University students in Newcastle transform lives of refugees and asylum seekers
Written by Elif Gulmen on 30th November 2023
A group of university students are passionately reaching out to empower refugees and asylum seekers through the gift of education – a tale of hearts bridging the gaps created by borders and backgrounds.
North East Solidarity and Teaching (N.E.S.T), a student-led volunteer initiative centred at Newcastle University Students Union, is dedicated to offering educational support for those seeking assistance in English language proficiency—helping them speak, write, and read effectively.
Initiated in August 2016 by Bridget Stratford, with the support of one Syrian family, the project has since grown, welcoming additional families into its fold.
Additionally, N.E.S.T operates a community distribution programme, providing essential household items, toys, and clothing for families in need.
Osman, 29, an asylum seeker, who is a learner at N.E.S.T, said: “My brother and I have recently arrived in Newcastle, seeking asylum from Syria. Life has been a rollercoaster since our arrival, filled with uncertainty, challenges, and hope.
“Firstly, let me tell you about our temporary housing situation. We are grateful for the shelter we have, but it’s not easy. Both my brother and I have disabilities that affect our limbs, making everyday tasks more challenging.
“The small weekly allowance we receive is a lifeline, but it’s also a constant reminder of the need to make every penny count. One of our top priorities is to find more clothes.
“We arrived with very little, and as the weather changes, we need to ensure we have warm clothing to stay comfortable. But shopping for clothes can be expensive, and we must budget carefully.”
Initially, the majority of refugees at N.E.S.T were Syrian, but the community has evolved into a more diverse classroom, welcoming individuals from Ukraine, El Salvador, Afghanistan, Iran, and various other parts of the world.
According to the West End Refugee Services, there are around 2,000 people in the North East who are seeking asylum, out of a total population of 2.6 Million.
Adam, 35, a learner from Sudan, said: “Leaving behind my wife and child in Sudan was the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make. I did it in the hope of providing them with a better future, but the weight of their absence is heavy on my heart every day.
“I want to explore the city of Newcastle, my new home, and find any opportunities to start working. I believe in hard work and providing for my family, but the language barrier and my uncertain legal status make finding work challenging.
“I want to contribute to this community that has welcomed me, and I’m determined to do so.”
Volunteer Mei Li, a ESOL Teacher said: “Volunteering at N.E.S.T has brought me a new perspective on life, not just working in a community that felt like family, but also helping me to improve myself personally, in the confidence, public speaking and independence which I still use today.”
What started as regular Saturday sessions has expanded into a daily Monday-to-Sunday programme each week.
Numerous national and international university students, drawn to Newcastle University for their studies, generously volunteer their time to assist refugees and asylum seekers.
A group of determined students, their spirits aflame with a burning desire to make a difference. These aren’t just ordinary young minds; they are the architects of change, weaving a tapestry of compassion for those who have faced the storms of displacement.
Syrian learner, Hossain, 37, an asylum seeker said: “With N.E.S.T lessons, I get more experience in English, and it helps me improve my English. I learn more words and vocabulary.
“I get more experience, as well as in grammar. And thankful for all the volunteers and organisation team because learning is active learning. So I find myself better at English.”
Student volunteer, Emily Pocock, ESOL Coordinator said: “Being surrounded by a supportive team and building a relationship with the learners has been the best and most valuable part of the experience.
“It has provided me with interpersonal and intercultural skills that I have taken out into the world in my year abroad and will be valued in my future.”
N.E.S.T builds a comfortable and welcoming environment, making it a place where refugees and asylums can receive help and support with other matters, such as filling in letters, and where to seek assistance on issues such as visas, housing and finance.
Rana, 34, from Libya, a regular learner, said: “Our homeland of Libya had become a place of unimaginable tragedy, where we lost not only our home but also my dear husband, who was taken from us by violence.
“Our house was set on fire, and my son, my sweet boy, was kidnapped and missing for seven agonising days before being found in a hospital. The trauma of those days still haunts our nights.
“My children suffer from anxiety and PTSD due to the horrors we witnessed back home. My daughter, who is just 9 years old, struggles with incontinence problems as a result of her trauma.
“She requires nappies and frequent changes of clothes, adding to our weekly expenses.
“Our temporary house, while a refuge, has its own problems. Mould has infested our living space, and I don’t know how to report this issue or communicate it effectively in English. Cleaning products and household essentials are a luxury we can hardly afford.
“My children yearn for normalcy and friendship. I want to enrol them in clubs to help them make friends and heal from the scars of our past. But the costs associated with these activities are yet another obstacle we face.”
Rahima Ali, N.E.S.T project manager, said: “Being in a role where I can be of service to others and make a meaningful impact in the wider community has always been of utmost importance to me.
“I look forward to seeing N.E.S.T.’s growth, and hope it continues to have the same transformative impact on others as it has had for me.”
N.E.S.T is raising money to purchase supermarket gift cards for the service users, if anyone would like to support in some way, you can visit here