ASSIST Sheffield

Challenging asylum destitution

A volunteer writes about Conversation Club

“Welcome to Conversation Club. We are a tree with many branches. We are strong because we agree to respect each other’s confidentiality and personal privacy with courtesy for the wellbeing of the whole tree.”

An article by Lily Tomson who is a Conversation Club volunteer currently taking a gap year before going to university.

Conversation Club is a partner of ASSIST, and a registered charity run entirely by volunteers on very limited funds. It gives asylum seekers a place to meet local Sheffield people, improve their English, and find out about British culture. It’s also a thriving social group and a support network for people of all backgrounds.

I found the Friday club through ASSIST, and went along to the Central United Reformed Church at 1pm one week. I was plunged into a bubbly, friendly world of handshakes, ‘Salaam!’s, and an afternoon of conversation. From Asylum law to the Saudi education system, Mr. Bean to Iranian love songs, everything is always on the menu.

By attending every week I came to know the regular members well, sharing jokes and updating each other on our lives whilst always welcoming the continual stream of new members, engaging them in conversation and trading knowledge of our cultures and backgrounds. If you are an ultimate frisbee fan, you’d find conversation partners; if you’re into organic farming, or German culture, you’d find someone to talk to: I have. I may not always remember someone’s name, where they come from, their residency status or what they fill their days with, but I remember how they like their tea, I worry if they don’t attend the club for a few weeks, and I greet them in the street. I can’t think of a clearer description of a powerful, loyal, meaningful community.

What surprised me is the sense of equality within the club. It truly doesn’t matter where you come from; ‘help’ is reciprocal, as my support and advice on the English language and culture has always been matched by phrases in Farsi, Chinese hand-counting, bits of local and national history, explanations of Syrian political history, descriptions of the Burmese Karen community in Sheffield, and much more. There is no distinction between Sheffielders, Brits, asylum seekers, refugees, economic migrants, long-term expats, or any of the other categories which frequent the club; we all gather on a Friday afternoon to talk, to learn from each other, and to help each other.

Truly, is there a bigger dream?

The club is structurally very simple: it is a hall with tables and chairs, a counter with tea, coffee and biscuits, and a lobby, where people stand and talk. We have ESOL lessons in a side room for an hour or so, as well as constant informal lessons in the hall. There is normally a table covered with art supplies and paper, clusters of people standing by the biscuits, and a few children running around.

But so much more goes on; there is a powerful ‘can-do’ attitude amongst the club’s members, and projects happen all the time. One such project, organised with the support of Sheffield University by ASSIST and led by Richard and Ingrid Hanson uses photography, creative writing, interviews and other art forms to tell the story of asylum in Sheffield over the past forty years. The photos illustrating this article are the work of one such asylum seeker: keep an eye out for the exhibition in the Workstation this October! Cards and petitions occasionally float around, reminding us of the dire limbo which many asylum seekers are suspended in, and enabling us to help. Concerts, meetings, protests and performances are advertised and organised. In one corner, two people sit every week to plan a short film. Or is it a dramatic performance? A concert? The possibilities are as endless as the range of nationalities which walk up the stairs.

After a few weeks, I found myself organising things for the club. Trips to the Millennium Galleries, Kelham Island, and a series of films about Sheffield culture at the Showroom Cinema sparked discussions of local history and culture between members for weeks to follow. I particularly remember one afternoon spent talking about children’s picture books with Sudanese and Iranian friends of mine, marvelling at how similar the stories we grow up with are, despite the cultural walls which often seem so high around us.

We live in a world which is increasingly obsessed with borders, quotas and Visas. Sheffield Conversation club has a vital and exciting role in reminding us how we are all equally human and how we are more complex than any statistic or label can describe. I hope that Conversation Club’s roots remain deep, and its branches continue to stretch across Sheffield and the wider world, protecting people and bringing them together under its shade.

Photographs courtesy of a member of Conversation Club