Alone when he is surrounded
"I only speaking Tamil, only I speak English here. But I want to try," he reassures me.
We are using a worksheet that looks like a game and we need to move through a spiral like maze to ask each other what we enjoy, or, as the title says, what our favourite movies, music, hobbies, passions, etc are. A simple enough exercise, but the answers it unearths leave me disheartened.
The story of his journey inwards, his path to isolation starts to unfold.
He listens to Tamil music, watches Tamil films hosted by a cultural club and the only people who are kind to him are some Tamils who own a grocery store. He cannot name a poet or writer he has read. Ever. He cannot recall any stories he has been told. I am even more saddened by his next statement.
"No British want talk with me. Only you," he gestures at the volunteer task force we recruited to support the program. "Here, friends. Good friends. Park there is many many, very many people, but I am alone, understand?"
I get asked that a lot when students are groping for the right words to express themselves.
Yes, I nod. I understand.
"Here are friend, good friends." He repeats, I congratulate him on adding 'are' to his sentence, and try to undo the knot choking my vocal cords.
Is that guilt niggling at me, when I think at that moment of the training I lead for trainers, outlining the importance of 'boundaried' relationships. "You cannot give out your phone number, your role is not that of a friend, your role is that of a mentor, someone who actively listens, helps with English conversation skills, gives a refugee a moment to relax, so they can absorb the skills they need for their survival here."
Back to stories, maybe one from his childhood? Wait, he says, there is one. It is about a King and all the people come to kill him. He is evil, he says.
We move onto another part of the exercise. As we discuss festivals, he says it is Diwali now. His eyes tear, and his words are coming out garbled. I ask him to celebrate with all of us, by having a croissant and a coffee, so we get up to pour ourselves a mug each and decide to split a pastry.
When we sit down again, he asks if I would like to listen to a Tamil song on his phone. Not wanting him to feel snubbed, but conscious of making the most optimal use of our time together, I suggest we listen to it if we have time at the end of the session. I ask what kind of song, what is it about. He says, “Sad things.”
We return to our exercise and talk about more jovial matters, like how much we both like chocolate. He says he wishes it was easy to talk to strangers so he can practice English.
I suggested that he should go to his local community club and check postings for free English language films, he perks up and tell me about a comedy he say a long time ago. I am glad to hear this, and ask him to describe the film.
As he takes me through the plot, it becomes clear it involved a lot of people dying quite violently, I explained that we would call that a crime or horror film.
He asked where he could practice English outside of this class. I suggested he should try listening to the BBC English radio regularly and note what they say and how they pronounce the words he is learning here, prompted by the memory of an Iranian Polish friend in Dubai who taught himself to converse by doing just that.