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  • Notre Dame Refugee Centre

The love of volunteering

Written by Caritas Westminster.

Sarah Sawyerr has taken on a few volunteer roles since she retired from teaching in 2019. In one of her roles, she uses her teaching skills to teach ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) to refugees, working with the Notre Dame Refugee Centre as part of a project they run with Lords Cricket Ground. As part of Caritas' focus on volunteering this Lent, Sarah was asked to explain what she is doing and why:

I've started doing this ESOL project with Afghan women who arrived back in the summer. There's a group of 150 - 200 families staying in a hotel and ESOL lessons were being run in the hotel. Then a project with the Lord’s Cricket Ground started. The women get bused over to Lord’s with their husbands, and the men go and play cricket and the women learn ESOL. We've divided them into two groups, beginners and intermediate. One group does yoga while one group does ESOL, and then they swap over. They all have lunch before heading back to the hotel. I've been involved in that since January. I've done ESOL teaching before with the South London Refugee Association. In the pandemic we went online so it's been great to be back face-to-face teaching. I’m also training to be an advisor with the Citizens Advice Bureau. I started to work with Advice Line, which is one of their online support networks. Then last year, when we were getting back into face-to-face meetings, they asked if I would like to be trained as an actual advisor. So that's what I do. I advise on a range of things. On Monday, for example, I helped a women fill in a homelessness application form. I help people with their benefits - all sorts of things. I also work in a primary school as a volunteer, doing catch up teaching with Year six students who missed out over the pandemic. It's a very small group, one-on-one or one-on-two catch up teaching in literacy. I'm really enjoying it. And now I can't really give any of it up!

Why do you volunteer?

I feel very lucky that I've had a really interesting career. I was a teacher for the last 17 years but before that I've had all sorts of jobs. I love teaching - when someone gets that lightbulb moment that they get it is just the best feeling ever! For people who've come from overseas to make a new life, escaping from terrible conditions, one of the best ways to manage that transition is if they can speak the language of the country. It's very alienating for people when they come to a new country. They can't navigate the benefits system, the hospital system, and know that actually, they can go to the library and get a book out for free. These things are really important. My father came to the UK before I was born and was a victim of racism in the 50s. He had perfect English because he'd been to an English Christian boarding school in Nigeria. He came here as a graduate and was lucky - he did eventually get professional work, but it was a struggle. So it’s always in the back of my mind that if you can help somebody else, then that's a good thing.

What impact does this volunteering have on you?

I've made some amazing friends, refugees, and other people that I've volunteered with. I love teaching English. The Afghan women are just so funny, they're entertaining, they're so keen to learn. And that's great. Every teacher wants somebody who is really keen to learn. I get a real buzz.

Scroll down to see some pictures of the project.

Registration sheet that women fill in when they arrive at Lord's. They are then divided into two groups: beginner or advance.

ESOL class in progress

Afghan lunch served after the ESOL and Yoga classes.

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