Building refugees’ conversation and confidence

31 May 2010

The student winners of UCL Advances’ inaugural Social Enterprise Project of the Year award lead the UCL Refugee Project.

Noor Alyassin (UCL Biochemical Engineering) and Yasmin Grewal (UCL Geography) explain the difference they have made by helping refugees build conversation skills and confidence through the Refugee Advice and Support Centre (RASC).


“The Refugee Project aims to help integrate those who are struggling with adapting to life in the UK and help improve their language skills. The clients who we work with are usually from Ethiopian, Somalian, Eritrean, and Afghani origins and come with little knowledge of the UK and its cultures.

UCL Refugee Project at work

We visit the Refugee Advice and Support Centre (RASC) once a week with a group of enthusiastic volunteers, and host activities which aim to encourage conversation and to build vocabulary as well as confidence.  

Once relationships have become stronger between the volunteers and the RASC members, we organise and fund educational and social trips around London, such as visits to museums, a guided boat trip across the Thames, or trips to tourist attractions such as the London Eye.

These aim to help the RASC members learn about the culture of London and to enable integration. As a group we have also organised a variety of workshops ­– for example, we became aware that some of the members have difficulty using the Underground, so during the following session we went through the tube map and practised going to different destinations.

The project runs every week during term for approximately three hours. We ask for a regular commitment from volunteers as this helps build better relationships with the service users. However, as we volunteer in a group, this also gives us a degree of flexibility – for example, if a student cannot attend one week because they are ill, this doesn’t prevent activities occurring.

We encountered two main problems: that discussion was difficult due to the varying levels of English spoken by the RASC members and also being able to find activities aimed at the appropriate educational level. When we had problem-solving activities, the members and volunteers were split up into smaller groups according to their English levels, thereby ensuring everyone participated and were not left out because of lack of understanding or the speed in which the session was being held. 

One of the unique aspects of our project is its ability to address so many different needs amongst the members of RASC. For example, some of them come in because they have no one to practise their English with due to the environment they live in and therefore have difficulty improving, while others know very little English and need to be taught sentences that will help them navigate their way around London and initiate conversations with people. Others again feel isolated and homesick, so having a group of familiar people to be a part of every week gives them a sense of belonging; and some they are shy and reluctant to speak to people, so the activities allow them to grow in confidence.

We provide an environment that is relaxed, fun, and open for all. It includes people of all ages and backgrounds, coming together and becoming a family, teaching through personal experiences and learning from what others can offer. We measure the impact we are having by how much the members’ English and confidence has improved and by their attendance.

UCL Refugee Project volunteers with new-found friends

This year we are proud of the difference we’ve made. Members who have attended the sessions with little English language and even less confidence have left with the ability to have conversations in English and understand a great deal more. Most importantly they are now confident enough to be themselves, stand up in front of large groups of people and talk in English on a topic of importance to them.

The final photo of our final session is of every single member smiling, laughing and having fun; it truly is a captivating memory. Seeing the small amount of happiness our project has brought to so many people that have had very traumatic lives is the most fulfilling part.

The project is also exceptional in that it provides opportunities for the RASC members to teach UCL students about their own cultures; it is a two-way process. For example, a visit to a museum can give them opportunities to talk about objects from their own countries.

We’re also proud of how we’ve overcome various organisational challenges. We have always felt that the concept behind the Refugee Project is a sound one – providing flexibility to respond to client needs and to fit in with the students’ time availability.

Last year, we worked with another refugee organisation – Westminster Befriend A Family (WBAF) – but because of their own organisational requirements and timelines, it took a long time to get the project started, reducing our ability to make an impact. We realised that WBAF – through no fault of their own – wasn’t well suited to a student-led approach. However, we refused to give up, and did organise two successful one-off events for WBAF: a Christmas Party for 100 low-income families in Westminster, amongst which were many refugee families, and a trip to London Aquarium for 10 families.

We took our idea to RASC this year (with whom the project has worked in the past), and re-establishing our links with them has proven to be a great success. We didn't want to leave Westminster Befriend A Family in the lurch though, and fostered links between them and UCL’s Volunteering Services Unit, who now recruit individual volunteers for them through their brokerage service.”

Image 1: UCL Refugee Project leaders Yasmin Grewal (second from left) and Noor Alyassin (far right) at the London Eye with Refugee Advice and Support Centre members

Image 2: UCL Refugee Project volunteers Rebecca Miles (third from left), Petra Lanza (fifth from left), Noor Alyassin (eighth from left) and Yasmin Grewal (next to Noor) with refugees aged seven to mid-forties from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Sudan


UCL context

UCL's Volunteering Services Unit helps students and staff make the most of volunteering opportunities within the local community.

At UCL, we believe that a university can and should aim to shape students’ personal and social development, as well as encourage their intellectual growth. This is what we mean when we talk of a UCL ‘education for global citizenship’: the term encapsulates all that we do at UCL to enable our students to respond to the intellectual, social and personal challenges that they will encounter throughout their future lives and careers.

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