When Latifa Mohammed moved her four children from Ghana to Birmingham, none of them spoke English. Three-thousand miles from home and thrust into a new culture, the 34-year-old faced an uphill struggle – even registering her young kids at the local school was a minefield.
But four years on, things are very different. Not only has she learned English, but she’s been trained up in her legal rights and how to vote, as part of a pioneering programme at the Adderley Children’s Centre in Birmingham.
Mohammed told HuffPost UK: “When you arrive in a new country, everything is strange. My husband worked nights, then came home and slept. I was the one who had to go out and look for schools for the children. I knew I didn’t know much but I had to do it.”
She says the hardest parts were the simple things, like helping with homework.“It wasn’t easy for us,” she said. “I didn’t understand and they didn’t understand either.”
But after hours spent at the programme run by the Go Woman! Alliance Community Interest Company (Goal), that has all changed. “Now I can help them and I’m very proud of that,” Mohammed said.
She is still part of a group of around 70 adult learners enrolled in a spread of classes at three centres run by Goal, whose language sessions were launched as a means to empower migrant women and help them take advantage of their rights in Britain.
While attendees are encouraged to use the groups to practice their English, they also serve as a vital platform to confide issues in the community such as mental and physical health, domestic violence or other abuses.
Two modern day slavery cases were revealed last year after neighbours of the victims who had been using the services divulged their concerns to family support workers. Both cases are now going through the legal system and the victims have been moved to safe refuges.
GOAL was established in 2011 as a social enterprise. Three years later, it secured funding from the Good Things Foundation to deliver basic English classes, predominantly targeted at women.
Last year it received funding from the government’s Building A Stronger Britain Together programme and expanded its remit and added sessions to help women improve their spoken English, through which it tackles taboo subjects including internet safety, domestic violence and grooming.
It’s largely Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Yemeni women who use the service, and as well as educational programmes, a weekly friendship group known as Dosti was launched three years ago to encourage older members to venture forward.
This has come to include women who have lost their husbands, and who arrive at the group unable to write their names, having spent a lifetime in culturally-enforced isolation.
Project manager Yasmin Aktar, who is director of Goal, said: “We do the same with domestic abuse. Everything has to be done at their pace. We are here as a support mechanism and obviously we respect every individual’s confidentiality. These cases are very difficult and there is no one size fits all solution for the needs of that particular person.
“A phrase that keeps coming up that I thought had gone out years ago is ’if you don’t do what I say, we’ll get immigration to send you back’. That threat is held over them and because these individuals are kept isolated from the community, they actually believe that to be true.”
Britain’s attitude to immigration was recently brought into the spotlight during a visit by the US president, Donald Trump, during which he made a serious of disparaging and somewhat ominous remarks about the threat foreign arrivals pose to what he described as “European culture”.
In a rare moment of defiance, Prime Minister Theresa May disagreed, and said: “We have always said that people from all over the world have come here and made this country what it is and we welcome their contribution,” she said.
Aktar said Trump’s comments reminded him of how positive immigration is. “What I’d say to Trump is that it’s immigrants that make England. We are all immigrants. The economy is made of all colours, creeds and religion. Just look at the benefits immigrants bring to any country, they clearly outweigh the disadvantages.”
As well as educational services, the centre has worked hard to challenge misconceptions, stereotypes and help members to avoid feeling demonised –particularly when sensitive stories, such as grooming scandals, appear in the press.
Akhtar said: “Culturally and religiously grooming is not something that is accepted. There’s a great deal of shame. There was a recent case in Blackburn and the social media narrative became ‘All Asian men are like that.’ We tackle these things.
“Similarly, taboo topics can be experienced by the children. If a child was coming home and said ‘Mum I heard that all white people hate all Asian people’, if they didn’t have enough information on that, they wouldn’t be able to challenge it.”
Something the centre is especially proud of is successfully persuading members of different communities to mix. “It was one of the biggest problems we had because no two groups would sit together in one room, it was for us to break those barriers down.
“There’s a lot of disjointed communities within the same culture. Five years ago the Pakistanis and Pashto-speakers wouldn’t sit in the same room, but over the years we’ve got them sharing food and doing neighbourly things. That’s progression.”
Hajira Yasin, 29, has been learning English at the centre for a year. She left Pakistan to join her husband two years ago and the couple now live in the Hodge Hill area of Birmingham with their two children.
Upon her arrival she tried to register with a local GP but was unable to make herself understood. She said: “It was the first time I had to communicate with an English speaker. One problem was how strong my accent was. It was a hard time. Then when they asked me what my address was, I thought she was asking me about my dress.”
Yasin, whose husband will next year apply for citizenship, says the language and parenting skills she has learned have been invaluable.
“It has made me confident to speak in front of people. Here we can share our opinions and agree or disagree.
“In Pakistan ladies are not independent, but in this country I see women have their lives and they are allowed to have a chance.”