Doncaster asylum seeker project opens minds of teachers and pupils

Reverend David Stevens and Louise O'Brien at Doncaster Minister
Reverend David Stevens and Louise O'Brien at Doncaster Minister
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It was a world away from Doncaster where Louise O’Brien had a great idea to teach asylum seekers some vital skills.

Miss O’Brien was volunteering in the Greek islands in 2015 when she first had the idea to form the Minster English Project.

The project has just passed its first anniversary, and it’s been kicking some vital goals, according to Miss O’Brien.

Three groups teach the students to read at the St George’s Minster, Doncaster, and in the adjacent St George House, every Wednesday.

Miss O’Brien said the group was helping some of society’s most vulnerable members.

The asylum seekers hail from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan and Albania, among other places.

“It tends to be where the wars are,” Miss O’Brien said, referring to the countries where the refugees hail from.

A simple idea got the project going. Miss O’Brien was dealing with hundreds of refugees every day in Greece.

“It was before the borders were closed,” she said.

She was thinking hard about ways to help.

“I said ‘what are we doing about this?’,” she said.

“Shouldn’t we be doing something to help?”

Miss O’Brien looked to another Doncaster organisation for inspiration.

“I was inspired by the Doncaster Conversation Club,” Miss O’Brien said.

That club provides support and advice for the supported asylum seekers in Doncaster.

“They have been utterly inspiring,” Miss O’Brien said.

“They help us out all the time, and we help them out.”

The reading group is entirely self-funded, and the volunteers are mostly retired teachers.

“And that is amazing,” Miss O’Brien, 49, said.

About 20 volunteers are on the books.

They help some of the students pick up the language quickly, but some have to start at the most basic level.

“We start, literally, at A-B-C,” Miss O’Brien said.

Some of the students have the advantage of learning while on their travels from one country to another.

Some have had years to work on their communication, Miss O’Brien said.

“Lots of people have learnt while on foot,” she said.

There are benefits for both refugees and the volunteers who help them learn.

“Some people say it’s changed their world,” Miss O’Brien said.

She judges success by how many of the students return for more sessions.

“The fact that people keep coming back is amazing,” Miss O’Brien said.

Reverend David Stevens said the program was open to anyone interested in improving their English.

Like Miss O’Brien, he is thrilled with how it’s going.

“We’re delighted as a minster church to see the building being used to make such a difference to people’s lives,” he said.

Former teacher Kath Brooks has had her horizons expanded by being part of the program.

Mrs Brooks, 65, taught at Intake’s Plover Primary School, working with children as young as four.

She jumped at the chance to transfer her skills to teaching adults.

"I had never done any work with adults," she said.

“I knew I’d be able to teach anyone how to read or write. I’ve done it all my life.”

The Temple Gardens, Cantley resident said the project had evolved from 'just having a chat' with the potential students to teaching them.

Mrs Brooks has made some strong connections with the people she is teaching.

One woman who comes to the Minster hails from Eritrea, near Ethiopia. She has children with her in Doncaster.

Mrs Brooks said she clicked with another mother, and could 'identify with her straight away'.

"You would do anything to give your kids a better life," she said.

"You get to know the asylum seekers, and put a face and a name to the story.

Working with the project, and Miss O'Brien, had opened Mrs Brooks' eyes to global affairs, she said.

"Louise is such an inspirational person," she said.

"She has given me a new perspective on the world."

She admitted her previous knowledge of that part of Africa came from more than 30 years ago, watching 1985's Live Aid concerts.

The concerts at Wembley Stadium and Philadelphia, USA, featured U2, Queen, David Bowie and Paul McCartney, and others.

Organised by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure, event raised money for Ethiopia, Eritrea and other countries of the region.

She was pleased to be involved with the project.

"It's really part of my week now," Mrs Brooks said.

Being part of the project Life, Mrs Brooks said, was giving her almost as much satisfaction as the asylum seekers themselves.

It is all about building knowledge.

"I believe you should keep learning for the rest of your life," she said.