x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

English classes give UAE labourers a second chance

Poorly paid labourers find advancing their careers difficult because of a lack of English, but volunteers at the American University in Dubai are help them out of that rut.

Men take part in a weekly English language class held at the American University of Dubai. Razan Alzayani / The National
Men take part in a weekly English language class held at the American University of Dubai. Razan Alzayani / The National

Standing at the front of the brightly lit classroom, a student nervously takes a board marker from the teacher and tentatively writes "my father is an editor" on the white board.

With an encouraging nod from his teacher, he returns to his seat and passes the pen on to the next student, who does the same but writes that his father is a farmer.

For the next two hours, the students, who are all labourers earning about Dh600 a month, are put through their paces at an English language course run by the American University in Dubai (AUD).

The classes are organised by the International Aid Society (AIA) at the university, and the voluntary organisation Adopt-a-Camp, which offers assistance to men living in functioning and abandoned labour camps.

The aim is two-fold - to help the men feel better able to integrate into a community in which English is the common language, and to improve their employment prospects.

"I would like them to feel more comfortable in the community, so that they can make their way around the world here with more confidence and self-assurance, and to be able to handle themselves in different situations," says Saher Shaikh, the head of Adopt-a-Camp.

"They all make a huge sacrifice to come here and they all just pray they make enough money to feed their families and educate their children. They don't need pity; they deserve respect. There are many projects which help them in the short term, but the difference here at the university is this is a long-term investment in their future. If they're not breaking bricks at the side of the road, nor will their future generations."

The lessons run for two hours every Friday - usually the men's only day off - at the university's campus in Dubai Marina.

The majority of teachers are either AIA members and members of the university's own faculty, and a few are volunteers working with Adopt-a-Camp. It runs for 10 weeks in total, nine of which are dedicated to teaching, and the final week to a graduation celebration.

The class of about 70 men, who are mostly from India and Bangladesh, is split into three levels - beginner, intermediate and advanced. The beginner groups are then separated into groups of five to 10, depending on the number of volunteers available to take the classes, and all follow the same lesson plan.

Gail Hammill, assistant professor of English at the university, helps the AIA formulate their lesson plans.

"It's a great learning opportunity for our students as well as for the workers," she says. "Our students gain experience in managing and delivering a volunteer project of great social and educational significance to the community. In addition, many of the workers who participate are able to use the knowledge and confidence gained in these classes to take advantage of employment and educational opportunities."

Mrs Hammill, who is from Scotland, also gives each new arrival a sort of entry interview to determine which class they should be in.

"Some of them are so nervous, just because I'm asking them questions, that they shake," she says. "We all take English for granted but it means so much to these men to be here. And for a lot of them, when I ask them if they have friends, they say no. But over the 10 weeks we see them making good friends that they will keep their whole time here."

The lessons have been running for four years and each course has attracted more and more participants as word has spread across the camps. But this year has been the most popular yet.

Most of the men live in Al Quoz and travel by metro together to the university. Others travel much farther afield, with one student leaving his camp at 1pm to make the 6pm start.

But each of the men knows it is worth it.

Many former students have been able to apply for better-paid jobs thanks to their basic English skills. Their wages, Mrs Shaikh says, have increased from between Dh600 and Dh800 a month to Dh2,100.

In 2011, Mrs Shaikh secured funding from the computer firm IBM to set up a scholarship that pays for promising students to sit the exam for the International English Language Testing System. Globally, it is considered to be the most popular English language proficiency test.

Having this under their belts opens up the door to better job opportunities and also immigration possibilities.

But not everyone has such high aspirations. For some of the men, it is about learning to perform tasks many of us take for granted, such as using an ATM, or asking for directions, or exchanging basic pleasantries with their colleagues or bosses.

Habib Rahman, a 26-year-old from Bangladesh, moved to Dubai in 2008 and works as a finishing painter. "I'm in the advanced class now," he says, beaming. "I can tell my family I speak English now. I tell my mum about my English classes at the American University in Dubai."

Mr Rahman says without a basic grasp of English he would not be able to get a new job, but finding opportunities to learn the language is difficult.

"Now we all try to speak English at work, to practise. At the end I will get an experience certificate and that will help me a lot."

The lessons plans are designed by the AIA volunteers and change each week. This week, the intermediate classes are covering banking, more specifically how to use an ATM, cash a cheque and exchange money, something many of us take for granted.

The students are split into pairs, and using a sample written conversation in English, to role-play an exchange between a bank cashier and customer.

"A big part of this project is confidence," says 18-year-old volunteer Karina Saidi, a visual communications student of Russian nationality, but who was born and brought up in Abu Dhabi.

"People don't really reach out here, but this gives people a chance to do it, and to make a real long-term difference. It takes some of them all day to get here. They never make excuses. That is dedication."

Jim Henry, an assistant professor of English from the United States, is one of the volunteer teachers from AUD. He gives up every Friday evening to teach the classes. "I know they want to learn English, but for me, I like giving the opportunity for these men to be treated like human beings.

"My guys make Dh600 a month. These are trained, skilled workers, plumbers or electricians. Here they get to come to a university where people treat them with respect for two hours a week. That might be the only time in their entire lives they get to do that. It really is a great project for the university to be part of."

At the end of the 10-week course, the men get a certificate of completion from the university, which they can pass on to any future employers.

There is a graduation celebration with singing and dancing, and the men are given their certificates.

Volunteer Naresh Phoolwani, 21, a finance and economics senior student, says despite their low pay, the men love to reward their teachers with thank-you gifts.

"Even with their meagre salaries they try to bring a gift for their teacher. This means a lot to them.

"For me, I believe in human empowerment. I would rather not give money. I'd rather reach out and give skills. I come from India. Many of these men are really smart and very skilled people, but they just fall down on the English. I don't want to see that."

Mangal Singh, a 25-year-old plumber who has lived in Dubai since he was 18, has been attending the classes for five weeks.

"I'm very happy here," he grins. "I have made many friends. My brother speaks fluent English and I would like to talk to him, and it will help me in my job. I can talk to my manager."

Although the majority of students are Indian, word has spread over the years and there are now also a handful of Egyptian students taking the lessons.

Aydan Gasimli, the student president of the AIA, says without the volunteers the project would not be possible, and that anyone interested in taking part should contact them at aia@clubs.aud.edu.

munderwood@thenational.ae