July 2018

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THE TESOL-COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT TEAM with the Faculty of Humanities and Education, Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics and St Augustine Evangelical Bible Church. Back Row (from left): Jerry Martin, Bicultural Interpreter, English-Spanish, SAEBC; Joe Katerson, Board of SAEBC; Pastor Owen Boyce, Hagaion Ministries International; Dr Martin Hughes, Board of SAEBC, Darren Beckles, Final Year-Civil Engineering Student, UWI, St Augustine. Front Row (from left): Dr Jo-anne Bridge, Lecturer Mechanical Engineering/Board of SAEBC; Jeanne-Alexie Elias, Ministry of Education; Anna Levi, Postgraduate Student in Creative Writing; Dr Renée Figuera, Coordinator TESOL Programmes and U, We and Refugees, Project Team Leader; Pastor Francis Warner, SAEBC Team Leader; Sahodra-Ann Mangaroo, Early Childhood Educator; Michelle Timothy-Ellis; Adjunct Lecturer, TESOL, UWI, St Augustine; Jeleana Griffith, MA student, TESOL, University of the West Indies/SAEBC.

A unique eight-week long English language course for speakers of other languages began in June, and will continue this month, to help some refugees and asylum-seekers in Trinidad learn essential English language survival skills. The project is teaching about 60 students. This is the second year that it is being done, with some generous support from community volunteers, a few local businesses and teachers who all wish to lend a helping hand to a compassionate cause.

The project began last year as a small UWI collaborative outreach project to help refugees struggling to survive in T&T as well as to provide a good learning experience for UWI TESOL Diploma students. This year the programme continues with the addition of a new faith-based partner in a Curepe-based church, the St Augustine Evangelical Bible Church, which is generously providing some resources.

On June 4, an evening workshop at the church brought some community and academic stakeholders together to hear about the project, called “The Urban Refugee in Come-Unity Spaces.” With the atmosphere of a town meeting, participants included Dr Nicole Roberts, Head of the UWI Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics, and immigration consultant Dr Jehad Qudourah, who shared anecdotes highlighting how refugees are treated within an immigration system that does not yet cater to their situation. There is a 2014 policy that has not yet been implemented. Also present were Dr Cheryl-Ann Boodram, UWI lecturer in Social Work, who spoke about the need for empowering marginalized, vulnerable refugees to help them rebuild their lives; and Michelle Timothy Ellis, a UWI Adjunct Lecturer in the TESOL Programme, who spoke about the specially designed intensive English classes developed with real-world tasks in mind, to develop immediate and practical English skills for literacy, living and future learning.

Shinelle Hills, urban planner and architect, pointed the audience’s attention to the potential of green spaces that are already open to the public, as a pragmatic way of responding and helping refugees and migrants recover their sense of cultural identity, integration and sense of place, despite an absent legal framework for their integration in Trinidad and Tobago.

UWI Today spoke with UWI Linguistics lecturer and the Coordinator of the TESOL Programme, Dr Renee Figuera, to find out more about “The Urban Refugee in Come-Unity Spaces” project, which was her brainchild.

“The teachers are actually doing a teaching practicum of 48 hours over eight Saturdays. It is the final ‘hands-on’ practical course in a series of more academic postgraduate courses to prepare them to teach English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL). The practicum experience is the culminating course in a one-year Diploma in TESOL. The practicum is superimposed on part of a project. We only accept documented migrants. This means they must have a UNHCR Asylum-Seeker Certificate or Refugee Certificate. Their ages range from children to older adults, and most are Spanish speakers. Their ages have ranged from 18 months to 59 years old – children may come along with their parents. Last year, 57 migrants graduated from the programme, and this year, we expect about the same – about 60.”

Dr Figuera says the migrants are a mix of refugees and asylum seekers, many of whom have well-founded fears of threats to their safety in their own countries. They are here not by choice, but through desperate circumstances beyond their control. Their English-language speaking levels are often nonexistent – or “zero to basico,” as Dr Figuera says.

The TESOL department this year is funding one master teacher’s services for supervising the work of the pre-service teachers who are conducting teaching on behalf of the refugees and asylum-seekers. Nine other people, all graduates from the UWI TESOL Diploma programme, are also volunteering their services free. And some local business sponsors have stepped up to help in providing meals and other needs. Sponsors this year include the Glorious Bodies Glorious Minds health and beauty spa, Sacha Cosmetics, Xtra Foods grocery store, Bryden PI Ltd, Kiss Baking Company Ltd, and Blue Waters Products Ltd. Massy Stores have also provided help.

Dr Figuera said several of the TESOL Diploma students subsequently decide to upgrade to a Masters in TESOL after participation in the outreach programme. UWI students also gain ideas for new lines of research, such as one UWI student who is doing a project exploring how refugees or forced migrants learn English in an informal context. Learning a second language in a conventional classroom setting is a very different process from learning English in outside informal settings in the context of survival in a strange land and culture.

The unique partnership with a church arose precisely because of the church’s existing commitment to social welfare and providing outreach community services in a non-judgmental, caring way. Several UWI lecturers also attend the church, whose congregation is drawn from all social classes, ethnicities and backgrounds.

Dr Figuera says that church volunteers are very interested in doing a good job and are open-minded and tolerant; they often ask her: “What can we do to improve?” Congregation members have given help in translation and interpretation services, and are keen about linking their help to the English language services outreach Practicum course in useful ways that marry with their own desire for helping in social welfare projects.

The actual English classes emphasize survival issues, such as how to fill forms, how to speak to access any social services that might be available, and developing basic skills in active listening, speaking, and understanding English. Classes can involve role-playing, task-based assignments, drills in vocabulary and pronunciation, and assignments to develop reading and writing skills. How to learn English in a creole-speaking island is also a part of the course, because learning to understand and negotiate different T&T language codes and registers can be very tricky for newcomers.

Says Dr Figuera, “The TESOL summer programme for refugees and asylum seekers is about empowerment, and about creating a bridge to survival through language skills. And we are happy to extend the UWI brand out into the community.”

For more information on UWI TESOL courses and programmes, please see:
UWI TESOL Diploma web page: https://sta.uwi.edu/fhe/dmll/DipTESOL.asp, or contact: Dr Renée Figuera, UWI TESOL Coordinator: (868) 645-3232, Ext. 83493