Desperate to join Ipswich life

WOULD you make a good friend to a refugee who desperately wants to feel more at home in Ipswich? Features editor TRACEY SPARLING finds out about a new scheme which aims to generate a more united town.

By Tracey Sparling

WOULD you make a good friend to a refugee who desperately wants to feel more at home in Ipswich? Features editor TRACEY SPARLING finds out about a new scheme which aims to generate a more united town.

TEARS well up in Mohammad Hagi's dark eyes as he struggles to explain in English, the ache deep in his heart.

The 27-year-old fled his homeland of Iraq to come to England to work, leaving his wife and 14-month-old son behind with a promise to return and fetch them one day. When he speaks of them, a slight smile cracks his otherwise serious face, but his words are checked with emotion.

"I miss them very much," he said simply.

He has just been granted Indefinite Leave to Remain in Britain, but it is not safe for him to visit Iraq. He also misses his mother, and his large family including five sisters and four brothers on the family farm, but remains convinced the life he has chosen in Ipswich is the way forward.

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"I miss my mum as much as the world. She says I have to come back and I explain I cannot. I escaped due to the bad constitution, because we were not happy with our government" he said.

"We had not as nice president as the European presidents - everybody knows his history - he was bloodthirsty. He never made it easy for people's lives."

When he first arrived Mohammad was eager to study English but found no way to learn. He started working at a chicken factory and said: "I wasn't true to myself. I wanted to study."

Incredibly, Mohammad said he lived in Ipswich for five years without going out, unless it was to go to work at the factory.

He said: "Sometimes English people tell us to get out of the country. I never had that because I didn't go outside at the weekends. In five years here I went out once, to a nightclub. I didn't like it but it was your world and I wanted to try."

Today thanks to a new mentoring scheme, he has found a friend to help him join in Ipswich life. The scheme, called Time Together, launched in Ipswich and Norwich in October, and is run from The Refugee Council in Ipswich.

Mentors support, encourage, motivate and guide their mentee to achieve their goals in education, employment and integration.

When Mohammed met Barbara Jameson through the scheme it meant he was finally happy to go out, be it for a coffee, to the library, and above all improve his English in the hope of getting a better job in future.

They were matched up by project coordinator Cathy Williams, who Mohammad calls his 'fairy godmother'.

He said: "Barbara was the first English person I spoke to in four or five years."

They met after exchanging text messages to introduce themselves.

"It was at the café at Sainsbury's" said Barbara, an acupuncturist.

"I told Mohammad all about my own life at first, and a lot of mystified him completely. He had a puzzled look on his face. My life was so very different to his, and to that of women he knows in Iraq.

"Then we read a book together to help his English. He was also very tolerant of me going off on tangents! It's very interesting to realise the things we take for granted, even like Henry the eighth and hippies - he's never heard of them."

Mohammad had also never heard of acupuncture and added: "Barbara's work is amazing to me.

"Here everybody must work to pay for their life, even women. When my wife comes in April - she is getting a Visa - I will teach her English and she will look after our son. Most people here are going out but I am saving my money. We never drink or smoke. I want to stay here 100 per cent.

"If I had a mentor when I first came here, I would maybe know more English now."

Barbara added that being a mentor brings its own rewards, and said: "It is not draining, it's enlivening. It's not a burden to me."

All refugees accepted on the scheme have refugee status; meaning that they have been granted leave to remain in the UK by the Home Office. Most come from Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan and Iran.

They have been in the UK from six months to ten years after fleeing because they were facing torture, imprisonment or even death.

For more details on the scheme and to apply, go to: , contact Cathy on 01473 297918 or e-mail:

CATHY Williams is today Ipswich's answer to former Blind Date host Cilla Black.

She laughs at the comparison, but admits it's true, her role is something of a matchmaker.

Love and marriage are not her aim, but instead Cathy is intent on pairing up refugees with Ipswich volunteers who can help mentor them to achieve their goals.

As project coordinator for Time Together, at the Refugee Council in Ipswich, Cathy looks at refugees' past jobs, hobbies and personality to match them up with an Ipswich mentor. She interviews both sides, and age, sex, proximity and mutual interests also come into play.

As she stands at her blackboard, drawing wavy lines to link the ever-growing list of names with their match, it does seem like the office of a dating agency.

Cathy laughed: "I suppose it is a bit like that. Once I feel I have somebody suitable to be matched, I will give their details to the mentor in Ipswich and if everything looks okay they arrange to meet up perhaps for a coffee in a cafe.

"Generally it seems to be working really well - nobody's come back to me and said 'I can't stand that person!"

In fact the scheme's proving so popular that refugees are queuing up to meet mentors in Ipswich. Fifteen pairs have been formed so far, and word-of-mouth has spread the message leading to another eight refugees currently seeking a mentor.

Cathy said: "They come from all walks of life and many are professionals - one guy is a lawyer from Afghanistan. It would also be great to hear from some Ipswich people in manual blue-collar professions like the building trade, plumbing or agriculture because a lot of refugees come from that sort of background.

"Most end up working shifts in local chicken factories, which means they can't attend classes to learn English - so in their free time they are desperate to learn and do something other than working in the factory. People see so many negative images of refugees in the media, yet this programme reveals the positive side and shows how much they want to integrate and learn English - and gives them the opportunity to do that."

Cathy said taking part in the scheme can also help a mentor, with listening and patience skills, as well as gaining a friend and having fun.

She said: "You get used to speaking very slowly and clearly! One mentor has even been reading up on Kurdish history to become more informed about it. You do have to be aware that some refugees have been through awful situations and some won't want to talk about their past experiences. As a volunteer you can't sort out all their problems - you're not a counsellor, social worker or a teacher - but you can support and guide."

What will be expected of me as a mentor?

Mentors are not expected to be professional counsellors, advisors or experts on immigration or asylum issues. However, they must be committed and reliable, and have a flexible and open-mind. You must be over 18 years old, speak fluent English and be either a British citizen or have lived in the UK long enough to have a real understanding of the culture and customs.

A good mentor should be: open-minded, patient, respectful, an effective listener, a good communicator, keen to learn more, and able to guide but not instruct.

You spend about five hours a month with your mentee over a period of a year. Some of the relationships mentors forge with their mentees are very informal, with mentors taking on a befriending role, visiting museums, chatting over coffee and helping their mentee feel less isolated. Other relationships are more structured, with mentors helping them to find a job or re-qualify in their professional field. Most relationships will be a mixture of these.

What training will I receive?

Mentors will receive comprehensive 1 day training to learn what is - and what's not - expected of them. Mentors are not expected to be experts but to direct their mentees towards information and people who are experts.

What support will I get?

Continual training and support. As well as the initial training, pairs will have opportunities every two months to get together with others on the scheme to share experiences. You can give and gain advice from other mentors across the country. Time Together staff will be available by phone and email.

Marks and Spencer's co-founder Michael Marks was a Russian-born Polish refugee who came to England in 1884.

Fish and chips was bought to England by refugees, namely 17th century Jews expelled from Portugal. The brains behind the great British Mini and Morris Minor was Alec Issigonis, a refugee who fled the Turkey/Greece war in 1922.

Les Miserables author Victor Hugo fled France in 1851 and lived in exile for 19 years.

The Muppet Show and Thunderbirds creator Lew Grade was a refugee from the Ukraine who went on to become one of the giants in British television.