Language is the greatest barrier to employment for many refugees. That is why Natalie Lesbirel, an executive assistant at Deloitte in Manchester, recently volunteered to sit down and talk to refugee women as part of an English conversation clubs initiative - just one way in which Deloitte is helping to change lives as part of One Million Futures.
Talking can change lives. It seems such a simple thing. To spend an hour with someone, once a week. However, it can have a profound impact, as I discovered when I volunteered to talk to refugee women at the English Conversation Club.
Our lives are all so busy that’s it easy to think there’s nothing we can do help those who have been forced to flee their homes - especially when the refugee crisis is sometimes presented and imagined as happening so far from home. Yet over tea and biscuits (well, this is Britain), I was lucky enough to be able to make a difference to a group of women who desperately want to build new lives and rebuild careers.
According to the recent report, “Talent Displaced: the economic lives of Syrian refugees in Europe” 84 per cent of refugees surveyed reported that speaking the local language is their greatest barrier to accessing employment. Yet, it quickly became clear that many of the women we talked to rarely spoke to anyone outside of their immediate family or friends, so they had very few opportunities to practice their English. As we talked about our families, swapped recipes and discussed our plans for the future, it struck me that these women were very like us. They had been to university, worked hard their whole lives, had families to care for – but they had been through so many things we will never be able to comprehend.
This was not lost on any of us. It was humbling to hear that in their home countries they had been happy, flourishing and successful. All they wanted now was a chance to improve their English, so that they could look for work or resume their careers here in the UK, and contribute to their new communities.
That is why I am so glad the Deloitte Manchester office decided to pilot the conversation club programme. Many of us had read the harrowing stories of refugees escaping from war-torn countries, and wondered what we could do to help. So it was no surprise that we received lots of volunteer offers – with 30 of us helping around 50 refugee women over three one-hour sessions. The initiative was clearly something that we were all really passionate about.
The feedback has been so positive, Deloitte is now planning to continue the programme which was delivered in partnership with Caritas Diocese of Salford. In fact, it was the “Talent Displaced” report which sparked the partnership with Caritas International, which offers disaster and displacement relief in around 160 countries. The report, in collaboration with Oxford University’s Refugee Studies Centre, is part of a recently completed cross-border initiative focused on realising the economic potential of refugees across Europe through education, employment and entrepreneurship opportunities.
As for Deloitte in Manchester, well, the aim is to reach out to even more refugees and engage even more volunteers, this time to include both men and women in our conversation clubs and volunteer pool. I will be one of them. Talking changes lives and I plan to keep on talking.