Maximpact Equips Job-Seeking Refugees With English Online

A Syrian refugee family, Maisaa and her two children Esraa and Yahya, at their new home in Armagh, Northern Ireland. “I am so grateful to the UK for providing us a home that is nice and safe for the children,” Maisaa said. “Soon I will start language classes and then I hope to find a job so I can be a good person and give back something to this community.” February 22, 2018 (Photo by Paul Wu courtesy UNHCR)

BELFAST, Northern Ireland, October 15, 2019 ( News) – Waleed, a Syrian refugee living in Northern Ireland, was a structural engineer and architect in his native land. After fleeing the deadly threats and upheaval of war, he suffered PSTD and social isolation, but through Maximpact’s live, online pre-entry English classes for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL), Waleed has made great progress in learning English and in social interaction.

To escape the deadly dangers of the Syrian war, Waleed fled to Cairo, Egypt, where he worked on the largest shopping complex in North Africa before being

Safe in Northern Ireland, Syrian brothers, who were structural engineers and architects in their native land, smile for the Maximpact camera. From left: Ciaran Fox, Ali, Waleed and Claire Mulholland, 2019 (Photo by Maximpact)

resettled to Enniskillen in Northern Ireland last December with his brother Ali, also a Syrian structural engineer and architect. Facing issues of isolation and limited access to suitable college classes, Waleed and Ali were happy to register for Maximpact’s live, online ESOL English classes.

Over the past few months Maximpact has worked closely with the Royal Society of Ulster Architects to facilitate introductions with Director Ciaran Fox, Clare Mulholland at Queens University, and a leading recruitment company so that Ali and Waleed can pursue potential employment opportunities.

Northern Ireland has committed to take in the most vulnerable Syrian refugees, and currently has just over 1,700 of a 2,000 commitment. This total figure is due to increase as the Stormont Executive has agreed to resettle more Syrians. Some, like Waleed and Ali, are highly literate in Arabic and skilled in their professions, but others cannot even draw the letters of the Arabic alphabet.

As Northern Ireland has agreed to resettle the most vulnerable of Syrians through the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (VPRS), many arrive with

Ahmad Alissa is a Syrian refugee now living in Belfast. Born in Aleppo, Alissa’s large family lived comfortably on a large olive farm and had a business producing materials for the construction industry. “Nobody is happy to leave their home. When I was living in a peaceful Syria, I never imagined I would be a refugee,” he says. “It’s a reminder that, in the wrong circumstances, anyone could end up as a refugee.” (Photo courtesy Oxfam)

very low levels of English and often lack or have poor literacy even in their first language.

Many come from rural farming areas in the northern and northwestern regions of Syria where olives and wheat are grown. They may have lived where education and schooling are nonexistent, or their education may have been disrupted due to civil war or unrest.

Pre-entry ESOL is the most basic of English language skills, taught in the period before a refugee enters the job market or enters higher-level English courses.

Maximpact says, “Breaking the language barrier is the most significant step towards becoming integrated into the society both socially and economically.”

Some Syrian refugees have been in the UK since 2016 but their level of English language skills is zero. They face many challenges; limited classes are offered where they live, or they may suffer from health issues or need to care for young children.

Maximpact helps overcome these obstacles to learning with a live, online pre-entry ESOL programme for Northern Ireland that serves refugees from Newry, Antrim, Downpatrick, Derry, Lisburn, Lurgan, Enniskillen and Belfast.

The pre-entry ESOL classes are delivered live online through an award-winning platform called Zoom. This method allows refugees to attend the English classes from anywhere, overcoming difficulties such as pregnancy and childcare, health challenges and disabilities, transportation costs, living in rural areas and long waiting lists for pre-entry ESOL college classes.

The online ESOL programme has many advantages for the refugee-learners. Funds for childcare and transportation are not needed, cutting expenses. People who cannot physically attend classes can also learn English. And as refugees advance in the programme, Maximpact helps those that are able to work find employment.

Maximpact applies traditional learning methods with new approaches, in order to create an adult-learning environment that is relevant and effective.

Syrian refugee participates in online English classes. (Photo courtesy British Council ESOL Nexus) Posted for media use

Maximpact provides the refugees with tablets, along with video instructions in Arabic on how to download and use Zoom. An Arabic-speaking translator helps to communicate the processes and assist whenever needed.

To equip refugees with English for their integration into the population of Northern Ireland, it is necessary to continuously offer all the different levels of classes, Maximpact has learned through experience. All ESOL levels need to be continuously offered throughout the year in order to ensure that people living in the UK and Northern Ireland can learn English.

Native speakers of languages with a non-Latin alphabet, such as Arabic, need teachers to learn the English language. The obstacles they face are the same as native English speakers would face if they started trying to learn unfamiliar Arabic characters on their own without a teacher.

Maximpact’s Employment, Education and Migrant Advisor in Northern Ireland, Caroline Kennedy, says, “We have two new beginner classes commencing tomorrow, October 8, which is a first for this level. Most are very simple people who have never used technology before, so, needless to say, its been an interesting experience with all the different cultures within the Syrian community.”

The Syrian refugee community in Northern Ireland is widely diverse, as can be seen from the Final Evaluation Report on ESOL online provision and social integration for the VPRS resettlement programme in the Maximpact Training Period February 19 through July 12, 2019.

Tarek with colleagues at his new job at SpecSavers in Belfast, Northern Ireland. 2019. (Photo courtesy Maximpact)

For example, Tarek owned an optical store back in Aleppo, Syria before he fled the war. He was accepted to Maximpact’s February 2019 Fast Track to English for Social Integration and Employment programme, which was funded by the Department for Education under the VPRS programme. Tarek’s English is strong enough to get into employment and Maximpact has helped him get a job at SpecSavers in Belfast.

