In 2015, thousands of unaccompanied child refugees arrived in Britain from Europe and the Middle East after dangerous, lonely and frightening journeys.
One of the most important hurdles they will face in their new country is mastery of the English language. Without being able to speak and understand, they will find it harder to feel at home. The things that make them different – their past, their experiences of war, the way they look – will seem greater, more insurmountable, if they can’t communicate with their new foster parents, siblings, classmates.
Save the Children and Pearson have teamed up to provide graded readers, dictionaries, thesauruses and language activators to child refugees who now face the challenge of learning English in the next few years. There’s something special about these books, delivered in packs of three titles to the kids: they contain welcome messages, thousands of them, from British people all over the country. The Send a Message campaign allows anybody to write a short message to a child refugee.
I spent a day with Save the Children’s team, sticking these messages into readers and dictionaries. The great stacks of message labels were extraordinary – thousands of little welcome mats, reassuring refugees that they will be safe, that they’re welcome, that they can do whatever they want to in a country like the UK.
As the refugee crisis drags on and the harrowing stories keep coming, wave upon wave, it’s easy to forget the everyday kindnesses, the support and sympathy that exists in thousands of homes around the UK. Reading some of these messages, I was very moved. Some of them were inspirational; expressions of love and encouragement. Some were practical: tips for staying warm in cold weather, explanations of British idioms. I think my favourites were from former refugees or children of refugees who have made homes in the UK. There was an immediacy and an empathy to these; they spoke directly to the unknown child, reminding them that their lives could be good again.
I’m an immigrant to the UK myself, albeit under very different circumstances, and my day sticking message labels made me even fonder of my adopted country. Particularly at Christmas, it’s good to be reminded that these young arrivals have the authors of every message on their side as they begin or continue to learn English and rebuild their lives in the UK.
To write a message or donate to Save the Children, visit www.savethechildren.org.uk.