Chatterbox: The Social Enterprise Unlocking the Skills of Women Refugees

Patuni, founder Mursal’s mum and the inspiration behind Chatterbox. Photo credit: P. Hedayat.

Shannon Hodge, member of The Circle, meets the women behind Chatterbox, a charity employing refugees as language tutors

An estimated 117,234 refugees have resettled in the UK after fleeing their homes—and countries—due to fear of violence or persecution. Many are highly-qualified professionals who are forced to leave their families and careers—and finding a job here can be challenging.

Wajed Basha, an Arabic school teacher from Syria, has joined a growing number of newly-arrived degree-educated refugees that a new start-up, Chatterbox, has employed to use their language skills to not only benefit the UK’s language skills deficit, but to benefit them too.

Wajed, 31, fled war in Syria almost three years ago and now lives in Wales with her husband and two children, aged 7 and 9. She studied Education at Tishreen University in her hometown of Latakia, Syria, where she went on to work for eight years in primary education before being appointed as a pedagogue in the Educational Directorate in Latakia.

Following the uprising in Syria that descended into a country-wide civil war, over 4.5 million were forced to flee the country—Wajed and her family included.

“Almost three years ago, we fled the war in Syria. There were explosions, bombs and extremists everywhere”, she said.

“My husband came to the UK alone first to seek safety and then later, my children and I joined him by travelling through Lebanon, before arriving at Heathrow, where we were then resettled in Cardiff.”

Describing her initial few months in the UK, Wajed said “It was very difficult at first. I didn’t choose to live so far away from my country so it was hard adapting to a new place, new people, a different culture and, on top of that, a new language”.

This is where Chatterbox—a new language learning service delivered by refugees—comes in…

The London-based start-up works with skilled refugees to provide training, contacts and work experience in the languages sector and helps them rebuild their professional lives using their existing skills, while simultaneously tackling the UK’s language skills deficit, which loses the economy an estimated £48 billion each year.

The initiative is the brainchild of 26-year-old Economics graduate, Mursal Hedayat, who now employs more than thirty tutors; teaching languages from Arabic and Farsi to Swahili and Korean, both online and in person.

Mursal watched her own mother struggle as a refugee when her family fled Afghanistan when she was just four years old. A civil engineer by practice, her mother used her language skills to find meaningful employment in the UK, following her decade-long search for a job.


Founder Mursal with Syrian dentist and Chatterbox Arabic language tutor Eiad. Photo credit: Chatterbox.

“Despite knowing languages such as English, Dari, Hindi, Urdu, Farsi dialect and Pashto, as well as having a highly-trained skill in civil engineering, my mother could only get basic low-skilled work in the UK”, said Mursal.

“Eventually, after ten years of searching, she completed a qualification in teaching so that she could use her language skills to get a job as a classroom language assistant; helping students for whom English wasn’t their first language to access education.

“She then went on to set up a supplementary school to teach core curriculum subjects, as well as Afghan culture, to the Afghan community in the area of London we live in.”

Mursal’s mother’s experience was—and is—shared by many other talented people in the refugee community, and in August 2016 Mursal drew on this inspiration to launch Chatterbox.

“Chatterbox was distinctly designed for the situation of a refugee mother who is having employment troubles and for us it’s important to help these women access work.

“We’re currently over-represented by women, whereas, in other refugee interventions, they really struggle to get women and I think part of that is the flexibility of the work and training we provide, but also the cultural barriers that stop some women from seeking work.”

Wajed agrees with Mursal’s point: “For some female refugees in the UK, it is difficult for them to get the education they need. For me, it is fine—I am a free lady—but some women would like to attend English classes so they can go on to get a job but they can’t. This is because many services helping refugees have mixed-gender classes, which some Muslim women feel uncomfortable attending—or are simply not given permission by their husband.”

With the backing of the SOAS University of London, Chatterbox launched a pilot which ran from January 2017 to May 2017. The pilot was described as a “resounding success” by both students and tutors, with the Nesta innovation foundation awarding Chatterbox £40,000 of funding to further develop the programme.

“With the funding, our aim is to train and build up a team of around 500 refugees by January next year”, said Mursal.

And for many of the current tutors, Chatterbox has been a lifeline—helping them meet new people from all over the world, improve their overall employability and support themselves and their families.

“We came here with no wage, no money, and I only had basic English—but it was not enough. I have worked hard to improve my English over the years and I’m so proud of my progress through working with Chatterbox”, said Wajed.

Discussing her future plans, Wajed said she intends on continuing her career as a teacher and is currently studying at Cardiff and Vale College, where she has been offered a Level 2 Support Teaching and Learning Course which she plans to complete in the next year.

“It’s also a long-term goal of mine to complete a master’s”, she laughs: “I am very ambitious!”

And it appears the ambition is contagious at Chatterbox HQ, with a growing female refugee community including Jihyun, a maths teacher and human rights activist from North Korea, and Sudanese human rights and women’s rights lawyer Hekma, who is currently deciding on which of her many UK university offers to choose from.


Sudanese human rights lawyer and Chatterbox Arabic language tutor Hekma. Photo credit: Chatterbox.

Mursal concluded: “A really important part of the progress that Chatterbox has made comes from the fact that I have an intimate knowledge and understanding of what my mum went through. I was in the front seat of that and not only has that propelled and created a real drive within the organisation but that sort of level of insight into a problem will lead to better solutions ultimately.

“I’d encourage all charities and social enterprises to develop solutions for refugees by engaging with them and create and develop solutions with them, rather than for them.

“Let them be the leaders and creators of their own change.”

One of The Circle’s objectives is to amplify the voices of women who are often silenced or forgotten. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram and like us on Facebook and don’t miss future interviews with inspiring women who are making a difference.

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@shanhodge
Shannon Hodge is a Journalism graduate and a member of The Circle.

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