am big and powerful, let me be careful to not hurt the one who is not. The rich must think this too, it will be good, so they are good with poor people, and the one who is strong must be kind, not hurt the one who is not.”
We read on:
Still, thou art blest, compar'd wi' me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But Och! I backward cast my e'e,
On prospects drear!
An' forward, tho' I canna see,
I guess an' fear!
The last few lines drew a delighted yelp from Emmanuel.
“I agree with him, I agree, the mouse is blessed, I want to be a mouse! You two would be happy as a mouse.”
“No, I really would rather be a human…”
“No, no I mean, what the poet is saying is true, if I was a mouse I have a simple life, I don’t think about the future if too much is thinking about the future, then too much is also the stress. We are human and thinking too much in head, future, many problems. And then thinking (he makes a hand gestures and then explains he means the past using half French, half English terms) about the past, traumatisme, anxious, you understand.”
Emmanuel is speaking so quickly, and with such earnest passion that every vein in his forehead strains. His massive frame is hunched over my phone, his arms gesticulating as he becomes almost impatient with me as he attempts to explain himself. I find it quite endearing, and rather humbling. Despite his broken English, and awkward sentence structure, he is expressing quite a sophisticated point of view. I want to wave a wand, to help him articulate his ideas more fluently, so he doesn’t feel the frustration of grappling with concepts, ideas and words simultaneously.
“Also it’s the same for rich and poor peoples,” he says.
“What do you mean?”
“When you are rich and more rich, you have more worry, you are thinking more about the money, then if you want to go back to your poor life, then you can’t. When you are poor you think only about clothes, and food and you, how you save your life, like mouse. Simple life. Easy life. No thinking too much. But refugee and poor is more anxious, more stresses.”
“So when you feel stress, how do you manage it? How do you make yourself happy?” I ask, hoping to take this conversation to happy place, and knowing that I need to manage our time properly during the activity.
“I have music, I love to listen music in my phone. When I listen music, I forget all the things. I sing.”
“What do you sing?”
“Rihanna!” his face lights up, as he hums. “Diamond.”
My eyebrows shoot up. Most of the refugee students’ response to that question is gospel or music from their country of origin.
“No, no, just surprised. Shock is a strong feeling, and quite unpleasant, not a nice feeling. Surprise is a gentle feeling (Emmanuelle and I had discussed strong and gentle as adjectives the week before this session so I was quite excited I got an opportunity to revise the concept). Surprise is what I feel if I didn’t know something, or I am not expecting something.”
“Ah, nice feeling, you find something new.”
“Yes! Emmanuelle your English is really good.” (Then I catch myself) “Actually, I should say, you speak English well.”
I hear Street Speak founder Joanna Bevan calling our attention to the whiteboard. We talk about festivals and she asks which ones we have been to. We discuss Diwali and Glastonbury. She explains the new schedule starting November, and reassures them that they will still be reimbursed for travel expenses. The volunteers then sit and go over different tube stations and bus routes that refugees can take to get to the new location for Friday class, which will now be hosted at the Welcome Collection in Euston.
We decide to note all the songs that refugee students' enjoy so that we can compile a play list that we can use on the 19 December Christmas Party that Creatives Against Poverty is creating a program and workshops for.
A window into our world on Tuesdays at the Refugee English conversation and life skills session, a collaboration with Street Speak, hosted by the Islington Council on Cross Street, in Islington, London