Hala is an English teacher with a degree in English Literature from Damascus University. She volunteers in the Syrian community in London, translating and interpreting for newcomers to the UK. She loves reading and writing Arabic poetry.
Hi Hala. Tell me a little about your personal story and how you came to the UK.
I’m Syrian and I came to the UK in 2013. I’ve had refugee status since then. Obviously I have a very long story behind that! [Laughter] I have a Bachelors degree in English Literature from Damascus university and a Diploma in teacher training. I lived abroad teaching English for many years but I had to leave that country and I couldn’t go back to Syria.
In the end I was one of the lucky ones because I was able to get a Visa just a few months before I felt I had to leave. I was able to come to the UK quite easily but it was on my own; I had to wait 8 months before my husband and four boys were allowed to join me. For a while we thought they might have to go back to Syria, but in the end we were so fortunate that I was able to arrange for them to come here. I had Syrian friends who were able to help me – when you come here as a refugee you have nothing; but I was so lucky to have a wonderful lawyer who helped me to speed up the process.
We’ve now been here long enough to apply for indefinite leave to remain in a few months. I can’t believe it – time has flown! I feel really settled as I feel welcome here.
That is really wonderful to hear. So tell me more about how have you found people’s attitudes towards you in this country.
I feel that we are respected. We have been treated really well and everyone seems so nice. They are really eager to know about refugees. They’re interested to know my story and other people’s stories and how my sons and I have been able to adapt.
The UK has been so welcoming and I am truly thankful for that. And the boys have settled really well into school which is so different from what they had experienced before – I feel that in the UK everything is pushing you forward to learn. Maybe we are lucky and their school is particularly good, but that is certainly our experience.
That really is so good to hear.
Before you come here you have these ideas in your head that you are not welcome, that people are racist – but they are not! There are exceptions, but personally I have experienced very little bad feeling.
So I assume your children must be completely bilingual?
Yes. Not everything has been easy for them but we are so fortunate because of that. Lots of people who come here from Syria have no English and they face lots of problems. I do my best to help – there is a Facebook page for Syrian refugees. I can help them with things like sending in their papers correctly, getting appointments with a GP, applying for an Oyster card for their children and so on.
So how did you come to be a tutor with Chatterbox?
Last year a friend of mine introduced me to Chatterbox and it was a great opportunity for me to join the team. I wanted to do something – I love to teach, but with very young children I felt I couldn’t cope with a teaching role.
Chatterbox has been so perfect for me as a mother – it’s been like a miracle as everything about it was perfect for me. I get to do what I love – I love teaching – but also I have learned so much from my students about living here in the UK. I’ve also learned a lot about the education system, as well as what people in the UK think of refugees and Syrians in particular.
In the language practice sessions we spend an hour speaking and it’s teaching adults, so I get to hear people’s thoughts and feelings on all sorts of things. The exchange of ideas is really enjoyable – it’s all about talking, and I just love to talk! [We both laugh]
Tell me a little bit about your students.
My students come to me to learn spoken Arabic. Some are people who had learned Arabic a long time ago but don’t get the opportunity to speak it any more, so they want to practise it again. Others are students who are studying Arabic in university and need more practice with their conversation. I have one student who works with refugees and he wants to learn Arabic because he wants to be able to communicate more effectively with the people he helps.
Oh wow! Well you’re the perfect teacher for him, then!
[Laughs] Well, I hope so! I have also taught whole classes of school students in Wales, in Liverpool and in Chicago!
So do you think that when your children are older you might go into teaching?
Yes, it’s in my plan but maybe not for a few years. I am curious … what do you teach?
I teach Latin.
Yes, teaching a dead language is a bit different!
Ah yes. Well I have one obstacle before I can teach in that I need to ratify my degree. I would have to study for one year I think and maybe make some kind of payment, I am not sure. But yes, I would like to, I think. One day!