Today’s post comes from Fotini Mitsou, an English teacher who has been working on the Greek Island of Lesvos since 2012. She teaches classes to refugees through the Mosaik Centre, located in the centre of the city of Mytilene. Mosaik was founded in July 2016 in the aftermath of the EU - Turkey agreement and the consequent great number of refugees trapped on the island. Fotini was involved in the programme of events The Open University organised back in June in support of Refugee Week, including the panel discussion: Welcome to the Prison Island (Lesbos): immobilisation, solidarity, resistance.
For the last 2 years I have been working as an English language teacher in Mosaik support center in Lesvos. Over this time, I have had the opportunity to meet hundreds of students. The daily interaction with them has raised a number of questions relating to their current predicament and learning experience: what is it that they actually get from their English or Greek language courses? What is their motivation to keep coming to their lesson despite the hardships they face daily? What is it that drives them to commit? And of course, a crucial reflexive question - why do I find this teaching experience so fulfilling?
I posed these questions to my students and here I relate some of their responses. A key benefit for many is that through learning English they get the opportunity to communicate with other people in a different language other than their own. It is incredibly helpful for practical reasons, such as buying sim cards, everyday goods and provisions, supporting them to deal with bureaucratic processes: getting a tax number and social security. Secondly, there are longer-term outcomes in that learning English is creating new possibilities for a better future. A person who can communicate in a language other than her/his own increases the chances of getting a job in the countries they are arriving, where their first language may not be widely spoken. In addition, developing new language skills allows the students to share their problems, their wishes, their needs and their fears with those who may be in a position to help. Finally, coming to Mosaik, the English lessons give them the opportunity to stay away from Moria Camp on Lesvos where conditions are horrible. In Mosaik, with its friendly, relaxing and structured environment ,they get more chances to do productive activities like the English classes, while their asylum application is pending.
The pure joy I see written all over their faces every time they are able to ask for something in English or Greek, even the simplest of things, is so obvious that it shows me what a powerful tool language can be. That joy of communicating in a different language also drives home for me that it gives something beyond just the satisfaction of practical needs. It is a reminder of something personal, something that I had felt in my past and thankfully still feel in the present. Accomplishment! The ability to do something by yourself for the first time and get better at it - that is reason for sheer joy. Through the process of learning you can get a sense of empowerment that lies beneath and the immediate, positive result to your psychological welfare. When we were toddlers and took our first steps on our own or made sounds that seemed to have an effect on others, we experienced it too. Every time we manage to get our message across successfully we feel it again. And not for selfish reasons of dominance or mere survival. When we find ourselves able to spell a word in a new language we feel stronger, we feel active, we feel that we have some control over our chaotic world that surrounds us. With every word we can articulate our inner thoughts in a new way adapted to our new condition. We acquire a new sense of personal worth.
Learning a new language is, for many of my students, the first endeavour to be included – an attempt to try to fit into and adapt to their situation. In so doing, they are showing a willingness to become part of their environment; using language as a tool, not only to satisfy their immediate needs, but for the inner universal desire to belong. My gradual realisation, that what we are doing in the classroom is contributing to the satisfaction of this basic need of my students; to help build their capacity to share their feelings and realities, to gain a new sense of self-worth, to feel included in a community, while also giving new meaning to me as a teacher.