London: As university students mill around a bright and airy study hall in London, Eiad Zinah converses in his native language Arabic with a female student from Germany.
It is the first time the pair have met for a language tuition session – and it is the Syrian refugee who is running the tutorial today, not the other way around.
“It’s an amazing thing to be able to teach your language to other people because it will help them understand you more,” the 30-year-old said after the language class organised by UK social enterprise Chatterbox at the University of London.
“Today I had students from Taiwan, England and Germany. You meet people from everywhere and I love that,” said Zinah, who also tutors people online.
Zinah fled war in the Syrian capital of Damascus in 2012 and arrived in UK two years ago after smuggling himself onto a lorry from Brussels in Belgium.
Although he was a qualified dentist in Syria, Zinah is doing a postgraduate dentistry degree and English language tests so he can practice in UK.
He joins a growing number of newly-arrived, degree-educated refugees that Chatterbox has employed to teach languages, including Swahili, Arabic, Korean and Farsi to university students, business people and private clients.
One of Zinah’s Arabic students, Leah Sternefeld, said she used to teach German to Syrian refugees in her hometown of Tubingen in southern Germany, and found the change in power dynamics “humbling”.
“When you’re learning a language, you’re humbling yourself and it’s a great sign of respect,” the 20-year-old student told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“I don’t want to put people in boxes. I want to get to know (Zinah) as a person – not because he’s a refugee or Syrian, and learning their language is a good way to do that,” she said.
‘Talent doesn’t have borders’
Former Afghan refugee Mursal Hedayat said she founded Chatterbox after watching her mother, a civil engineer, struggle to get relevant work when they first arrived in UK in 1994.
Hedayat said many degree-qualified refugees, like her mother, aren’t able to find work in host countries since they don’t have professional networks and their qualifications may not be recognised.
“If all your relevant work experience was in a country that is now engulfed in civil war, it’s going to be hard to find a sympathetic employer willing to take a chance on you,” said the 25-year-old economics graduate.
She now employs dozens of English-speaking refugees from countries like Iran, Syria, North Korea, Sudan, Yemen, Afghanistan and Iraq – many of whom have worked as lawyers, teachers, health workers and translators.
“After spending months or even years on the receiving end of help, being able to provide it is such a boost to your confidence,” Hedayat said, who officially launched Chatterbox last week.
“It really affirms that you are skilled, and that you have something to offer. Talent doesn’t have borders.”
Hedayat said she hopes the Chatterbox programme will expand across Europe and to Canada or the US, so refugees can gain quality work experience and get to know the local population through language tutoring.
For Zinah, meeting different people through his work as a language teacher has made him feel a part of London’s multicultural community.
“Other people will keep themselves in this box and think they are just a refugee from another country and living in London. I don’t think in this way,” he said.
“I feel like I’m just like another student who has come from another country to learn, to get a good education. And one day I’ll go back to my country.”