February 8 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print


Helping refugees to find their voice

DANI GARAVELLI visits a volunteer-run project at a Glasgow parish providing English lessons to those who have fled to our shores in search of sanctuary, a sense of belonging and a fresh start in life

A cluster of students—two women with brightly-coloured headscarves and two men in dark jackets—is gathered at the piano as retired teacher Bernadette Donoghue plays a jaunty rendition of Ralph McTell’s Streets of London. The students—all refugees and asylum seekers—are tapping their toes and clearly itching to touch the keys themselves (as they later do).

This is break-time during English lessons at the Ogilvie Centre at St Aloysius Church, Glasgow, and an opportunity for the migrants who have come from Sudan, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Yemen and Eritrea to get to know one another.

Earlier, all the focus was on learning. Split up into groups appropriate to their abilities, they honed practical language skills that would help them navigate the world of endless interrogations and form-filling they have found themselves in.

The beginners were being taught numbers and the concepts of ‘bigger’ and ‘smaller,’ ‘more than’ and ‘less than.’ The top group were discussing ‘smart meters,’ ‘consumers’ rights’ and—with a dash of irony at a time of Brexit paralysis—‘manifesto commitments.’

For anyone who has spent time in a secondary school classroom, the degree of engagement was almost uncanny: everyone with their eyes on the board, writing notes and asking questions.

But then, for these students—some of whom were doctors, teachers and engineers in their home countries—the stakes are high. Improving their English is the key to survival, integration, access to further education and, if they are eventually granted leave to remain, employment.

Kevin Wyber, a former civil servant who taught English for a time in an orphanage in Angola, has been co-ordinating daily classes at the Ogilvie Centre since March 2016 when the parish council decided it would be a positive way of supporting the growing asylum-seeking/refugee community.

“The first day three people turned up, the second, only one, but then gradually it started to grow until one day we had 110, which was unmanageable and we had to set up a system where students had identity cards and colours and came alternate days,” he said.

Now, the numbers have decreased slightly to between 40 and 50 a day, and all the students are easily accommodated in the hall. The classes are mostly run by volunteers—38 in all; many of them are retired teachers, but there is no requirement for qualifications. You can learn on the job.


The volunteers are joined by two part-time lecturers from Clyde College; their role is not only to provide expertise, but to register the more able, motivated students for college classes. Today it is the turn of Chris Strang-Moran who is taking the lesson about smart meters.

Some of the students I meet already go to Clyde (or City or Kelvin) colleges. But they keep on turning up at the Ogilvie Centre regardless because it is less formal, has a smaller student/teacher ratio and they enjoy the social dimension which the college classes lack.

It is the opportunity to make friends Natasha Abdallah, 37, values most. She has been coming to lessons since she arrived in Scotland a year and seven months ago. Originally from Yemen, she lived for a while in Dubai and then Oman. Something bad happened to her in Oman, she tells me; something she doesn’t want to talk about. She had to leave, and came to Glasgow. Her father and her 22-year-old son are still in Yemen.

“I have learned so much here,” she said. “When I lived in Dubai, I worked in the Body Shop and I did speak some English, but I couldn’t write it. Here, they helped me fill in forms, but more than that, they taught me to be confident.

“In Yemen, ladies are not supposed to speak or have opinions, but I am quite outgoing and I like to talk. Here, there is always someone to talk to.”

Everyone tells me Natasha is artistic—she is always bringing little homemade gifts for teacher Margaret McGlennan, and would love to be a florist. For a while she was volunteering at the Botanic Gardens where she helped to grow plants.

“I wanted to go on a floristry course but they said I had to improve my English first, so I am now doing my National Five. I hope, if I pass that, I will be allowed to start the course.”

Back in the hall, Bernadette is assessing Ali Zare, 40, who has turned up for the first time, to establish which group he should join. This could be a stressful encounter, but every time I look over, they are laughing.

When Ali first started speaking, it seemed to Bernadette his grasp of English was poor, but a few comprehension exercises later, it is clear that he understands written English reasonably well, and that his stumbling efforts were down to shyness.

