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We can help vulnerable refugee women learn English - by listening to them

Emily Loud, Wonder Foundation

Zarlasht is training to be a child psychologist. Esmeralda and Yvonne are teachers.

They are different in many ways. They were born in different corners of the world and driven by war to leave their homelands. They all found safety here in the UK, and they all have education to thank for the safe, productive lives they have now built. After learning English, these three women were able to pursue careers, share meaningful relationships and make London their new home.

Esmeralda, who now is able to teach again after learning English.

But there are many other women and girls in the UK who won’t get these opportunities. Over the past few years, government funding for refugee English classes has been cut by 40% since 2010, and our new research suggests that female refugees and vulnerable migrants are now facing significant barriers to English lessons. 

These include the cost of lessons, their location, lack of childcare as well as a whole host of other gender specific challenges related to mental ill health, familial expectations and even domestic violence. The women we interviewed almost universally told us that they wanted to learn English, but even those who had been here for many years had not yet found a way around these obstacles, and still found themselves unable to talk to their neighbours, their GPs or their children’s teachers. Many also had little or no contact with native English speakers, adding to isolation and depriving them of ways to practice. 

It doesn’t have to be this way. Whatever their limitations, with recent initiatives aimed at Muslim women and Syrian refugees, the government has at least acknowledged the high value of helping vulnerable migrants learn our language. They must now take the next step, and listen to the needs of vulnerable women whose voices too often go unheard. And they can start by designing a national strategy for English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) that recognises the challenges vulnerable women face, guarantees funding for beginners’ classes, and creates opportunities for native speakers and learners to mix. 

Like her predecessor, current Prime Minister Theresa May has recognised that language is a key tool for integration and social cohesion. If she is truly committed to a more integrated, fairer Britain, then these gendered barriers must be overcome - and the Government has a significant role to play in that. 

Zarlasht, now training to be a child psychologist. 

Zarlasht, who now speaks English natively, sums up the transformative effect that these changes could have for many women. “When you don’t speak English here, it’s like losing one of your senses, because you’re there, but you feel invisible, you feel excluded.”

“It’s not just about accessing the labour market and education opportunities - when you give people the opportunity to learn English, they can integrate and be part of British society, both as a citizen and as someone who can contribute.”

In the long run, these actions would enable vulnerable refugee and migrant women to escape isolation, integrate and take advantage of opportunities to work, volunteer and share in our society and prosperity. Just as importantly, it would empower them to better take control of their lives.

As the refugee crisis across the Middle East and Europe Mediterranean (rightly) continues to receive attention, we shouldn't forget that the challenges these vulnerable people face do not end when they step onto our shores – so neither should our support and compassion.

Read our full report and recommendations here.

Help a vulnerable woman in London transform her life by learning English right now: