College will very likely be a refugee's first real insight into the local society. It’s likely to be the first place where they will be immersed into life amongst locals - be it on the bus on their way to their local campus, in the cafeteria at lunchtime, or walking along the corridors to their lesson. Colleges have a special place within their local communities, they are prominent in working in partnership with other local bodies, and are essential in promoting social mobility and aspirations through learning - at any age. Working with, and supporting the people of the region to gain skills and improving their future is Grŵp Llandrillo Menai’s key aim - and it is for this reason that the care and support of refugees should be amongst the forefront of our operations.
Here at Grŵp Llandrillo Menai, we are currently supporting over 300 Ukrainian refugees and around 150 refugees from Afghanistan and Syria, from all ages and backgrounds. It’s our aim to help them to integrate into North Wales society, and to support them in as many ways as possible.
Colleges, through the support of Welsh Government, are ensuring that all refugees have access to education through guaranteeing that they’re provided with a place on an appropriate vocational, academic or ESOL course - depending on their English language proficiency.
At our colleges in Bangor, Rhos-on-Sea and Rhyl, full-time ‘English for Speakers of Other Languages’ (ESOL) courses are subscribed to at full capacity, whilst part-time ESOL courses are also experiencing high enrolment numbers. ESOL tutors are actively adapting lesson topics to ensure sensitive matters are not discussed or taught in class. As many refugees may have difficulties making their way into college, or live rurally, lessons can be accessed online via ‘Google Classroom’ and the ‘Meet’ video function, so that those learners are still able to access the education. Refugees are given the opportunity to learn some Welsh too, if they wish to do so.
However, colleges are able to go beyond the offering of just educational services.
Refugees may also need assistance with translation services for day-to-day needs; be that if they need help to open a bank account, register with the local doctors’ surgery, or book a space at the local nursery for their children. Support may also be required in terms of housing, financial aid, and wellbeing. Colleges and Local Authorities are working hand in hand to assist new arrivals to the local communities.
Within Grŵp Llandrillo Menai, each refugee has been nominated a Personal Tutor, as well as a Mentor from within the Grŵp’s Learner Services team, with whom they are offered weekly check-ins. These Mentors can offer guidance on local charities that can provide clothing and toiletries, and provide support by registering for financial support.
Counsellors within our Learner Services team are able to support them with their wellbeing, and they can also access financial advice and support too. As a Grŵp, we recognise the financial challenges facing these students and are therefore loaning out laptops and WiFi dongles to refugees, and wavering any course-related costs such as exam fees and textbooks required for their course.
Enabling and empowering our existing students’ voices is so important, which is why we opened up one of our campuses overnight back in March 2022 - to accommodate Games Development students who held a 24-hour live stream on Twitch. Those students were eager to fundraise for the emergency appeals in Ukraine, and managed to accumulate over £1,600 in donations. You can find out more about their fantastic fundraising effort here. Grŵp Llandrillo Menai also held a fundraising day back in March 2022, where students were encouraged to wear blue and yellow in solidarity with Ukraine and its people. Staff and students were able to donate to the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal, and in the end we raised hundreds of pounds.
It has given me a great sense of pride to see us as a Grŵp pull-together and offer our hand in support to those who have fled their beloved country due to war. We have asked Larysa Yushchenko, who is currently studying with us, to share her experiences at Grŵp Llandrillo Menai;
Larysa arrived in April 2022. During her time with us, she, along with Anastasiia and two other friends, have organised a series of concerts to bring local Ukrainians together and to celebrate their culture, traditions and language. She said,
“We wanted to organise the concerts to fundraise for our people still in Ukraine, who are in desperate need of power banks, warm clothes and medicine due to power shortages. Our Coleg Menai lecturers attended to support us and they even helped us with the text on posters to promote the events, and they helped us with our pronunciation, so that everything went well on the night. College is so supportive to us. My tutors are great. Roz is a wonderful person, very kind, open-hearted, and a very good teacher!"
This brings me back to my original question -
What role do colleges play in supporting refugees to integrate into society?
I think it’s rather clear at this stage how vital it truly is that colleges harness the wide range of support and resources they have in order to support refugees to make a place feel safe, welcoming and a little more like home. The success of the events organised by Larysa and Anastassia is testament to the fact that as further education establishments, we not only support the individuals academically but also help them to integrate into our communities, and I look forward to attending one of the concerts soon.
Principal of Coleg Menai and Coleg Meirion-Dwyfor,
Head of Adult and Community Learning