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Asylum-seekers find a new home at college

As the Scottish Executive renewed its call this week for employers and others to capitalise on refugees' skills, Anniesland College in Glasgow is already showing the way.

The college was chosen on Tuesday as the venue to launch a survey which reported on the skills of refugees and asylum-seekers. With an estimated 3,500 asylum-seekers living in Scotland, Margaret Curran, Communities Minister, pressed the case for making maximum use of their talents.

Anniesland College was the first to open its doors to asylum-seekers four years ago, and now teaches more than 400 students from over 100 nationalities. The college does bear some resemblance to a war zone - but only on the outside. Linda McTavish, the principal, says: "It's a dreadful old building so we are proposing to knock it down and build a new one."

Mrs McTavish comments: "We know much more now than when we started taking in asylum-seekers, about the things that have happened to these people and how we can respond to them. For me going into classes with groups that were at war with one another, and seeing them working happily together, was eye-opening."

Refugees almost invariably try to leave national enmities behind them. Asif Mohammad, a journalist and linguist who is now the college's student adviser for asylum-seekers and refugees, says: "I have worked with many of them since I came to this country four years ago, as an asylum-seeker myself. What they tell us is they come here to live a peaceful life and have a good future."

Besides responding to student questions and concerns, and providing information in many different languages, Mr Mohammad gives talks aimed at raising awareness both within the college and beyond. He works closely with outside agencies such as the police and Red Cross.

The decision to accept asylum-seekers at Anniesland was taken very early, before people like Mr Mohammad were in place, or mechanisms for supporting them were entirely clear - the contract between Glasgow City Council and the Home Office provided only for the education of children aged five to 16.

In response to energetic lobbying by Anniesland and others, childcare and travel costs are now funded centrally while access to courses has been widened. The college has won several awards for its work with asylum-seekers and refugees.

Their presence in the college has changed its character dramatically, Mrs McTavish says. "The 40 nationalities we had a few years ago tended to come from countries with a high quality of life. What we now have is the full flavour of the movements of people in the world who are stateless, who are fleeing."

Housed in Glasgow and awaiting a decision on their status, but debarred from earning a living, many look to Anniesland to help them learn English, acquire new skills and - crucially - gain validation of existing qualifications.

English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) has a key role. "There was a debate in the beginning about whether we should have different sets of courses for international students, asylum-seekers and refugees, " Mrs McTavish says. "We argued strongly that they should all be integrated and taught in the same classes."

Besides satisfying the inclusive aims of the college, this decision was based on sound educational reasoning, Rhona Hodgart, senior lecturer in ESOL, says. "English is English, and people's needs are broadly similar.

You may have lost your homeland or you may be a privileged Chinese student sent to the UK by your family. We don't make any distinctions."

This atmosphere of acceptance, combined with the nature of language learning, often creates a rapport between students and staff. "If they have some kind of difficulty, they will often take their ESOL teacher along to help sort it out," Mr Mohammad says. "It could be nothing to do with their studies. They might have legal questions or even problems with a fridge or a washing machine."

Ms Hodgart admits she has seen some tensions between national groups, but not in recent years. "Back in 1995 when I first came here, long before dispersal, I had students from Bosnia and Serbia who said they didn't want to work together. There have been women from Saudi Arabia who didn't want to work with men. But I have never seen tensions between different nationalities among the asylum-seekers.

"What you get in fact is a much more vibrant learning atmosphere. When you put them into groups you might have Spanish, French, Chinese, Congolese, Afghans, Iraqis. So if you have a very reticent Chinese student, who doesn't like to speak out, you will also get an Afghan who says: 'Come on! You tell us what you think.'

"An important part of our job is encouraging people from different cultures to speak up. That is made much easier by this great rich mixture we have at Anniesland."

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