Voices GY’s ESL classes for refugees and asylum seekers changing lives

The students in an ESL class for refugees and asylum seekers class (All photos courtesy of Voices GY)

By Gibron Rahim

GUYANESE are a hospitable people. It is a point for pride for us that we make guests or visitors to our country feel right at home. This responsibility is even greater when these persons are fleeing persecution or difficult circumstances in their home countries. In that same spirit of hospitality, the aim of Voices GY’s English as a Second Language (ESL) classes for refugees and asylum seekers is to provide a valuable resource to a vulnerable group in our country.

Voices GY, originally Spanglish GY, was founded by Christian Vargas from Chile, Charlie Tokeley from the United Kingdom and Gordon Roberts from Guyana. A registered non-profit organisation (NGO), Voices GY has been in operation for over a year and has become known for its Spanglish Night events which offer participants the opportunity to practice their second language.

The name change from Spanglish GY to Voices GY was implemented to reflect the NGO’s expanded aims. Tokeley related to the Pepperpot Magazine that, while they had started off by hosting solely Spanish and English events, it was not long before they began receiving requests to involve other languages and cultures. “We figured that Spanglish was not representative of what we were trying to do,” he said. “It wasn’t just Spanish and English, we wanted to include Portuguese and Chinese Mandarin and Sign Language and Indigenous Languages.” Thus, Voices GY was chosen to be more representative.

Last year, at a Spanglish event, Voices GY started collecting donations. “We weren’t entirely sure what we were going to use it for,” Tokeley explained. “We wanted to do something charitable with it.” After learning about a group of asylum seekers in Georgetown who have difficulties communicating in English, the decision was made to embark on a programme to help these individuals. This programme in Georgetown would be in addition to the programme Voices GY is undertaking to help Venezuelan refugees in Region One. “As we’re focused on languages and cultures we figured that within our team we could find somebody who’s an English speaker and we could try and put together some sort of English Language course.”

The resulting ESL for refugees and asylum seekers course was taught by Ms. Eleanor Gibson, a volunteer. “She was a godsend,” Tokeley said. He related that they had been looking for a teacher but had been unable to find anyone with the availability and necessary work experience. Quite by chance Gibson, who is a personal friend of the Voices GY team, has three years of experience teaching ESL in various Spanish-speaking countries. She happily volunteered to help when she heard about the course. “She ended up becoming the teacher and she did a really fantastic job,” Tokeley said.

Teacher Eleanor Gibson hugs one of the graduates of the ESL class

The initial course ran for 10 weeks with 16 persons graduating at the end of the class. A graduation ceremony was held on Friday, May 24 for the group. The graduates were given their final exam results and presented with certificates to commemorate their achievement. The event had an unmistakable celebratory air. One of the graduates, a Cuban national, expressed his gratitude to Gibson, Vargas and Tokeley for the classes. He stressed the importance of the course to him and his fellow graduates. Another graduate, a Pakistani national, echoed his sentiments.

There are quite a number of asylum seekers in Guyana, both registered and unregistered, as noted by Tokeley. Referring to the classes he said, “There’s a lot of people who need this assistance and so we are waiting on confirmation from a donor, another organisation, who are going to help us to finance two more terms of this class.” One class will be for absolute beginners and the other will be a continuation of the beginners’ course. The continuation course will provide learners with more conversational practice and abilities.

Voices GY has been in regular contact with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) which has helped the organisation in reaching some of the refugees and asylum seekers. They are also grateful to the school where the classes were hosted for providing a learning space. Individuals and Voices GY volunteers have also been a major help in tasks such as printing and letter writing, according to Tokeley.

Vargas, the programme’s coordinator, noted that the course is a very special one. He related that there are a lot of challenges. First among them is that the asylum seekers are in a very vulnerable position. He also noted that they come from a variety of backgrounds which is a challenge for the teacher. “They come from different countries so it’s complex,” Vargas said. He explained that the refugees and asylum seekers are in a very difficult position in Guyana and are looking for new opportunities or skills that they can use to survive. He noted that a few sessions of the upcoming courses will be focused on social integration.

Another challenge facing the programme is that students sometimes leave to seek asylum elsewhere. Vargas related that the course is very dynamic in that sense. He noted that Voices GY is attempting to meet that challenge by changing the methodology of the course so that it will be easier for students to join the class at any point. “We are very happy with the results of this first course,” Vargas said. He noted that assessments of the course were done. That monitoring and evaluation will allow for improvements to be made.

All of the students who were part of the course passed. “We saw really, really visible improvement in their English,” Tokeley said, “especially with a few of the students, just really, really impressive improvements in the space of 10 weeks.” He noted that the learning curve is very steep at the beginner level when learning a new language. They were thus very impressed at the progress of the students.

The ESL classes for refugees and asylum seekers provide a much needed resource to a vulnerable group. Tokeley pointed out that they are really left behind in terms of all forms of assistance given to vulnerable migrant groups in Guyana. He related that the class that recently graduated was comprised of Cuban and Pakistani nationals who have received virtually no help at all from any source. “They still continue to be left behind and they’re not really able to communicate these problems because they don’t speak enough English,” he stated.

Additionally, the refugees and asylum seekers are not allowed to work and are thus very dependent on help. “They’re very much an invisible group without a real voice,” Tokeley said. The course, he said, gives them the opportunity to develop that voice. “I think it’s been a really gratifying course to be involved in because from the very first class we could really sense how grateful the students were,” he related. He noted that they might not stay in Guyana but many would like to eventually end up in an English-speaking country. “It’s helping them to have the means with which to improve their lives in the future and not get back into the dire situation into which they have been thrown.”