Written by Katarzyna Gorska
As I entered the English beginners’ class at Lampton School in Hounslow, on Saturday 10th February 2018, and saw a couple of ladies laying down their prayer mats at the back of the room and suddenly felt immersed in their culture and transported to Afghanistan. Women kept coming in, their faces radiating warmth and excitement at seeing one another. In Afghan culture, children are very much dependent on their mums and so the ladies brought them along, even babies in strollers, posing a challenge to the teachers.
What I’m recounting here are my observations of the Women’s Tea Corner project run by the ACAA. In the fall of last year, I saw Mahna’s presentation on this initiative, and I felt deeply affected and inspired by her passion and dedication. I decided to investigate how the project really changes women’s daily lives.
The project take’s place in Hounslow, one of the Afghan hubs in London. It is partially funded by the Pilgrim’s Trust, who pay for twelve workshop sessions per year, but the ACAA runs two or three sessions per month, and, on top of that, offers English language classes taught by volunteer teachers. The charity realised there was a strong demand for its services, especially from women who have families dependent on them and as a result struggle to integrate into society. The project is not exclusively for Afghans – there was also one Arab and one Somali woman in the class.
I admire the commitment of the teachers and other volunteers, as in addition to this work, as they have full-time jobs or are in full-time studies. “I feel a lot more energy when I have purpose. I want to give back to the community,” said one of the teachers.
I had a chance to experience the uniqueness of this project. Not only does it fill the gap in services for Afghan women here in London, but more importantly, it is specially geared to their particular needs: “It’s remarkable what we offer compared to other English classes,” said Mahna, the Women’s Officer: “We really take into consideration the cultural factors. We make sure all the volunteers are ladies. The teachers and volunteers dress appropriately. I speak Pashto and Farsi, and can help to translate. I thought there was a lack of facilities – language classes that consider these factors. That’s why participation rate increases every week. Six months ago we started with two ladies. Now we have twenty five.”
“I wear black Afghan attire and speak in their mother tongue. There is a lot of hugging and respect. It’s a very personal relationship that we have with these ladies,” explained Mahna, adding: “It’s beyond just the classroom. If one lady is absent, I call her and ask: How are you? Has something happened and is it to do with the class?”
What’s also important is that the project offers not only English language support, but provides a social and educational platform for these Afghan and other Muslim women. Women often live in conservative families and would otherwise struggle to make friends outside of their close knit-family circle: “It’s not only about building the relationship between me and them, but for them amongst each other. They are networking and building friendships, and that’s beautiful.”
In the upper level class, the ladies were discussing their daily routines in English, and even that small conversation revealed so much about how their lives revolve around the house: “I get up, get dressed, and I go to the kitchen to cook. Then I do the washing and I call on my children” – was a common response. “And your husband, does he do anything? Does he make you a cup of coffee?” asked the teacher. “Sometimes,” said one lady, but the others shook their heads; “No, never,” replied another.
They all laughed as they chatted in English. It was clear that the lesson offered them a safe space to be themselves and a chance to get out of their routine.
They had not followed any English classes before these ones. Some of them cannot even write in their own language. Due to the different levels of competency, the volunteers need to help the teachers by working with some women individually. In some cases, these lessons are their only chance to speak English. I was impressed by their determination to learn, even from the ladies in their fifties or sixties: “Every evening I do my English homework for two hours,” one lady proudly told me.
“The ladies are super open and honest,” said Eleanor, the teacher of the more advanced group. “They come to me and say: we need more practical English.” So, Eleanor taught them a class about going to the doctor, after which one of her students confessed: “I can now finally go to the doctor. I didn’t know how to say things before, but now I can.”
Mahna explained to me how these lessons are about inspiring confidence in the women and giving them autonomy, so they do not have to rely on their husbands and children, who speak English. They want to be able to discuss their personal issues in privacy when they visit a gynaecologist.
Having basic knowledge of English simply means being able to lead a normal life, as another example shows: “There was this one lady who didn’t know how to say spinach. She used to save the packets of all the vegetables, so when she later went to the grocery shop she’d show the packet. One time she lost the packet so she rummaged through the bin to find it.”(Mahna)
I came out of these classes feeling inspired and affected by the sense of purpose driving all the people working on this project. There was so much more to these lessons than just learning English. I discovered that the real lesson is about empowering these women and giving them back their voice, which can completely change their lives, from their everyday activities through to their perceptions and understanding of life and society around them. The Women’s Tea Corner can help them to better understand their own children, who are growing up under the influence of a different culture, and it can open them up to other views and ideas on certain issues.
Even though a change in attitudes and mentality is a long-term process, Mahna believes that what they are doing now is vital and life-changing: “Even if it’s just sparking new ideas in their minds – we might not change the way they think – but we can open them up to different thoughts and perceptions, and that in itself is growth.”