A social enterprise is giving refugees in the UK a pathway to integration by training and employing them as language teachers. Chatterbox, established in 2016, targets refugees and asylum seekers who have left professional careers in their home countries and are struggling to establish themselves in Britain. The refugees are allocated students, and classes take place in person or over Google Hangouts.
Results & Impact
Participating refugees and asylum seekers have said they are able to grow in confidence through the program, earning money and gaining experience by teaching.
SOAS University, Chatterbox
Language learners or their institutions pay for lessons, and refugees are paid an hourly rate for their work. Chatterbox partnered with the School of African and Oriental Studies in London, which offers the conversation classes for free to students during term time. The courses supplement students' learning with a service that they would likely be unable to pay for themselves. Asylum seekers who are not legally able to undertake paid work are given training and their expenses are paid.
Migrants, general public
Cost & Value
Refugees are paid the London hourly living wage of $12.50.
Running since 2016
Asylum seekers are not legally able to be paid for their work, raising an ethical issue, and are instead compensated with expenses and training opportunities in English language and teaching skills. Because many of the teachers are housed by the government in isolated areas where there are few language learners or opportunities for work, many of the lessons have to be conducted over Google Hangouts.
A social enterprise is helping refugees integrate through teaching languages to students and professionals in their new country.
The Chatterbox project, launched as a social enterprise last year, brings together highly qualified refugees and people learning languages in the UK, and sets up conversation sessions and lessons between them. Students can learn Arabic, Chinese, Korean, Farsi, Urdu and Spanish, among other languages, through in-person classes or, if they’re not in London, over Google Hangouts.
The project predominantly targets refugees who are highly qualified in professional areas such as law, medicine or media, or those who have previous teaching experience. In doing so, it tackles a particular difficulty facing refugees who left successful work when they fled their country. When they arrive in the UK, many of these asylum seekers find the qualifications and experience they gained at home aren’t recognised. In addition to being forced to leave their homes and families, they find they’ve lost the valued careers they may have worked for years to secure, and struggle to find any kind of employment in the UK.
“We need people to help us get in the right place,” Mais Khodaji, who fled the Syrian Civil War in Aleppo in 2012, said. “Our skills will die if there’s no-one to help us be in the right place. If someone’s a doctor, a teacher, an engineer, it’s not useful for him to be a waiter.”
Chatterbox addresses this by offering refugees a route back to meaningful employment that makes use of their abilities. It gives them the opportunity to gain work experience in the UK itself, often invaluable when searching for jobs with firms that don’t recognise work done outside Western markets. Participants also find they’re able to network with professionals in their fields, gaining useful contacts in the world of work, too. There were some 117,000 registered refugees in the UK in 2015, and nearly 40,000 people with pending asylum cases.
Refugees participating in the program say that teaching gives them confidence that they would not have otherwise had. By placing refugees in a position of responsibility and guidance, a place where local students and professionals look to them for help, it reverses the dependency that often exists between refugees and people in the communities they live in. For many participants, lessons are simply an opportunity to get out of the house and socialise, too.
“I thought that the language skills they had would be something that gave them immediate economic relevance and value, as a catalyst for even bigger change,” Mursal Hedayat, who founded the program, said. “It’s something to leverage, to benefit them on a path to a career that they found beneficial.”
Hedayat established Chatterbox after graduating from Year Here, a social enterprise training program in the UK. She was inspired, she said, after visiting the Calais refugee camp and feeling that many projects didn’t adequately recognise the abilities and potential of refugees — especially those with professional experience.
“The charity space that’s being used to reach refugees and address refugee issues is a bit patronising, and a bit ignorant of the untapped talent that resided in the refugee community,” she said.
The most important partnership for Chatterbox is with the School of African and Oriental Studies in London. The language schools at the university have struck deals with Chatterbox to offer conversation classes that are free to students during term time, supplementing their learning with a service that they would likely be unable to pay for themselves.
Refugees are paid the London living wage of $12.50 an hour, while asylum seekers who cannot legally work for pay are compensated with training and expenses.
The service is also available to individual learners, who can sign up independently through the Chatterbox website. At the beginning of 2017, there was a waiting list of more than 150 people interested in lessons with the program, demonstrating that it has the potential to scale. The program is currently in its early stages and is rapidly expanding, seeking partnerships with businesses and universities to extend its work.
(Picture credit: Flickr/Julian Stallabrass)