A friend of mine wrote the following in response to the first post in this series. She wishes to remain anonymous.
I think this is beautiful, much better than what I'd planned to write today.
One Lesson, No Carols and Another Parish Hall
Eleven days before Christmas I’ve been at just such a venue – a parish hall in Huddersfield at an English class for refugees and asylum seekers. Even though the activity was different, people’s contributions made the atmosphere the same.
I love these halls, dotted around local villages or attached to churches, built on faith and nineteenth century goodwill. This one is connected to a church built by the great architect George Gilbert Scott, but it’s a bit run down now. It’s no longer at the centre of local people’s lives, but still open and welcoming enough with shabby furniture and a sparsely equipped kitchen that people turn to whatever use their events call for.
It was sleeting when we arrived. Some regular students came early, glad to get inside and help us by setting out the folding tables and chairs. Others drifted in alone or in small groups. We never know exactly who or how many will come, or how much English they already know. By 2.15 there were twenty men and two women from ten different countries. They had eight languages between them, and all but one of them were Muslim.
Our theme today was Christmas. We started tentatively. Did they know the date and the significance of the season? What have they noticed in shops and around the town? Have they seen Christmas celebrated in other countries? Would they like to hear the story of Jesus’s birth from The Bible?
I needn’t have worried; they are eager to know and understand their new country. We contrasted the Islamic prohibition of images of Mohammed with the ubiquitous representations of Jesus, and I used my children’s knitted figures of Mary, Joseph, Jesus , shepherds and wise men to illustrate a simple re-telling of the Christmas story. These students were strong on camels and donkeys, but we had to unpick the confusing iconography of holly wreaths and Santa Claus. We decorated a Christmas tree and tried to explain about sprouts and mincemeat.
There was real goodwill and warmth here. They helped each other to understand, and explained to us some of the traditions and festivals of their own countries. By four o clock they’d learned a lot of new vocabulary and been introduced to Rudolph. Yves, a French speaker from the Congo, remembered a snatch of a Christmas carol he used to know. He hummed a couple of lines, and we recognised “Gloria in excelsis deo” well enough to sing it with him. At the end, they stacked the chairs and tables, shook our hands and went out again into the cold.
For next Thursday we’ve planned a Christmas party with food, music, games and gifts for them from a real Father Christmas. I hope they can all join us; it’s what these halls were built for.