Mumbai's language professionals teach English to refugees in faraway Cyprus, who struggle with rules, talking to locals

Aishwarya Sahasrabudhe

Following a six-week lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus, Cyprus began reopening its economy on 4 May, allowing select retail stores and the construction sector to resume operation, with curfews and social distancing still in place.

While the country's economy and social sector have taken a hit during this time, the large migrant community in Cyprus has also been struggling to understand and adjust to the ever-changing rules, partly as a consequence of finding themselves in new surroundings, and partly due to their inability to understand English and Greek, the official languages.

The working of several agencies, such as Caritas Cyprus, a Catholic organisation which is part of Caritas Internationalis that works with migrants and refugees, has come to a halt as a result of the lockdown. One among the initiatives run by this organisation was its crucial English language lessons conducted for the migrant community, to help them in their interactions with locals.

To fill this gap, Project Phoenix, which has been working in Cyprus since last year, has collaborated with Caritas to begin 'Survival English' classes for the refugees, who hail from several countries in West Asia and West Africa. The aim is to conduct online classes, which will keep up the mental health of the participants and give them something to do, apart from imparting English skills.

Hrishabh Sandilya, Director for Partnerships and Development, Project Phoenix, discovered that his mother who is an English language professional and her colleagues had free time on their hands because their work had stopped. "So I said, why don't we figure out a way to solve the problem in Cyprus with our refugees, who don't have access to the training they need, by using your [his mother's] skills?" Sandilya explains.

A majority of the students attending these English lessons, which are conducted four days a week, are refugees who have lived in Cyprus for only a couple of months. This makes them some of the most vulnerable groups in the country, explains Sandilya. "They don't have their own networks or support systems in place, and they don't speak the language."

The 60- to 90-minute classes conducted by teachers from Mumbai thus transcend national boundaries and cover a host of vocabulary-based topics with a little local context, to help the migrants understand the cities they are living in. However, Sandilya notes that the journey is not an easy one.

Communication can be difficult, not only because the refugees speak a wide variety of languages including Somali, French, Arabic, Kurdish and Urdu, but also because they have limited access to computers and technology. The classes are conducted using Google Meet, compatible with a 3G connection suited to the data plan of the migrants' mobile phones. Students participate depending on their schedules and their interest in a given topic while also reaching out to the instructors on a WhatsApp group, whenever they have extra questions.

Now more than ever, English language skills are essential for the refugees to survive, because not knowing the language has cost them. "The government put restrictions in place (during the lockdown)... it said there would be a fine if you were caught outside, more than once a day," says Sandilya. There was also a 'complicated' process that involved sending an SMS whenever a person wanted to go out, "so a lot of refugees ended up getting fined unnecessarily and unfairly, because they didn't understand the system," he adds.

Aparna Gurbaxani, one of the ELT professionals who has volunteered to conduct these classes, says, "Since the main aim of this programme is to teach 'survival' English, the syllabus is designed around topics that the students will most need in a foreign land. Right from the basics like introducing oneself, the different jobs that people do, how to speak politely, to asking and giving directions, making appointments, and how to call in case of emergencies, these are the topics we've covered so far."

"These highly structured lessons are designed around a framework that focuses more on student-centred learning, giving ample opportunities to both the teacher and learners to assess understanding and application throughout the lesson," notes Adib Modak, yet another English teacher who has volunteered. "At the end of every lesson, we analyse the lesson and reflect on what went well and what needs more attention. These observations then help us to fine-tune our future lessons, in order to be able to cater to our learners' needs." He adds that the lessons are designed to help learners develop skills like critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and communication.

Speaking about the living conditions of the refugees, Sandilya says that migrants are provided with a budget amounting to an equivalent of 280-300 Euros in coupons for their sustenance. Some of them live in shelters run by Caritas or other similar organisations, while others share apartments with fellow refugees €" minimal quality housing, with eight to ten people per room.

For those who have applied for asylum status, the classes help them feel less vulnerable or lost at a time when the future brings an additional sense of uncertainty into their lives.

Franklin, a migrant from Cameroon who has been living in Larnaca for the last two months, says, "I decided to enroll into the English classes because I find it important and necessary for me, to continue learning." Reflecting on what is being taught in class, he adds that it is a good way to learn how to converse properly, "Like what we did today: how to make an appointment, asking for directions from friend or stranger, how to be polite, and many other things."

"For practice, I try to apply it in my daily conversation with friends," he says.

Grange, who is from Kinshasa in Congo and speaks French alone, says he started learning English "pour que j'apprends la compétence de parle l'anglais britannique avec de bonne règles." (Because he wanted to learn how to speak British English with all its rules.)

Grange has been living in Larnaca, Cyprus since January 2020 and maintains that he enjoys the English lessons because he has been able to form friendships with others such as Franklin, who have been regularly attending the sessions. He mentions 'City Living' as one of the lessons he enjoyed the most, which Modak says is "focused on 'Degrees of Comparison' €" rules and structures one needs to follow when making comparisons. Learners compared various features of two or more cities."

"For asylum seekers, one of the best ways to connect with the local community is to be able to speak the common language. Also, utilising this time to acquire and develop skills will help them to have an edge over others, especially in the job market which might see cut-throat competition in the months to come," Modak adds.

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