“Conversation Cafes” – A Model for All

Summer may be a lovely and restful time for a lot of Brits, but for a lot of the guys I work with it’s pretty tough. All formal English classes stop for the six week Summer holiday, and many of them have told me that they struggle with the boredom – especially those seeking asylum, as they are forbidden from working. Over the past couple of months I’ve seen a lot of these lads hanging around in cafes in the city centre with nothing to do, so I thought: why not try to hang out together, and offer the chance for them to practice their English with fluent speakers?

So that’s what we’ve done. I approached a lot of cafes in the city centre, and the Belgrade Theatre very kindly agreed to support us in this initiative: they’ve allowed us to effectively “take over” a corner of their cafe, and even provide us with a free tea/coffee on arrival. We gather together at the cafe, and then break down into smaller groups of 3s and 4s to chat for a couple of hours about a certain topic. I’ve been putting together a one-page sheet on a topic – with a short reading task and some questions – and this forms the basis of discussions. Topics we’ve covered include Coventry’s history, British culture (including funny little unwritten social norms such as “you must never take the final biscuit on a plate!”), and education here in the UK.

They’ve been really successful, with around 12-15 refugees and asylum seekers attending every session from a number of different countries – Sudan, Iran, Syria, Bangladesh, Gambia and Burundi, to name just a few. They’ve helped to bring people together, and hopefully will lead to long-lasting friendships and relationships. I’ve been told on a number of occasions by recently-arrived migrants that they really struggle to build friendships outside of their own community – given the linguistic and cultural barriers – but that they’re really keen to integrate and get to know British people here; this is the primary aim of both these cafes and of Fresh Start more generally.

The “Conversation Cafes” are a really easy way to achieve this, and have been brilliant for everyone who’s come along. Myself and the nine volunteers who support me have learned so much about the uniqueness of all the different cultures, and they’ve helped to humanise people who are so often reduced to being defined by their labels. I’ve personally been incredibly humbled and challenged by the radical hospitality intrinsic to the cultures of our learners, who share meals together regularly as a community and treat guests as if they’re welcoming kings.

The best way to finish is probably a quote from a 22 year old Sudanese friend of mine called Bashir, who said: “The people here are really kind, and Matt and the work he does has made me feel really at home in this country.” These Cafes are so simple, and could certainly be replicated elsewhere: if you’d be interested in running one, drop me an email on: Matt.Robinson@CovCofE.org Bashir Picture

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