Every other Monday night I teach English at an asylum residential centre just down the street from where we live. The centre is run by an NGO within the government system and about 90 people can live there at any one time. (There’s another centre a few blocks away run by the government that apparently holds over 400 – it’s huge and looks like a fortress, rather an intimidating welcome to Belgium!)
My only qualification for teaching this class is being fluent. I have no qualifications in teaching or experience before I started this a few years ago. But somehow I think that helps – I rather think anyone trying to use their training in this class would have a nervous breakdown in weeks.
My class is anywhere between four and fifteen students depending on how many remember that it’s Monday evening, how many I bump into in the corridor and guilt trip into coming (not really, they like me!) and who is currently living there, as there is quite a frequent turnover of residents.
In addition to that, I have every possible level of English speaker. From the old man who cannot speak a single word of English, to the young woman who is pretty good in basic statements, to the young man who is fluent at speaking but put an English newspaper in front of him and he has no idea.
I have about an hour and a half to fill. And somehow keep all four or fifteen interested and questions answered.
It’s really impossible to take yourself seriously!
We usually end up having a lot of fun. My lessons are usually based off flashcards as the beginners can spend time learning and writing down the simple vocabulary, and I can talk in between with the more advanced about ways to put the vocab into sentences.
And in between all that people are arriving late or walking through the dining room where we sit and asking what we are doing, and the babies are fussing.
Oh yes, the babies.
Monday night I had a class of eight adults.
I also had three wee babies and two loud toddlers to contend with (of Afghan, Chechnyan and Ingushetian origin). I am not one to complain about babies being around. When they fuss and distract mum or dad from their exercises, I have the perfect excuse to steal them for a cuddle
Every week I get home from work and have a mad rush to eat something and find something online that I can use to teach that night (not having any text books or anything) and it always feels like a bit of a hassle. And then I get there and the women come and kiss me and the men shake my hand and even those I can’t persuade to take English lessons wave as they go by. And the babies. Oh the babies. I would keep going back just for the cute babies!
We don’t talk that much about their lives before. For one, their basic English makes it a bit tricky to go much beyond “where are you from? when did you come here?” and for another, occasionally they can be suspicious of why I’m asking. But sometimes I get to hear small details of their lives back home, their journeys to get here which usually lasted weeks and occasionally include a part about being shot at. Or they tell me about the children or husbands and wives they’ve left behind. Or lost.
Just snippets of story usually. But hugely moving.
I don’t think most of them are too interested in learning English, honestly. Some of the definitely have plans of eventually getting to the USA or England, seeing Belgium as a convenient first stop. But most are hoping to settle here, are learning French or Flemish, and really, apart from the help it can be to communicate between themselves (imagine four women from Tibet, Kenya, Russia and Sudan sharing a room and you’ll have an idea of the communication issues…) have no use for English.
But it’s something fun to do on a cold wet evening. And it’s someone to laugh with and talk with and discuss Belgium and family and attempt to draw a shaky map of home with. And I think that’s why they keep coming back. And why I keep going back.