Introduction - Vanessa Cebbie
Every Monday, for the last few months, I've spent the afternoons at The
Cowley Club on Brighton's London Road. On Mondays this place is an
open house for the migrant population of the city - those who have
come to Brighton for whatever reason and who need support and need
to learn English. These are people who are seeking asylum; refugees for
whom going 'home' would pose a serious threat to their safety. There
are a thousand reasons why these people are here and a thousand stories
behind their journeys.
It's a hive of activity here. It's warm, There is the smell of cooking... rice, vegetables, bread. Cartons of fruit juice sit on the bar next to a plate of biscuits and bowls of fruit. Behind the bar is an urn that has a stream of people coming to it for cups of tea. Tables arc crammed with students and volunteer teachers, their heads bowed over text books and there's a constant buzz of tongues as different voices tryout unfamiliar phrases.
A small woman says, slowly and carefully, 'My name is Elena. I come from Chile. A long time ago' A tall man says, 'My wife is an undergraduate. She does the laundry in a care home. Her English is not good enough to finish her studies'.
A young man barely out of his teens says, 'I don't want to think about my parents. It is too sad.' They come from all over: Iran, The Congo, The Sudan, Chile, Kurdistan, The Yemen, Belgium, Ethiopia.
Originally the idea for this project was to make the telling of their stories
for QueenSpark a part of the student's English tuition. Writing down
their experiences would, we thought, be good practice. However, it soon
became clear that this was not an option. Often their memories were very
painful, and expecting someone to stmggle to do this in a new language
in order to be 'heard' seemed wrong. So, it became a question of interviewing
each person who wished to participate in the project. Over the course of a few weeks, I listened, asked questions and transcribed as
their lales unfolded.
Understandably, many people were suspicious. Who was this person wanting to ask questions? Was it a trick, even? Would it jeopardize their stay in the UK? But slowly, over the weeks, their suspicions subsided and more and more people came forward to tell their stories.
Exiled journalists and displaced teachers, a lorry driver accused of smuggling tobacco, a young Kurd displaced for his own safety, an exiled Iranian poet, an abused Congolese lady, an industrialist and two young women from. Ethiopia whose only crime seemed to be being born into the wrong tribe - these are just a few of the extraordinary people I have talked to over the last few months. And these are just the tip of an iceberg.
It has been an incredible journey for me personally. I'd like to thank John Riches of QueenSpark for giving me this opportunity. It must be one of the best things 1 have ever done. Thank you too, to all the friends I've made at The Cowley Club.
I have met some extraordinary people; people who have gone out of their way 10 make me welcome in a way that, sadly, we Brits seldom do.
I was asked, 'How do we learn your language if people will not talk to us every day, in shops, in the street, at bus stops?' How indeed.
Vanessa Cebbie www.vanessagebbie.com
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