Skip to main content
A Magazine for Sheffield

SAVTE: Changing Lives, an Hour a Week

154 1540472646

' after I got to the hospital, I thought, 'This is my only chance.' I got out of the bed and went and hid in a cupboard. I think I was there for three days."

I was sitting on Tariq's settee, listening to his account of how he managed to escape and, in the process, turn himself from a political prisoner into my student.

It was immediately obvious that in his short life Tariq had seen and experienced things I could only imagine. Three months earlier, I would have been lost, grappling for a way to make sense of what I was hearing and struggling to do what I was supposed to do, to teach Tariq some English.

Working with Tariq has taught me a lot and challenged some of my previously-held beliefs. 'Drinking is terrible,' he once said to me. As someone who is partial to a glass of red wine in the evening, it was very easy to put this down to religious dogma, but as I started to realise that this position was informed not by theology but by accurate observation of his neighbours, it became harder to dismiss out of hand. His life experience is different to mine and that didn't stop when he was granted asylum. Sheffield has a good record of welcoming asylum seekers, but inevitably they tend to be housed alongside many struggling Sheffielders and this informs their view of British society - that, and watching Jeremy Kyle.

We have laughed about the peculiarities of English. Understanding how we use metaphor and slang, and when and where it might be appropriate, took time but was great fun. For example, explaining when an apology was actually an accusation caused great hilarity. 'I'm sorry, I didn't catch that' might sound like an apology when you are talking on the phone, I said, but it tends to be more effective than 'stop mumbling'.


I have also learned how needlessly complex life in the UK can be. I've seen the four-paragraph letter from the NHS, which essentially just says 'ring us to make an appointment', and the letter from the Council Planning Department, which talks about parking 'adjacent to your property', when it could so easily say 'near your house'. All of these things are probably just as challenging for some English people as they are for Tariq.

For me, it was the terrible news headlines about the 'migrant crisis' that convinced me that I had to 'do something'. But what can you do in Sheffield, thousands of miles away from such obvious misery? A quick search led me to SAVTE (Sheffield Association for the Voluntary Teaching of English), a surprisingly low-profile organisation teaching English to refugees and other new arrivals to the city. 'Simple, I can do this,' I thought. I was right, I could do it. But I was also wrong, because it isn't always simple. For example, how do you teach someone how to read English when they have never learned to read in their own language?

Fortunately, SAVTE have thought this through. Before a volunteer gets to meet their first student, they are supported through an intensive training programme which builds your understanding and confidence in your ability to make a difference. It's not about sitting and listening. It's about getting involved.

Once you get to meet a student, you are ready for the challenge. After an hour talking about modes of transport and how he came to be in Sheffield, Tariq and I agreed a time to meet the following week and talk further. I left his flat with a new understanding of just how lucky we are to live in Sheffield.

SAVTE run free courses throughout the year to train volunteers to teach English to people in their homes or in small community-based conversation groups. The next course takes place in January 2019.

Andrew Birch

Next article in issue 128

More News & Views

More News & Views