Did you know that two-thirds of those who cannot read around the world are women, and that many children still do not go to school? The situation is much worse for immigrants, because, if their status is not regularised, their children will not be able to go to school. There are mothers who are alone, trying to look after their children in a country whose language they do not speak, where they cannot even communicate in English. Every year that passes waiting for the system to provide them with educational facilities is a year lost, without education, without work, without hope for a better future.
This situation led me to do an Erasmus+ placement at a centre for women refugees, helping with their education. I arrived at the Halcyon Days Project at a time when they did not have any volunteers, and, for the first month, three coordinators and I gave all the lessons, from 9 o’clock in the morning until 4 o’clock in the afternoon, five days a week. The classes comprised pupils aged between 14 and 80 years. Some of them had never been to school before, while others already had some education. So it wasn’t possible to teach a class suitable for everyone, but we tried our best with what we had.
When, finally, new volunteers started to arrive, it was easier to organise classes, share ideas and make the centre a more dynamic place. In addition to the classes, we started to organise a number of activities, because you don’t learn English only in the classroom. With yoga classes, natural cosmetics workshops, sewing workshops and parties, the centre was soon full of people, voices and laughter.
At the start of my volunteer project I was also very concerned to plan my classes to the tiniest detail, but I learnt early on that improvisation is the key – sometimes there was just one pupil, other times they were having a bad day and did not want to talk about serious topics, while on other occasions they arrived at class already discussing a topic that had arisen while they were waiting for class to begin – so I never tried to impose the kind of rigid, formal education that I had been given at school, where I had been forced to hide part of my personality.
Almost all the pupils were Muslim, which meant I tried hard to avoid any topics which might cause offence. However, we ended up talking about anything and everything, sometimes disagreeing openly about religion, rights, gender roles and even boys - can you imagine what it’s like to have a class of 15 female students wearing hijabs, showing photographs of boys they think are cute and comparing tastes? I couldn’t have imagined it either, but we were all women together, free and equal.
Over the five months I saw many pupils arriving at the centre. Many arrived in a pitiful state but, over time, most of them started to be happy. Some left for other host countries. But the worst for me was when it was my own time to leave. When you arrive, you are given training about how to keep an emotional distance from the situation, but it is impossible, and it has been very hard not knowing what would happen to this community with whom I shared these few months. I can only hope that they are all well. I took the opportunity to take all I had learnt to another country, where I contacted an organisation working with migrant women and used my weekends to teach English to another group of inspiring women who, every Saturday, taught me something, too.