English courses at Bournemouth and Poole College are a passport to jobs for asylum-seekers newly-arrived in the country, reports Neil Merrick
"I WANT you to take three verbs and make sentences in the past tense," English teacher Phil Bashford tells his group of refugees and asylum-seekers at Bournemouth and Poole College.
"I arrived in England five months ago," suggests one student. "That's good," replies Mr Bashford. "Or alternatively you could have said: 'The plane arrived one hour late'."
Travel and transport have played an integral part in the lives of the 20 students during the past year. Twelve months ago, most had never heard of Bournemouth or could even have imagined they would be learning English in a British further education college.
The first English as a Second Language course for asylum-seekers and refugees began at Bournemouth and Poole last Easter. It was made up of just 12 students By August, 60 students were attending on a regular basis and by October, the number had risen to 120.
Today, the college is running eight ESOL classes for about 160 students. "We get 12 to 15 new asylum-seekers per week but others drop out after moving to different areas," says co-ordinator Karen Browne. "Some find jobs and don't have time to come here anymore."
For people desperately trying to rebuild their lives after escaping from troubled countries such as Kosovo and Afghanistan, English is seen as a passport to finding employment. "The vast majority are physically able to work, although many of them have mental scars," she adds.
"They don't like living in council-funded accommodation or being dependent."
Asylum-seekers must live in the UK for six months before they are entitled to work. Andre Usik, who arrived from Kazakhstan in October with his wife and daughter, is looking forward to getting a work permit. A qualified engineer, he accepts that he will probably have to take a cleaning job. "It's very important to speak English, but I don't know what my future will be," he says.
Phil Bashford is impressed by the way in which so many students have progressed to intermediate-level English in just six months. Some worked in high-level professional jobs before coming to the UK.
"They are academically-minded and take things on board very quickly," he says.
Most students receive 12 hours of English tuition a week. Karen Browne assesses their initial standard to decide which group they should join - mainly by talking to them or asking them to read.
"I don't give them a formal test because I feel it would be too frightening. Very few of them talk to me when they first arrive. They feel very nervous and threatened."
But barriers gradually start to break down. A man from Afghanistan, known only as Jamal, explained how Ms Browne helped him to track down his wife and two children after he had fled alone as an opponent of the Taliban regime. "If I have a problem, the teachers help me," says the former poiceman.
The students, aged 16 and over, live within three miles of the town centre - mostly in Bamp;Bs. Even the few who qualify for benefits tend to walk back and forth each day to save on bus fares.
Yet despite the xenophobic headlines in some newspapers during the days following the Stansted hijacking drama, the students say they have been made to feel welcome. "People are very friendly," says Dalia Rapan, who came from Iraq with her husband about a year ago.
Susie Bridges, who has been working towards an English language teaching qualification since October, says that working with the asylum-seekers was hard to begin with, but eventually she was able to apply newly-learned techniques, such as speaking more slowly when dealing with difficult words.
Although she got to know the students, she avoided detailed conversations about their previous experiences. "You can't get too involved or else you would never do any teaching," she says.
Ms Browne admits she spends much of her time on pastoral work, including liaising with Bournemouth social services. At the end of their 10-week ESOL course, the students can move to a higher level, switch to other programmes or join an outreach scheme which helps people with IT skills and CV-writing.
There are also plans to involve some students in teaching at the college. These include an Algerian baker who won an award before leaving his home country. According to Ms Browne, such programmes will assist integration between asylum-seekers and other learners.
Refugees and asylum-seekers see the college as a vital point where they can network while adapting to life in a foreign country. "It's difficult for them to find employment when they might suddenly disappear or be deported," she says. "Coming to Bournemouth and Poole College gives them a sense of purpose which they didn't have before."
Towns and cities around the country have been asked to house asylum-seekers and refugees to ease
growing pressure on local authorities in London and the South-east.
Bournemouth Council estimates that there are about 300 asylum-seekers in the town. It has no
precise figures because councils in areas which are UK entry points for asylum-seekers often deal directly with private landlords in other towns without informing the host local authority.
Phil Hodges, head of policy and planning at Bournemouth social services, points out that the council does not receive any extra money for education or social services. ESOL courses such as those run at
Bournemouth and Poole are paid for by the Further Education Funding Council.
From April, under new arrangements, the Home Office should provide councils with more information about people arriving in their areas. At the same time, those on benefits will instead receive vouchers. "Our concern is knowing about people so that we have a good chance of providing local support," says Mr Hodges.