In my day to day practice as a multilingual community practitioner, I adapt the type and medium of support to the people who request it. Some speak to me in English when they feel confident enough to do so, others choose to communicate in their mother tongue Arabic and feel reassured that the complexity of their thoughts is understood. Some want to share voice messages on whatsapp, others want to see me face to face to talk about their concerns. Some want to ask me questions about their benefits, others want to find better ways to learn more English. Each day brings its own sets of challenges and I am most of the time in the position of information provider, facilitator, educator. Those roles hold a certain power: the people I support need me more than I need them. They need me to be knowledgeable and they need me to respond to their queries with clear answers. But sometimes, I don’t know the answer to their questions, and I have to explore and research subjects, reach out to colleagues or other families who might hold pieces of the puzzle I don’t have. Recognising that the learning is not unilateral is essential to my growth. Multiplying the sources and direction of learning is part of my mission.
When feeding back on my casework to the charity that employs me and to the local authority that commissions us, I need to provide measurable outcomes on the families’ and individuals’ progress. This lens is obviously not capable of expressing the richness of the learning that happens in their everyday lives, and in the lives of the people they come in contact with. How can we then capture the subtle changes in self-confidence and resilience? How can we broaden the tools of monitoring and evaluation so that precious opportunities to empower and reinforce an individual or a family’s energy are not lost?
I would like to expand on this complexity through the present article by telling you about a booklet that I have published this month. Entitled The magic flower, it is a story written and illustrated by a 7 year old girl, Leen, who arrived with her family through the VPRS (Vulnerable Persons Resettlement scheme) government-led project. When Leen and I first met, like any child of her age, she let the adults do the talking with other adults. She sought no direct engagement with me, and usually limited her interaction to a civil response to my greetings and a yes or no when I asked her about what she liked in school and outside of school. During the lockdown, we were presented with a very unusual set up of learning: parents and their children were confined to the same place, doing their homework on the same devices, attending zoom lessons and wondering about the best way to make the most of their time.
It’s in this context that I invested more time and attention to the work and world of Leen. I started to ask questions that were deeper than just the usual catch up lines, I started to tell her more interesting things about myself and my own projects and in response, she shared more thoughts about her own interests. I discovered she also liked writing. The chat between us went along the lines of :
Me : Do you know that I am writing a book at the moment?
Leen: Oh yeah? Well I am writing a book too.
Me: Good to know, but given that I have been writing for longer, my book will probably come out before yours.
Leen: No my book will come out first.
Me: don’t say that please, it makes me feel very jealous.
Leen: But it’s the truth, I am almost done.
After a few of these heart-to-heart exchanges, I came by her parents’ to deliver some school homework they needed help printing. What was my surprise when Leen came down with her mother and handed me her book! She had finished it and didn’t even bother to ask about the progress of my own draft. The smug smile said it all. She was right, I was deluded.
Two months later, I have printed 200 copies of the book and will be circulating them to families, schools, educators, volunteers and other colleagues in the sector. The story unfolds in seven pages full of wisdom and depth. A British volunteer and a Syrian woman who are doing a language exchange are using it as a template to translate and learn from each other. Other children are coming forward to ask me if I would have a look at their stories and publish them too. They are sending me reminders and asking for detailed feedback. Parents read it to their children to spark their imagination.
Leen also insisted on sending copies of her book to her school and shared the news with her teachers. The shift of narrative here is powerful: the child, an EAL learner, provides the school with her publication written in English to be shared with staff and pupils. The remaining copies she has shared with her neighbours through this small book exchange that started organically in the building. She is taking the lead of the distribution, asking me for additional copies when needed and explaining who she thinks could benefit best from receiving them. Her parents are of course her biggest fans, they read her drafts and add new English words to their vocabulary as they go. Their appetite for reading and writing has expanded and their views on their future in the UK are shifting as a result of their daughter’s achievements.
In conclusion, this is just a small account that doesn’t do justice to the multiple connections that blossomed since my initial conversation with Leen. Working with adults in family settings means engaging with all members of the unit, regardless of their age or language proficiency. Adults learn from children. Through displacement and migration, adults keep faith that their lives are worth fighting for because of children. Let us add seats to the table for children. Let us see learning not just as cramming information in the brain of newcomers but as a process through which everyone’s capacity to create and communicate is cultivated.
If you are interested in accessing the Magic Flower, please send a short message on firstname.lastname@example.org telling me about your work or interests and how you intend to use the book. I would also be very grateful if you could share or propose any resources/platforms that the families I work with could benefit from.