Former lawyer who fled war to come to UK says language barrier ‘tears families apart’


Former lawyer who fled war to come to UK says language barrier 'tears families apart'
Amal Akasha fled the civil war in Sudan (Picture: Refugee Action)

Refugees who are unable to speak English are becoming increasingly isolated, lonely and unable to work.

Amal Akasha fled a brutal civil war in Sudan in the late 1990s and ended up as a refugee in the Netherlands, before moving to the UK in 2010.

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Unable to communicate with anyone in her new home because of her lack of English speaking skills, Amal said she struggled to fit in.

She was put on a year-long waiting list for English lessons – but in the end she taught herself.

‘I actually started English lessons in Sudan but it was very basic English. When I came to England I tried to take classes but was put on a waiting list for a year,’ she told

‘I wanted to study law here and I needed to get a qualification to go to university. But that was really difficult to get when I didn’t speak the language.’

Former lawyer who fled war to come to UK says language barrier 'tears families apart'
Amal set up a community group for other Sudanese women (Picture: Refugee Action)

Amal – who now lives in Leeds with her four children – actually worked as a lawyer for two years before fleeing Sudan.

She dreams of getting back to it but the language barrier has made the prospect of studying and getting her UK-recognised qualifications near impossible, as she needs to pass an advanced English exam to get into university.

‘It’s very sad and it’s very hard not being able to do what you love and were once good at,’ Amal said.

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‘A lot of refugees come here with incredible careers and experience. But because we can’t speak the language that doesn’t matter.

‘It makes people very lonely. You feel isolated when you can’t find a job and you can’t make friends.’

She says she knows people who have been forced to leave good jobs behind, but because they can’t speak English they can no longer work in the same way.

‘They start to receive benefits, they just feel depressed and unmotivated and like a waste of space,’ Amal said.

‘I think it’s very important for Refugees to be given a chance to learn, for the benefit of the UK and for themselves.’

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Recent research from charity Refugee Action found that ‘chronic underfunding’ by the government into English language provision left some refugees waiting up to three years to start lessons.

Refugee Action’s poll of 71 providers of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL), found 63 percent are concerned there are not enough classes available to meet people’s needs.

Almost two thirds of the providers – which teach more than 35,000 ESOL learners – said they have a waiting list.

Nearly half of those said people are waiting for an average of six months or more to start lessons. One said it could take three years to be assigned to a course and another said the wait could be ‘indefinite’.

Amal set up a community group for Sudanese Women, teaching them her own self-taught English and helping them to gain access to information about schools and healthcare.

Around 30 women are part of Amal’s group – many of whom are unable to attend English classes even if they do finally get access to them because there is no childcare provision.

Former lawyer who fled war to come to UK says language barrier 'tears families apart'
Rohingya children at a refugee camp in Bangladesh on December 3, 2017 after fleeing military operations in Myanmar (Picture: Getty)

Not being able to communicate with other people in their communities, Amal says, makes ‘every single part of your life hard – particularly if you are a parent’.

‘At parents and teachers’ meetings at our children’s schools, people will not be able to communicate in English and it’s very difficult to monitor their children’s progress,’ she said.

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‘It’s also very hard on your children. When they come to the UK they go to English schools, they pick up the language very quickly and they begin to lose their own.

‘Your kids feel embarrassed of you because you can’t speak the language. It splits families up.’

Mariam Kemple Hardy, head of campaigns at Refugee Action, says the English language provision for refugees is ‘not fit for purpose’.

‘It can’t be right that refugees are waiting up to three years to access classes when they are determined to learn English and start rebuilding their lives,’ she said.

Former lawyer who fled war to come to UK says language barrier 'tears families apart'
Migrants sit watching lorries driving towards the port where ferries sail from Calais, France to Britain (Picture: AFP/Getty)

‘Long waiting lists and other barriers to learning such as a lack of childcare in most areas, are unacceptable.

‘With its upcoming integration strategy, the Government has an opportunity to tackle isolation and prevent communities becoming alienated, by enabling all refugees in Britain to learn English.’

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In October, Home Secretary Amber Rudd and Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott attended an event in Parliament hosted by Refugee Action and the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission.

They heard refugees talk about their experiences learning English and how it is vital for integration and preventing isolation.

‘People want to come over here and find a good life in the UK for their kids,’ Amal explained.

‘They want to be able to communicate, they want to work, they want to provide and pay taxes and contribute to society.

‘So it’s a benefit to them – but it’s also a massive benefit to the UK.’

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