When you think of ‘improving or changing a place’ you instantly think of physical change – improving the environment, building housing, creating ‘space’. But what if you thought ‘this place would be better if I could speak the language?’ If you were isolated by your lack of ability to speak English even when you had been a resident for many years – meaning you couldn’t talk to your child’s school about their education, you couldn’t read a hospital appointment letter or tell the doctor what was wrong with you. You couldn’t go to a railway station and buy a ticket because you didn’t know how to request one, and when you got there you didn’t know what you could do because you couldn’t ask.

Changing Places through our volunteer-led English language programme

At TimeBank we’ve been changing places through our volunteering projects for 18 years but it is our volunteer-led English language programme, focused predominantly on Muslim women, that I have chosen as an example of changing places most dramatically for more people in very individual ways.

For many of our learners language has expanded their place – it’s not just empowered them to do everyday tasks, it has broadened their horizons. At the end of our classes we’ve taken learners to museums and then in their own time they’ve gone back with their own children, changing their place too. We’ve encouraged them to say hello to a neighbour. That way they live in a friendlier environment that welcomes them and not pre-judges them as rude because they didn’t reply, because they couldn’t reply.

Language can change so many parts of a place and the attitudes of people within it. For many of the women on Talking Together, learning English – and crucially having the confidence to speak it – has helped them to develop a sense of belonging where before they’d been isolated.

By taking this course it provided a first step towards community integration – changing lives, developing confidence, encouraging them out of the home and into work or setting up their own businesses.

And then there are our volunteers. Their perception of the countries where these women come from are changed too as they learn about different places, different ways of doing things and different cultural expectations.

As well, of course, as changing their perspective of the place they live as a vibrant multicultural environment where people – given the chance – want to learn, want to share, want to be part of what is their place too. One of the best parts of many of these courses is the last celebration class where learners bring home-cooked food to share. One volunteer told us: ‘Turkish, Somali, Arabic, Iraqi, Indian, Pakistani and African students bring their own food and enjoy and share their recipes, which really contributes to community cohesion.’ Sitting down together to share food surely is one of the oldest forms of community, of togetherness, of burying differences and sharing and this is what changes a place for TimeBank volunteers, staff and learners.

Changing places through mentoring programmes for refugees

My second example of changing a place through volunteers is our mentoring programmes for refugees. Currently running in Birmingham and London they have different goals. In Birmingham it’s as much about changing perceptions amongst local people about why refugees are here, the challenges they face and the ways in which they contribute. We’ve proactively looked for volunteers who might not naturally think to volunteer on a project like this, who through their own experience of learning from a refugee can change the minds of others.

Take for example the 70 year old, white Christian woman matched with a young black gay man who was persecuted for his sexuality in his home country. Her place as well as his has been changed by the relationship they have developed. For the refugees and asylum seekers on these programmes all too often it is the nuances of British life that act as barriers to them feeling at home or to have a sense of belonging.

Who teaches you about the very British obsession with queuing and the protocol behind it?! Or that going to the pub after work is sometimes the best way to get to know your work mates because that’s just sort of what we do – but we don’t realise that it’s not necessarily like that elsewhere. These are just two small examples that can cause angst, misunderstanding and a sense of isolation for the refugee, and a sense of anger or being snubbed for the population that they are trying to integrate with.

Our refugee project in London, in partnership with Renaisi, is about sustainable employment. Sometimes it’s less about getting a job and more about staying in it. In the UK for example we tend to be quite keen on timekeeping, so if we say you start at 9am that’s when you turn up, not at 10! Having a mentor who can explain why things like that are important or what the subtext of a conversation at work by your manager might have meant, enables our beneficiaries to stay in work for longer, learning more about the place in which they now live and work.

Place isn’t just a physical space, it’s an unknown and frightening environment when you are new and don’t understand it. What TimeBank strives to do is support people through difficult transitions in their lives through a volunteer-led solution and that changes a place.

About TimeBank’s English language programme:

Since 2013 – 3,800 women have learnt English Language through TimeBank’s Talking Together project in 549 classes taught by 357 volunteers across London and the Midlands. We’ve empowered more than 100 grassroots organisations to deliver our language courses.

On our Time Together project in the West Midlands, we are recruiting 45 volunteers to support refugees and asylum seekers through the challenging transition to life in the UK.

As part of the RISE project, supporting refugees into sustainable employment, we are recruiting and training volunteers to mentor 65 refugees through the challenges of a new job in a new country.

Khudeja Amer-Sharif is from the Shama Women’s Centre in Leicester, one of our Talking Together delivery partners. At the launch of TimeBank’s impact report at the House of Commons she described the way learning English was changing women’s lives – and their perception of the place they live:

‘The Talking Together programme has been the first step for many women towards active integration, helping them overcome language barriers, improve their confidence so that they contribute to local life which we take for granted. It has provided them with a sense of belonging and empowered them to go on to do further learning and employment. It has given volunteers the opportunity to develop their confidence, skills and motivated many to go onto a career in teaching. It has not only impacted on the women who attended the programme, but more widely on families, their communities promoting greater integration’.

Pakistan Youth and Community Association, Leicester

“The impact of Talking Together has been really significant. It is so much more than learning to speak English, it’s a lifeline for many women, enabling them to get out of the house, interact with new people and gain confidence and skills. It has been essential in promoting integration and equality throughout the entire community.”

About the author:

Helen is Chief Executive of TimeBank. TimeBank recruits and train volunteers to deliver mentoring projects to tackle complex social problems. They also work with businesses to engage their staff in volunteering.

TimeBank works with Renaisi on our RISE programme, supporting refugees into sustainable employment across ten boroughs in East London.