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In my daily practice, I support people whose first language is Arabic and who are at different stages of learning the English language. Some have never been to school prior to arriving to the UK and have no concepts of literacy, others are more comfortable with writing but still struggle with the Latin alphabet. Using smartphones to type on WhatsApp or sending emails is a form of learning how to spell words through autocorrect. It ensures that if people are struggling with literacy, they get a gentle push towards the completion of their words and sentences.

I used to make fun of people who send voice messages and thought it was the most uncomfortable form of chat. Going through my WhatsApp on my work phone shows a big change: voice messages are the dominant feature, the second most used tool after that is screenshots. I have also learned that by embracing the voice message and making the written form less of a mandatory portal to access support, people are more likely to engage with the written material that comes with it. It smoothes up the content and gives a more humane and personalised introduction. It can help people go back to the page they were struggling to access and with my voice guiding them towards the right sections and laying down the map of what seemed to be insurmountable, they find the pathways and confirm their progression through screenshots: Troubleshooting alongside people as they make their first steps on the English world wide web. 

When the language command improves and as mainstream adult learning classes progress, we start incorporating more words in English. I would sometimes write a sentence first in English, give the time to the person to understand it, copy paste it into Google Translate, and if they are struggling to understand, I can still quote the sentence and add some context or clues to explain. It becomes like a game, finding out the best way to convey meaning without spoiling the pleasure of the exploration and the feeling of satisfaction when the idea becomes clearer. The process leading to that becomes interwoven in our history of support and the words are then used as part of our in-jokes, cementing them in the memory of learners.

Emojis are also an interesting feature that I have been enjoying experimenting with. A lot of the conversation between a person supporting someone still in need of support has a very serious and official aspect to it. But lately, many people have started accessing advice on Facebook pages and finding resources through a mixture of platforms that are not government or organisation ones. People would message me with questions on what they have read on groups and cross-checking information to get a full picture of the services they are entitled to. Many of those platforms have a very relaxed technical and aesthetic feel to them, and so people navigate their pages with ease regardless of their levels of English or literacy. One of the reasons I found was that the standards of education to access them were more entry-level and they accepted different forms of interactions (emojis, memes, a few letters, onomatopoeia, etc). Anything that leads to participation is better than silent observation. Sometimes, the learning starts with that effort, sending a sign to the person who will not ignore it and who will follow it up with other signs until the conversation gets started and words are put on emotions. I have found that combining emojis with words has helped ensure the positive energy that I would usually carry through my voice, facial expressions and body language are now also passed on through a diverse range of fun symbols. This is very in line with the use that the people I support have. If they lack words, are overwhelmed by emotions, happy or sad, they can put an extra dose of emojis.

The emotional element of supporting someone through a platform such as WhatsApp is also linked to the continuity of contact. A lot of people who are in a position of vulnerability feel that when they access support, the terms are dictated by the organisations. They would be given an appointment once in a while, whenever an advisor is available, they would have to select carefully what they say and how long it takes them as they have a limited amount of time and because of the wait, their levels of frustration have risen and their expectations for a positive outcome become bigger too. 

Staying in contact with people I support in between meetings or appointments, maintaining the conversation flowing with them helps me ease their anxiety and keep a finger on their pulse. Questions such as “what happened with my request, application?”, “Are there any updates?” give me a better idea of their time framework, I am able to approach in turn those elements with them when we meet. I encourage people to think about the steps they could take to get answers to their questions, I ask them questions in return to their questions and allow critical inquiry to seep into the cracks of confusion. Sometimes it also takes linking up those questions coming from an anxious “beneficiary” to the rest of the day through a simple question such as “what are your plans for the rest of the day, of the weekend?”. By showing them that they can step out from being purely receivers of support to people with rich 3D lives and daily activities outside of the purely transactional interaction of service provider to beneficiary.

We are yet to explore fully the advantages of stepping out ourselves as practitioners from the tight frameworks of office-based support and written-based and official communication with the people we chose to serve. My work WhatsApp has started impacting on my personal WhatsApp and the way I have started to understand the silences, the questions and the intervals between messages has become informed by the myriad of the lessons I learn daily with people who are on their way to recovering and re-creating their identity. Standing on the edges of that path, I see my role as that of a floating voice cheering and stimulating their growth. Online platforms allow that voice to be continuous and creative.

Marwa Belghazi is the Refugee Resettlement Coordinator at Refugee Action Kingston. She works with families who have been recently offered sanctuary in the UK through the Syrian Vulnerable Resettlement scheme. More of her work is published by Forced Migration Review in their issue 58 (Economies: rights and access to work) and issue 60 (Education: needs, rights and access in displacement).