In Iran, Ali was an electronic engineer; his friends told him about these English classes. “It is a problem for me to speak,” he said. “I want to solve. I am so happy to be here.”

If the classes are a boon for the students, then they are also fulfilling for those who deliver them. Margaret McGlennan was a secondary school teacher and then a principal teacher in a primary school before retiring 11 years ago.

She has been involved at the Ogilvie Centre classes from the beginning and was responsible for devising the lesson plans that sit in large binders on the front table. Margaret spends most of her Sundays prepping for the week ahead, but says she gets a lot out of it.

“If you have been a teacher, you love success,” she said. “It’s very easy to see that in a Primary One class where they come in as non-readers and leave at the end of the year as readers. Here too it’s terribly fulfilling because you see movement.

“We have one man who could only say ‘hello’ when he got here—now he is offering his services as a volunteer to all sorts of organisations, so he has become an important part of the community. The sadness comes when people say to us ‘I’ve nowhere else to go.’ They can’t work so what do they do with their spare time?”


Kevin, too, says the greatest thrill is to see people who have struggled become happy and settled. “I’m thinking of Omar, who is from Syria and lost a lot of his family in the bombing,” Kevin said. “He managed to bring his wife and four children to Scotland. He was a mathematics teacher in Aleppo so we encouraged him to apply for university. He wanted to do a masters in maths and logistics.

“I used to meet him at the Mitchell Library and we worked through his application form together. He had to have his degree papers translated. Then, he went for an interview and they said: ‘You passed all the tests except for English.’ This was last March/April, so he had the whole of the summer to work on it. He improved to the extent he was accepted on the course. It’s hard because he has to provide for his family and he works weekends as a security guard, but I think he will keep going because he is absolutely focused on teaching maths in Scotland.”

There are, of course, others less fortunate; those whose asylum claims are rejected and are eventually deported back to their country of origin.

“We had one guy who was detained at Dungavel—then he was sent down to another detention centre in England. We didn’t hear anything for six weeks until he walked back in. He disappeared again, though. We don’t know what happened to him.”

Most of those attending the English classes are living on £5 a day and cannot afford the bus fare. So they walk from Springburn, Govan, Drumchapel—journeys of five miles or more.

“Last year, we had £1,000—a council grant—and we spent most it on about 40 reconditioned second-hand bicycles,” Kevin said. “Those who are seeking asylum have to attend so many appointments—for them, a bicycle is a passport to mobility.”

Salem Dayfan, 29, who fled to Scotland from war-torn Sudan, has attended the classes almost every day for the past six months. “I know a bit English when I arrive, but I could not speak much. Now little, little little, I improve,” he said.

At home, Salem worked on his family’s farm or on construction sites. “Now I would like to study at university. That is my… my…”

Struggling to finish the sentence, Salem looks to Kevin for help: “I am trying to remember that word you taught me.”

“Ambition,” Kevin replies.

“Ah yes,” says Salem, with a broad smile. “That is my ambition.”

Leave a Reply

latest features

Streets ahead: The charity helping Venezuelan refugees in Columbia

May 17th, 2019 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS

In a special report, Ryan McDougall speaks to the priest...

The shockingly everyday story of slavery on Scotland’s streets

May 10th, 2019 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS

Frances Gallagher explains how, after working on a film to...

Jean Vanier’s revolutionary community of togetherness

May 10th, 2019 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS

Ricky Ross interviewed Jean Vanier in 2016. It is republished...

How we faced up to our fears and renewed our Faith

May 3rd, 2019 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS

Richard Purden attends a reunion of a group of Catholics...

Social media

Latest edition


exclusively in the paper

  • European bishops’ family life commission meet in Scotland
  • Vote of appreciation as bishops flock to UCM rally
  • Prayers as another Celtic hero is laid to rest
  • Notre Dame spire contest ‘pointless’, by Gerald Warner
  • Let the little children come, well-behaved or not, by Fr Jamie McMorrin

Previous editions

Previous editions of the Scottish Catholic Observer newspaper are only available to subscribed Members. To download previous editions of the paper, please subscribe.

note: registered members only.

Read the SCO