Empowering ESOL Learners: Belfast Met conference highlights power of language in transforming people’s lives

The stories of people who have come to live in Northern Ireland (NI) and who have used ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) provision to help them integrate into society and contribute to the economy here are being highlighted today (Tuesday, 26 March 2023), at a sold-out conference in Belfast.

The ESOL NI Network, led by Belfast Metropolitan College (Belfast Met), has teamed up with NATECLA Island of Ireland (National Association for Teaching English and other Community Languages), teachers and volunteers, and providers from the community and voluntary sector to host the event at Belfast Met.

Entitled ‘Collaborative Intersections’, the event will give an overview of ESOL provision in NI and celebrate how ESOL enables highly skilled people to contribute to society by conquering the language barrier. It will also highlight for other ESOL learners how they can pursue their progression pathways to academic study, community involvement, and employment.

Eight stories of ESOL learners from countries including Syria, Ukraine, Iran, and Poland will be highlighted at the event, including Hassan Al Khawam who was awarded the Prince’s Trust Young Achiever Award at the Pride of Britain National Awards in 2021.

Forced to leave Syria with his family because of the war, Hassan resettled in Lurgan in 2017 through the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (VPRS). Having already achieved the equivalent of three A Levels in Syria, he was supported by staff at Southern Regional College with his studies and developed his English language skills through ESOL provision. He joined a Prince’s Trust ‘Get Into Retail’ programme and worked with Tesco while continuing his English language studies.

Speaking about his life since completing his ESOL journey, Hassan said: “Later this year I hope to graduate from my degree in Software Engineering at Queen’s University. As part of my life here I felt the need to give back to the community. Hyatt means life in Arabic, and I began a social enterprise called NI Hyatt which focuses on supporting refugees and asylum seekers with education, sports, and cultural activities.”

Olena Karpenko came to Northern Ireland following the war in Ukraine. A linguistics graduate from Kyiv, Olena was able to achieve a Level 5 Cambridge Certificate in Teaching English Language to Speakers of Other Languages (CELTA) through Belfast Met. She said: “Having had to leave my country, the CELTA qualification changed my life. It allowed me to apply for a range of full-time jobs including ESOL teaching jobs in the community as part of the Belfast Met Learner Support Staff. Now I work as an English teacher at GEMS NI and Refuge Language here.”

Speaking about the event, Ligia Parizzi from Belfast Met, NI ESOL regional coordinator, said: “We are delighted to welcome people from across the ESOL community to Belfast Met for this sold-out event today. This event brings together people whose lives have been transformed by ESOL provision and the people who support such transformations.

“As Further Education providers, we know ESOL is such an empowering tool in enabling people to unlock their skills and to enrich and add to our economy and communities across Northern Ireland. It’s a real privilege for all of us to be able to hear their stories today and to learn from them and each other as educators.”

Organisers of the event hope it will also highlight the importance of a coordinated and ‘joined-up’ model to ESOL provision in Northern Ireland. The Department for the Economy (DfE) has responsibility for the provision of ESOL in its network of six Further Education (FE) colleges. Other government departments and local councils share responsibility for additional integration initiatives across the province, which includes access to ESOL in the community settings. Event organisers highlight the importance of collaboration towards a meaningful and sustainable English language provision to maximise available resources and to the benefit of all learners.

Harry Robinson, Head of the School of Academic and Continuing Education at Belfast Met, added: “The Department for the Economy has already taken positive steps towards a regional ESOL Policy for NI supported by an established advisory group of stakeholders. We hope this event further highlights the need for a coordinated and collaborative approach that will enable learners to access services, become fully integrated into our society, contribute to the economy, and ultimately feel part of our community. Today’s event will form a key part of our way forward with this work as we discuss best practice recommendations, clear learner pathways, and guidance for ESOL teachers and volunteers.”

Pictured at the event are ESOL learners (L to R) Shefaa Al Deek, Marcin Kwiatulski, Hassan Al Khawam and Olena Karpenko, along with (Centre L-R) Harry Robinson, Head of School – Academic and Continuing Education – Belfast Met, and Declan Flanagan, NATECLA.