Hala Mahfouz

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“I’m Syrian and I came to the UK in 2013. I’ve had refugee status since then. Obviously I have a very long story behind that! I have a Bachelors degree in English Literature from Damascus university and a Diploma in teacher training. I lived abroad teaching English for many years but I had to leave that country and I couldn’t go back to Syria.

In the end I was one of the lucky ones because I was able to get a visa just a few months before I felt I had to leave. I was able to come to the UK quite easily but it was on my own; I had to wait 8 months before my husband and four boys were allowed to join me. For a while we thought they might have to go back to Syria, but in the end we were so fortunate that I was able to arrange for them to come here. I had Syrian friends who were able to help me – when you come here as a refugee you have nothing; but I was so lucky to have a wonderful lawyer who helped me to speed up the process.

We’ve now been here long enough to apply for indefinite leave to remain in a few months. I can’t believe it – time has flown! I feel really settled as I feel welcome and respected here. We have been treated really well and everyone seems so nice. They are really eager to know about refugees. They’re interested to know my story and other people’s stories and how my sons and I have been able to adapt.

The UK has been so welcoming and I am truly thankful for that. And the boys have settled really well into school which is so different from what they had experienced before – I feel that in the UK everything is pushing you forward to learn. Maybe we are lucky and their school is particularly good, but that is certainly our experience.

Before you come here you have these ideas in your head that you are not welcome, that people are racist – but they are not! There are exceptions, but personally I have experienced very little bad feeling.

Last year a friend of mine introduced me to Chatterbox and it was a great opportunity for me to join the team. I wanted to do something – I love to teach, but with very young children I felt I couldn’t cope with a teaching role.

Chatterbox has been so perfect for me as a mother – it’s been like a miracle as everything about it was perfect for me. I get to do what I love – I love teaching – but also I have learned so much from my students about living here in the UK. I’ve also learned a lot about the education system, as well as what people in the UK think of refugees and Syrians in particular.

In the language practice sessions we spend an hour speaking and it’s teaching adults, so I get to hear people’s thoughts and feelings on all sorts of things. The exchange of ideas is really enjoyable – it’s all about talking, and I just love to talk!

My students come to me to learn spoken Arabic. Some are people who had learned Arabic a long time ago but don’t get the opportunity to speak it any more, so they want to practise it again. Others are students who are studying Arabic in university and need more practice with their conversation. I have one student who works with refugees and he wants to learn Arabic because he wants to be able to communicate more effectively with the people he helps.”

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