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Accidental Immigrants: Ukrainians in London

In 2022, British teacher, Peter Hill, found himself in a strange place in his career. A year on from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Peter gives his unique perspective on the plight of Ukrainian refugees forcibly displaced by war.

I thought that COVID would end my teaching career.

Before it struck, I had been working on pre-sessional courses at Greenwich University, but more and more work had to be done via computers, which I found very stressful. Colleagues were not unhelpful, but they did not seem to realize how far behind I had fallen.

As the pandemic began its retreat, the only prospects for EFL work involved working online. Many institutions in the UK went under while others adapted. I did nothing. Or, perhaps, I could say I watched and waited. Then the opportunity arose to return to the basics; to teach in whatever accommodation was available, with just a whiteboard and handouts.

My EFL career – if I can call it that – had started in 1966 when I was 19 and taught on the Finnish Family Scheme after my first year at university. In 2022, it was revived.

March of that year, I did voluntary work at a Ukrainian restaurant in Twickenham. Alongside many others, I sorted out items donated by the public and loaded them onto lorries. It was a hectic situation and very tiring, but the generosity of the people of the area was immense, and the hard work of the volunteers truly moving. I learnt that voluntary work can be good for you, especially if you believe in the cause. I could observe a wide range of locals pulling together; I saw people at their best.

The restaurant closed for business and became a social centre for Ukrainians, more of whom were arriving in London by the day. On Sundays, Ukrainians already in London tried to entertain and advise new arrivals. Inevitably there was confusion; after all, people were in a state of shock. One day, a couple from the charity, Multicultural Richmond, turned up to talk to one of the Ukrainian organizers with a fairly vague proposal regarding English classes. Local further education and adult education colleges had been slow to respond, and a very limited amount of money might be available. I got involved in the discussion and offered to help.

Sundays then became an opportunity to test potential students. Naturally, they responded to the idea of free English classes, although we were not sure what we could offer. Suddenly, I was confronted with people who had come from Ukraine, although they were not all Ukrainian. So, who were they?

Very few were men, because those between the ages of 18 and 60 could not leave, unless they had a medical exemption. However, some had been outside the country at the time of the Russian invasion, while others held non-Ukrainian passports.

Women were between the ages of 14 and 80. Adult women had children, but none had more than two. Older women tended to speak no English, while others had learnt English, but decades ago. Some were highly educated, but in French or German. Almost all had come via Poland and had been in London a matter of days.

In May I started a class in the basement of the restaurant for two hours every Sunday. It began as a very mixed-ability class, and students kept appearing without having been tested. Sometimes, I did not have enough handouts. It was hot in the basement. There were constant interruptions. It was tiring work for a 75-year-old who had done no teaching for more than 3 years. But the tricks of the trade had not deserted me: smile; be organized; demonstrate that you can be dependable in a critical situation; use lots of hand gestures; do comic drawings on the whiteboard; encourage students to help each other; praise small successes; inject humour where possible.

I tended to hang about after class which gave some students the opportunity to tell me things about themselves. I found that students took an interest in me, and there was a clear reaction of relief when they found out I was English. I’m not sure what else they thought I might have been!

In August I appeared on television; an item on the social activities based at the restaurant appeared on BBC television’s London news. The side and back of my head dominated the screen for a few seconds. That was the high point!

A year later I have learnt a number of things. Student attendance has been erratic. Initially I was offended. But I found that students had returned to Ukraine, or they had jobs, or they had gone to local colleges. After all, they had paid no fees to come to my classes, and I was not offering an exam. When I explained this to a friend, he observed, ‘You were a stepping-stone.’

Now, I run one class in Richmond and one in Twickenham; the charity I work for can only pay me for one class. My future is uncertain, but the futures of my students are even more uncertain. Ukrainians are currently seeking refuge in the UK, not asylum. The longer the war goes on, more of them are likely to stay. They have proved excellent students, are keen to learn about UK life and institutions, and are very grateful for what they have been offered. If they remain, I predict they will make very useful contributions as accidental immigrants.

Get involved!

Multicultural Richmond (MCR) provides comprehensive support to 300 individuals each year who are facing racial disadvantage, loneliness, language barriers, harassment, and hate crimes. This support includes English language classes, advice and support for victims of hate crimes, and community events that promote diversity and inclusion.

MCR is active throughout the year and is based at Whitton Social Centre, 111a Kneller Road, Twickenham TW2 7DT.

If you are based in London, UK and want to volunteer your expertise, get in touch with MCR by calling Ravi Arora (Director) on 020 8893 9444 or email: ravi@multiculturalrichmond.org.uk.

Peter also encourages those outside of London to search potential volunteering opportunities in their local area!
Image courtesy of Library
Peter Hill
Peter Hill
Peter Hill began teaching English in 1966, and has worked in a number of countries, including Sweden and Yugoslavia. He has seen a variety of fashions in teaching come and go, and has observed the bureaucratization of EFL in further education and higher education in the UK. He is now operating in the calmer waters of the charity sector, in which he currently teaches Ukrainian and Hong Kong students. Peter can be contacted at: peterhill.london@gmail.com
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