Volunteering with N.E.S.T: Teaching English to refugees and asylum seekers

This week I decided to go along to a N.E.S.T volunteering session, where I got the opportunity to teach English to refugees in Newcastle. Read on to find out more about how this amazing project is helping refugees and asylum seekers to improve their communication skills, break down social barriers and enhance their employability…

What is N.E.S.T?

North East Solidarity and Teaching – also known as N.E.S.T – is a student-run volunteering project at Newcastle University that is managed by NUSU Go Volunteer. It offers free English lessons to the refugee community in the region, as well as a range of other activities, such as arts and crafts, designed to help refugees and asylum seekers improve their English skills.

Established in 2016, the project began with eight students travelling to Springwell in Gateshead every Saturday to teach English to one family of Syrian refugees. After gaining interest from other refugees, the project has since moved onto the Newcastle University campus and expanded to become Go Volunteer’s largest project.

Around 400 students have volunteered with N.E.S.T in the two years it has been running, and N.E.S.T now supports around 250 refugees with the aim to educate and empower the refugee and asylum seeker community in the North East.

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INTERNATIONAL: the majority of N.E.S.T learners are from Syria and Sudan

The learners who come to the N.E.S.T sessions attend for a variety of different reasons; for a lot of people it is their only chance to learn English. While some learners have secured a place at college, others can’t afford the transport to college or can’t attend because they have children to look after.

The N.E.S.T volunteers are able to provide a safe space where refugees and asylum seekers can have the confidence to come and learn English. They also provide a nursery where children can play, learn, interact, and get help with their homework while their parents have English lessons.

But N.E.S.T is about more than just improving language skills. Project Manager Bridget, who has been involved in N.E.S.T since day one, said:

“For a lot of people, we’re a good place for them to start learning English. I think when you’re in a different country, and you don’t know anybody and you don’t know the culture, being able to speak some of the language is really key to being able to integrate into the community.

“For other people, we’re a safe space and a social hub where they can come and see people, get to know people that they can relate to, and make friends.

“It’s about learning English and getting practical support, but also about emotionally and socially building up some sort of base so that people can start to rebuild their lives here.

“We often talk about N.E.S.T being a family – that’s between both the learners and the volunteers. It’s nice to be able to bring people together in an environment where everybody supports each other.”

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SETTING UP: N.E.S.T run a nursery where children can play and get help with their homework while their parents learn

Being involved in N.E.S.T is also hugely rewarding for the student volunteers.

Not only does it give you the opportunity to learn valuable new skills and develop your teaching ability, but it allows you to give back to the community and make a real difference to the lives of refugees who have made Newcastle their home.

As Ala’a, another Project Manager, explained, volunteers really do benefit from getting involved in the project:

“Being part of the project helps us to feel less helpless about everything that’s happening in the world. People do talk about how a lot of their perspectives have changed and a lot of stereotypes have been broken down just because they’ve had a chance to talk to people.

“It also looks great on CVs. We’ve had several students that went on to do teacher training who got job interviews because of the work that they do here.

“I think that it’s a win-win situation for students that come along; it feels good but it’s also doing good.”

My Experience

I decided to volunteer at one the Saturday sessions, which last for two hours and are held in the Hadrian Building on campus.

The day began with all the volunteers coming together for a meeting to establish everyone’s roles. Volunteers were split across the nursery, one-on-one teaching stations, a beginner’s class, a conversation class and a grammar class.

I decided to volunteer to teach one-on-one, which at first I was a little bit nervous about because I had never done anything like this before. It turns out I had nothing to worry about as I had a more experienced volunteer with me for help and guidance, and the project leaders were more than happy to answer any queries I had.

The learner I was teaching wanted help with specific aspects of English grammar, so we went through lots of activities and examples together using the textbooks provided.

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READY TO LEARN: N.E.S.T have a selection of textbooks that volunteers can use to aid teaching

Midway through the session, everyone took a break for 20 minutes to have some refreshments and chat to other volunteers and learners. The whole atmosphere was really warm and welcoming, and it was great to see so many people eager and excited to learn English.

Before I knew it, the session was over, and it was time to pack everything away and then have a quick volunteer debrief to discuss what everyone got up to in each of the different classes.

Overall, volunteering at N.E.S.T was definitely one of the most rewarding volunteering experiences I’ve had so far. The work of the volunteers at N.E.S.T is so important, and truly makes you feel as though you are a part of something bigger.

I would definitely recommend it to anyone with a passion for teaching who would like to meet new people, learn new skills and make a real difference to people’s lives.

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TAKING THE FIRST STEP: for many of the learners at N.E.S.T, these sessions are their only chance to learn English

How can I get involved?

If you are interested in getting involved in this amazing project, all you have to do is visit the N.E.S.T website or email the team at n.e.s.t@outlook.com

That’s it for this week’s blog post – I hope you enjoyed reading about my first time volunteering at N.E.S.T!

Stay tuned to find out what volunteering activity I get up to next week! Until then you can stay up to date with what I’m doing by following me on Twitter and Instagram.

See you next week!

– Flo🌱

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