Reading based naturalist and bicycle kitchen pioneer Adrian Lawson makes an unlikely Professor Higgins, but for the last three years he has been helping refugees learn to speak English at the Reading Refugee Support Group. We met up for a relaxing carafe of loose leaf tea in the smart C.U.P. café at St. Mary’s Butts for a chat about his voluntary work.
[Matthew] How did you come to do this work?
[Adrian] It started after the Syrian crisis escalated; I saw something in the local paper about some chap who was collecting for Calais and Dunkirk. There were people collecting donations and storing them in their homes. I was holder of the lease at Jacksons with the bike kitchen at the time and we had lots of spare space. Some like-minded people got together to manage donations and send them out to the camps and it just grew from there. This started a process where we had a third of the ground floor full of stuff, and people handling and sorting it all then taking it out to the camps. This really inspired me.
About the same time, the bike kitchen agreed to provide any refugee arriving locally with a bike and support to keep it going, so long as they came in and did it up themselves (with a bit of help from our volunteers), so we had a fairly steady flow of people coming through the doors, although in reality it was a pitifully small number when you see how big the problem is. Some of them became volunteers themselves and started a virtuous circle helping other refugees when they needed a bike. Sadly, now that has all ended.
About the same time the Reading Refugee Support Group at RISC wanted someone to help teach refugees conversational English, and I thought I would be able to help out there too. I go to two drop-ins a week for conversation and writing, and the occasional extra session with people who need help with something.
Had you done any teaching before?
Not really; I have shown people how to mend punctures on bikes, but that was about it. I turned up on the first day without pen or paper or anything and was introduced to three Syrians and one Sudanese lady. I didn’t have any idea what to do. It was a steep learning curve! One man I get to work with knows more about the structure of English grammar than I did despite him hardly speaking the language.
I have tried to learn their languages and I seem to have only picked up about eight words in three years.
Have they experienced any hostility in Reading?
I don’t know for sure. When we first started taking donations at Jackson’s there were threats to people organising the collections and we feared they might target us but thankfully, the keyboard warriors don’t get out much.
We were going to keep our work quiet but we were much more up front about it, and very proud of our stance. From what I hear there is the odd incident but it’s rare and the people of Reading have been very generous. None of the people I have met in three years have reported anything nasty. The people of Reading are to them immensely friendly.
I think some of the authorities could pull their weight a bit more, and some of the Home Office communication is pretty brutal!
Are any simply economic migrants?
What, fleeing poverty and famine? I don’t care really; they are humans, here, with hopes and dreams, but facing huge challenges. I don’t want to question their reasons for coming here.
One true solely economic migrant is me; I couldn’t afford to live in London, and after a few years travelling, came to Reading for the work and housing. ‘Economic migrant’ has become a pejorative term but aren’t we economic migrants when we live and or work away from where we were born?
Are any of them showing signs of trauma or stress?
Yes, some have gone through some very grim experiences which you only glimpse now and again. Sometimes people break down when they talk about their past. Some of the stories are pretty harrowing.
One child had a look of abject terror in his eyes when he heard any other child cry – it was fairly obvious he had been witness to something horrific. Many of them have trekked across deserts, been in boats capsizing in the Mediterranean, been in custody of the Syrian police, all sorts of dreadful things.
What sort of things do you show them?
We try talk about relevant and useful stuff, food sport, culture, travel, Sometimes helping with forms and registrations and other situations they may come across. Their thirst for knowledge and learning is immense, as are the problems they face with everyday living.
Are you doing this out of any Christian or other belief or humanism?
It’s certainly not religious and I’m not sure I can answer that succinctly. I used to love travel but I don’t much anymore for various reasons. When I spend time with them I’m meeting new people, which is one reason why I used a travel a bit.
I went to help a man with a form the other day at his home. I stayed for dinner with the whole family and it felt like I was on holiday. What I expected to take an hour or so took six wonderfully entertaining hours.
How can you measure your success?
It’s not something I need to measure; it’s just something I love doing. I often bump into people who have been to the lessons in town, and seeing them happy and hearing them speak a bit of English is reward enough. What’s really nice is these people have become my friends. The really difficult thing has been learning their language myself.
What particularly British things does your English class most enjoy?
One thing they all have in common is they all absolutely love fish ‘n’ chips.
I love passing on our cultural heritage and that includes the heritage we have absorbed from around the world too. We also enjoy one another’s company, and sharing jokes and just socialising.
We all went to Dinton Pastures a while back for a picnic and to feed the ducks; a simple day out, but a huge pleasure, for me at least as much as them.
I picked up a new family from the airport recently; they really were shy and spoke no English and were very withdrawn. Yesterday I gave the dad of the family a bike and he rode around the car park laughing like a carefree child – such a good positive thing for mental wellbeing, mobility and exercise. The people of Reading have donated some great bikes in generally very good nick for this purpose.