Refugee Week – English Project started with a Smile

16th June 2018

A project that grew out of a smile between strangers is helping hundreds of women out of isolation.

English for Women began in Chelmsford Cathedral in 2015 for just three refugee Afghan families. Its vision was to help the women, who spoke little or no English, develop their communication skills, access local services, and integrate into their local communities.

Three years on it has grown out of its Cathedral premises – though the office is still there – and now offers three two-hour conversation-based lessons every week to women (and often their children) from thirty-one different countries including Afghanistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, Poland, Albania, Somalia, Latvia, Turkey and Spain.

Fifty volunteers now help deliver the project to around 100 learners per term. Learning is topic based and can range from recycling to the Royal Wedding.

And it all started with a smile.

German-born, Heike Prentice, the Project Founder, was training for ordination when she encountered an Afghan woman in Chelmsford Cathedral – and having no common language – they smiled at each other. It was an immediate connection, and Heike’s recognition that women like her were in danger of isolation, was the impetus behind the project.

In its new premises in Chelmsford YMCA, the project has now been adopted by the Chelmsford Diocesan Mothers’ Union, and instead of relying on word of mouth, the service is now signposted at local health centres, doctors’ surgeries, libraries, and has recently been championed by local MP, Chelmsford’s Vicky Ford.

It is a place for women to learn together; simple things like being able to make their own doctor’s appointments, talk to their neighbours over the fence, or their child’s schoolteacher. Men are signposted to services too.

The Dean of Chelmsford, the Very Revd Nicholas Henshall said:

“English for Women is the most innovative and effective social outreach project pioneered by the cathedral in recent decades – one that meets real need, transforms lives, and calls us as a Cathedral back to our core values of love and service.”

Susannah Owen is a member of the Cathedral congregation and an early volunteer with the project. She is now project co-ordinator.

She said:

“It’s about reducing isolation, it’s about confidence and it’s an opportunity to learn in a safe and welcoming environment. We want women to be able to build their own networks – but most of all, we want them to feel at home.”

Heike Prentice will be ordained in St Paul’s Cathedral later this month.