“Maximpact helped me find employment and in my profession and thanks to the online English my wife who is pregnant and cannot go to college can learn English,” Tarek said.

“We are very happy with Tarek’s work, he is very compliant, committed and mixes very well with all members of staff. An excellent placement, Thank you Caroline Kennedy with Maximpact for approaching us and your committed follow-up to Tarek’s progress,” said Sinead Donnelly of Specsavers Victoria Square, Belfast.

Demand for the Maximpact ESOL programme is so great that Kennedy has been contacted by many refugees living in Northern Ireland and also by key workers who are tasked with supporting the refugees – to register for further programmes.

Here are some of those on the waiting list for the Maximpact ESOL online English courses:

A mother of four children who has lived in Northern Ireland for a year and a half was a primary school teacher in Syria. She has attended college and has some English but had to leave college due to travel expenses and difficulty in following the class.

A mother and daughter from Syria who both have disabilities.

Husband and wife, he an accountant in Syria, and she a Lisburn college attendee, need Maximpact online ESOL classes due to her vulnerable state of health and hospital appointments.

Another mother of four has been living in Lisburn for two years but speaks zero English. She needs Maximpact classes as she cannot get to college due to childcare needs.

A Syrian refugee couple have a child with severe health issues and can’t attend college on a regular basis. They have been living in Lisburn for two years with very little English.

First Some English, Then the Right Job

Maximpact pays special attention to the needs of refugees, taking the time to talk with and listen to the refugees to make sure they are ready to enter

Some Syrian woman are computer literate before they reach Northern Ireland. Here, Maha Mohammed leads a class on information and communication technology training at the Oasis Center for Resilience and Empowerment of Women and Girls operated by UN Women in the Azraq refugee camp in Jordan. October 15, 2018 (Photo by Christopher Herwig courtesy UN Women) Creative Commons license via Flickr

employment, and liaising with the employers at all times to make sure that the needs of both employer and employee are met.

“Our experience has shown that simply supplying any available job does not provide sustainable employment. That also includes placing people not according to their skillsets,” says Maximpact in a Final Evaluation Report of its most recent ESOL programme. “For example, one of the learners was continuously offered low-skill work in meat packing, whereas the person has qualified skillsets and wants to work in his sector.”

Through its work with the refugees, Maximpact has seen similar cases. Social benefits seem to trap refugees in the unemployment limbo due to fear.

Most of the refugees come from camps and other difficult living conditions, so having stability, a roof and food is crucial. Despite everyone’s best efforts to secure employment and opportunities for the Syrian refugees, some still remain stuck.

But many other Syrian refugees have brought high-level skills and university degrees from Syria and are eager to work in their own professions. Yet they face the challenges of having their skills and professional qualifications earned in Syria being recognized in the UK so that they can work in their chosen professions.

Talal has been in Northern Ireland since June 2016. When the war broke out, Talal had to flee from Syria to Turkey. He remained in Turkey for 11 months before being accepted onto the UK Resettlement Programme.

Back in Syria, Talal owned and operated a detergent manufacturing factory for 12 years. He employed 20 people and manufactured products such as: liquid soaps, steel soap, bleach, washing powder, carpet fresheners, hair removal cream, shampoo, floor polish and glass polish.

Talal is one of Maximpact’s Fast Track to Employment and Social Integration participants. In a short video, he tells of his work in Syria and of the challenges he has faced in social and job market integration in Northern Ireland.

“I have a degree and 11 years of working experience in the industry and in many ways I am the right man in the wrong place,” says Talal. “I want to take advantage of the opportunities in this country, [but] all I am offered is work in the meat factory of Moy Park.”

“All I am offered is work at the meat factory… I would like to work in my profession. My experiences with the various employment agencies / Jobs and Benefits offices has been less than positive, they couldn’t even help me with a CV. I approached my friends for help and latterly Maximpact included CV writing in their Online English.”

“I would even work in a voluntary capacity just to get my foot in the door, as I have much to offer to the industry,” says Talal. “I have spent the past 2.5 years developing my English language skills, since February have enrolled in the Maximpact Online English programme which finishes in July 2019. I feel that I am at a point where I am confident to work back in the pharmaceutical and chemicals industry.”

Currently, Maximpact is funded by the UK government for its ESOL programme for 40+ refugees and would like to provide access to learning to more people.

The end goal of the Maximpact online ESOL programme is to increase the number of refugees entering employment in Northern Ireland and further develop the programme throughout the rest of the UK.

Recent internal research carried out by the Home Office shows that only 10 percent of the refugees are employed in the UK. There are around 120,000 refugees in the UK, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the majority from Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Research shows that refugees wait on average one year, and in some regions two to three years, for government-funded English classes, according to a January 2017 article in “The Independent” newspaper. Colleges struggle to meet the demand due to government spending cuts, and in some rural areas there is no or little provision of government-funded classes, especially for the lower levels of English.

Although a 2017 Parliamentary Integration Report concluded that speaking English was “the key to full participation in our society and economy” and a “prerequisite for meaningful engagement with most British people,” research from Refugee Action shows that the UK Government’s Skills Funding Agency slashed ESOL funding by more than 50 percent betwwen 2008 and 2015.

Chuka Umunna MP, Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Social Integration, wrote in his Foreword to the Integration Report, “So the task before us now is to design and deliver a meaningful integration programme which will work for all parts of the UK – an immigration policy which will enable Britons of all backgrounds to both celebrate and look beyond our differences.”

When more funding becomes available, Maximpact is ready to provide live, online ESOL classes to enable refugees living anywhere in the UK so they can enter employment and restart their lives on a solid financial and social basis.

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