As thirty-two volunteers and refugee students sit down to practice English language skills after everyone has had a sandwich and poured themselves a cup of tea, the room falls unusually silent.
We are reading through the exercises on our worksheets. The silence is short lived. In a few minutes, the room erupts in excited chatter. I hear snippets of the conversations around me. Thrills me to hear the group get excited about decoding something so many of us take for granted. Daily life.
This is the gist of the questions:
You are at the post office, do you:
1) Cut to the front of the queue and try to get the staff’s attention
2) Ask the people standing in line where the queue starts
3) Start waving and talking loudly, trying to get the attention of the staff
Refugee 1: No understand. Please slowly.
Refugee 2: You so slow. I finish. Already finish. Can I answer?
Refugee 3: We read now loudly all questions? We do all?
Refugee 4: Shhhh. Read this.
Refugee 1 and 4 need to go at a slower pace, so I ask them to read the question with me and see if they understand the situation. They do.
I then turn to refugee 2 and 3 who are whizzing through the worksheet like it is a quiz competition and say: I think we would all find it useful if we discussed each question one by one and shared what each of us would do in that situation.
We discuss what ‘queue’ means, and what the word ‘attention’ means.
Refugee 1: Take token, stand in the line.
Refugee 2 makes a sucking sound with her tongue: I knew it. Before him. I said it to stand in the line. I make many queues. In my country no queues, but here I make many queues.
Refugee 3: I don’t like queues.
Refugee 4: I like queues. It is Po-lite, po-lite English people. Making queues.
I explain my own experiences of the city where I was born.
“It not fun to stand in a line and wait. But that way everyone is seen, everyone is served, everyone has their turn, it is fair. You don’t have to know anyone, you don’t have to be strong or loud. You just wait, and someone will talk to you, I like this. In Pakistan when I go to the passport office do you know what happens?”
Refugee 3 lets out a low whistle and smiles, gesticulating wildly to make a point: Shouting, pushing
Refugee 1: Very bad.
Refugee 3: Also, the line take long time. I don’t like queues.
I say: Yes the line takes a long time but when there is no line what happens? (The students agree that not making a line will result in stronger people pushing forward and the weak and the elderly getting pushed aside) How will I feel? Not nice. Not a good feeling, frustrated, then angry, and you don’t know how much time it will take, or if anyone will see me. There is no information. Not sure, no certainty. I am not sure and I become worried, You know worry?”
Refugee 4 says to Refugee 3: You young. you like to push and shout. I like to wait. Po-lite. (I am enjoying this new pronunciation of the word polite it sounds like POE- lite but feels like the emphasis allows the student to make the point properly.
Refugee 2 chimes in: I will always help English people, If old lady walking I take her bag to help her, but she hit me, say steal.
I say: Did you ask her? (Shakes head to say no, and gestured to show us how she grabbed the bag off the elderly lady who was struggling to carry her groceries - everyone laughs) Next time let her know you are just offering to help.
I cannot suppress a smile at this scenario.
Someone asks you to come to their home at ten am, and then to go for a picnic, do you:
1) Arrive 5 minutes early
2) 15 minutes late
3) three hours early
Refugee 1: No please slow.
Refugee 2: always better come early.
Refugee 3: I will read it again slowly.
Refugee 4: Wait. Read it again.
Two of the students smile at refugee 1. He looks relieved. Refugee 2 rolls her eyes. She wants to move faster through the questions.
I say: I like to read slowly. Then I understand better what I am reading. I also like to read out loud. Who would like to try their reading aloud skills? Do you know what aloud means?
We discuss the concept of silent reading and reading out loud.
Refugee 2 and Refugee 4 are discussing whether to arrive five minutes before or an hour before.
Refugee 1: Maybe they need help. I come three hours before.
Refugee 2 laughs: You wait alone. No one is there three hours before. You don’t know. No one invite you before.
Refugee 3 explains how he always arrives five minutes early so he doesn’t keep anyone waiting.
Refugee 1 hold position. He insists on arriving early.
We agree that if you want to arrive early you should alert your host, volunteer to help out and only show up an hour earlier if your host asks you to, or if there is someone to let you in.
Refugee 4 solemnly says she has never been invited anywhere.
We all reassure her that she will have several invitations to picnic and parties and reading groups and conversation groups etcetera here.
And just then, Joanna Bevan, founder of the Street Speak program, announces a picnic at Hampstead park and explains where everyone would come, reminding the students that they would get travel expenses for the excursion.
Next question is a bit complex and requires a little more concentration.
If your friend introduces you to her colleague, do you:
Greet her with a hand shake
Greet her with a wave of the hand
Greet her with a kiss on the cheek?
Refugee one needs to go slower and repeat the questions and turn it over a few times before he is ready to answer. The others are impatient to get their answers in. They are keen to converse.
A refugee student says: I don’t like the men who kiss woman of another man on the cheek, and they don’t to let another man to kiss their woman on the cheek.
I agree that I do not like this either.
We talk about individual rights. How each person must figure out what one is comfortable with, and we return to the exercise.
“So this is more about what is appropriate.”
We discuss the meaning of ‘appropriate.’ We decide it means ‘what fits the situation,’ or what ‘feels right for all participants in a situation.’
The same refugee student says: Too many man want to kiss cheek of woman here. London, easy, everyone is kissing cheeks. But why his woman cannot?”
We talk about ego. We discuss what ego means. Refugee 2 and 3 talk openly about jealousy. Refugee 1 cannot keep up but he is listening with keen interest.
We then talk about a rather comical scenario of how to ask to pee in private.
Refugee 4: I can make peepee in my country in any tree.
Refugee 1: That is not good
Refugee 2: I can ask where I can go toilet.
Refugee 3 has wandered off to examine a free books offer on a library shelf.
If you need to go to the bathroom, and you spot a café, do you:
1) walk in and demand to know where the toilet is
2) walk in and ask politely where the toilet is
3) or ask, ‘may I use your toilet please?’
Refugee 2: English peoples like the polite people. I will ask where is the toilet.
Refugee 1: May I please use toilet please? Then take me to toilet.
Refugee 4: I need toilet or I go in the carpet!
Laughter. Lesson over.